A black Severn couple is suing Costco Wholesale Corp. for $4 million, saying a manager racially discriminated against them when he called police for a robbery that did not happen.
The issue stems from a 911 call after Barbara and Bahri Wallace’s visit to the Costco on Arundel Mills Boulevard in Hanover on May 23.
Costco stores in north county had experienced a string of shoplifting and break-ins around the time. In a recording of the initial 911 call obtained by The Capital, a manager describes how another manager at the Glen Burnie location had been assaulted earlier that day.
The Wallaces were at the Hanover Costco looking for a refrigerator when they drew the attention of warehouse employees, according to the federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
One employee said they thought Barbara Wallace “resembled a woman who was suspected of shoplifting printer ink cartridges from the store four days earlier,” the suit reads.
After reporting it to a manager, the suit claims the manager then called 911 despite the fact “no employee observed anyone commit a crime, and, in fact, no crime had been committed.”
In an interview Wednesday, Barbara Wallace said when she and her husband were pulled over by police a short time later, she was “shocked” because they knew multiple people at the Costco. The lawsuit states “they exchanged pleasantries with the greeter, who was well known to them … “
“We had a relationship with Costco, or at least we thought we did,” she said, adding the two are such loyal Costco members they’ve bought vacation packages and vehicles through its various member programs.
As the manager was talking to police dispatchers, he said there was “a robbery in progress” and described the suspects as “three black males and one female.”
“Robbery in progress, sir. They just left Glen Burnie where they assaulted a manager. They’re stealing ink cartridges,” the manager said.
The lawsuit claims that, despite a warehouse employee identifying her to a manager as the previous shoplifting suspect, “no employee stopped the Wallaces before they left the store.”
Once investigating officers pulled over the Wallaces a short distance away after getting a description of their vehicle from an employee, the lawsuits says “officers immediately recognized that the Wallaces were not likely to have been involved in any crime and reported that to the officer at the store.”
The Wallaces went back to the store, the suit reads, and confronted the manager who had called 911.
“When they inquired why they had been identified as shoplifters, the manager stated ‘you fit the bill,’ ” the suit reads. “He repeated this phrase as the Wallaces made a futile attempt to convince him of their innocence.”
“They had a distinct feeling that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their race,” the suit continues.
The lawsuit is seeking at least $4 million in compensatory damages on civil counts of false imprisonment related to the traffic stop and racial discrimination.
Multiple attempts to reach representatives from Costco for comment were unsuccessful.
Terrell Roberts, the Wallaces’ attorney, said that Anne Arundel County police “have been completely cooperative” during the lawsuit and Barbara Wallace said they handled the initial stop with professionalism.
As for Costco, Wallace said “I don’t feel safe to even go in there.”
“I don’t want the police called on me again,” she added.