Hanover, MD – A Maryland couple has filed a $4 million lawsuit against Costco for mistakenly identifying them as shoplifting suspects, but the corporation blamed the police who responded to their employees’ call for help.
"Law enforcement, not Costco, made the decision to execute the stop,” Costco said in a statement, according to WBAL.
The incident occurred in May, when Bahri and Barbara Wallace went to the Costco store in Anne Arundel County to purchase a new refrigerator.
“We had a love relationship with them,” Barbara told WJLA. “We've been members since 2007."
While they were browsing around the store, an employee noticed that the couple matched the description of individuals who have been stealing ink cartridges – involving a black couple with a blue purse, WBAL reported.
"I need police immediately at the Costco wholesale," the caller told police, according to WJLA. "I have a robbery in progress. They’ve been here before. They just robbed the Glen Burnie Costco an hour ago."
Oblivious to the fact that Costco employees had just accused them of robbery, the Wallaces left the store and were pulling out of the parking lot when they were stopped by an Anne Arundel County police officer, WBAL reported.
According to police records, the employees provided officers with a vehicle tag number that matched the couple’s vehicle.
"When I made a left on Arundel Mills Boulevard, his lights came on. I looked at Barbara, and I said, 'Did I run the light?' Her response was, 'Is he for us?' I said, 'He's stopping me,'" Bahri recounted to the news outlet.
"At that point, I was afraid,” Barbara added. “Let's just say, even if it wasn't this situation, when you get pulled over by the police and you are African-American, there is a lot to think about and you have to be careful how you conduct yourself. I was afraid for my husband.”
The officer then informed the couple that the “manager at Costco suspected you guys of shoplifting," Barbara told WJLA.
Meanwhile, another officer inside the Costco determined that the Wallaces had done nothing wrong. In fact, no theft had occurred at all, let alone one committed by the couple.
"A senior officer, he was the one who had the stripes, he get out and I hear him tell the other people, these are not the people," Bahri told WBAL.
The Wallaces said they believe the reason the employees called police on them was because they are black.
After the traffic stop, the couple returned to Costco to ask why they had been targeted.
"(The) manager came up,” Bahri explained. “I said, 'Did you call the police on us saying we were shoplifting?' His response was, 'You fit the bill.' I said, 'Fit the bill?' And he said, 'African-American male and female, and your wife is carrying a blue purse.’”
The manager told them that they had been having problems with people stealing ink cartridges, and that they “fit the bill,” Barbara confirmed to WBAL.
According to the news outlet, Costco denied having racially profiled the couple, and said they simply told police that the Wallaces matched the description of the ink cartridge thieves.
“Law enforcement, not Costco, made the decision to execute the stop,” Costco told WBAL in a statement. “Its staff communicated to a patrol officer that it had not found reason to detain the Wallaces."
An Anne Arundel County Police spokesperson blasted the corporation for blaming officers for responding to an alleged in-progress robbery its employees had reported.
“The statement Costco made is not only misleading, it is simply wrong,” the police spokesperson told WBAL.
“As can be heard in the radio transmissions at the time of the stop, Costco was still attempting to determine if a crime was actually committed. It was in no way relayed that a stop should not have been made,” the police spokesperson added.
The Wallaces said they feared that being pulled over by police could have threatened the security clearances they both hold as federal employees.
They ultimately filed a $4 million lawsuit against the company.
According to Costco, they attempted to settle the incident through mediation, but those efforts were not successful.
"There's more here than a simple mistake," the couple’s attorney, Chris Griffiths, told WBAL. "Employees can come to the job with certain biases.”
“Corporations, particularly of this size, are responsible for training individuals,” Griffiths continued. “If they are a responsible company, they train individuals to deal with those types of bias.”
“Whether or not Costco has such a program, we don't know, but it's something we intend to find out,” he added.
The local Costco declined to comment to Blue Lives Matter, and advised that corporate would be unable to respond until Monday.