Terrence McCoy, Washington Post, October 13, 2015
It was nearing closing time in March last year when a manager at Boffi Georgetown dispatched a series of alarmed messages. Observing two men yelling outside the luxury kitchen and bath showroom, Julia Walter reached for her phone and accessed a private messaging application that hundreds of residents, retailers and police in this overwhelmingly white, wealthy neighborhood use to discuss people they deem suspicious.
“2 black males screaming at each other in alley,” Walter wrote. “. . . Help needed.”
One minute later, a District police officer posted he would check it out, and Walter felt relieved. But as weeks gave way to months and the private group spawned hundreds of messages, Walter’s relief turned to unease. The overwhelming majority of the people the app’s users cited were black. Was the chatroom reducing crime along the high-end retail strip? Was it making people feel safer? Or was it racial profiling?
These are questions being asked across the country as people experiment with services that bill themselves as a way to prevent crime, but also expose latent biases. The application “SketchFactor,” which invited users to report “sketchy” people, faced allegations of racism in both the District and New York. Another social network roiled Oakland, Calif., when white residents used Nextdoor.com to cite “suspicious activity” about black neighbors. Taking it even further was GhettoTracker.com, which asked users to rate neighborhoods based on whether they thought they were “safe” or a “ghetto.”
Now “Operation GroupMe” is stirring controversy in Georgetown. In February of last year, the Georgetown Business Improvement District partnered with District police to launch the effort, which they call a “real-time mobile-based group-messaging app that connects Georgetown businesses, police officers and community members.” Since then, the app has attracted nearly 380 users who surreptitiously report on–and photograph–shoppers in an attempt to deter crime.
Since March of last year, Georgetown retailers have dispatched more than 6,000 messages that discuss suspicious people. A review by the Business Improvement District of all the messages since January–more than 3,000–revealed that nearly 70 percent of those people were black. The employees often allege shoplifting. But other times, retailers don’t accuse these shoppers of anything beyond seeming suspicious.
The retailers have also uploaded hundreds of pictures to the chatroom, many of which they took clandestinely. Since March last year, the images have shown more than 230 shoppers, more than 90 percent of whom are African American. “Known thieves,” one retailer wrote beside pictures of three African American women, without specifying any evidence. “Look out.”
By 1972, only around 250 black people lived in Georgetown. According to 2010 Census data, 3.7 percent–or roughly 800–of the 20,464 residents of the Georgetown, Burleigh and Hillandale neighborhoods are African American. Whites account for 81 percent.
That was a question Leslie Hinkson, a Georgetown sociology professor who studies race and inequality, tried to answer on a recent afternoon. She had known about the group for months and had scrolled through most of the messages. It’s almost like an sociology experiment, she said.
The group has codified its own language and operating culture. African Americans are referred to as “aa.” Hundreds of images of unaware African Americans circulate in the group.
“We should be honest here,” Hinkson said. “Crime does occur in Georgetown. And quite often when people describe the perpetrators of those crimes, they’re usually young men of color. But that doesn’t mean every person of color is an automatic suspect.”