BRATTLEBORO -- A student who was accused of stealing a case of beer from the Hannaford Supermarket on Putney Road is awaiting an apology from the grocery chain.
"It was pretty insulting," said Chris Bridges, who is studying to receive his Master of Arts in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at SIT Graduate Institute on Kipling Road in Brattleboro. "Had they looked at the surveillance video, they would have seen we paid for the beer. I suspect their suspicion was based on something else, and if you look at me, there's something very obvious here."
Bridges, who is African American and hails from Washington, D.C., was a member of a group of students that traveled in an SIT van to pick up a few items at the supermarket on Oct. 19. He said as a minority in a largely white community, he is "always walking on eggshells," but still didn't expect to be accused of stealing beer that night.
"They wouldn't have had to even look at the surveillance video. All they had to do was ask the cashier," he said.
The beer had been paid for by Victoria Castro, a student from New Jersey who is studying for her Master of Arts in International Education, and carried out of the store by Bridges.
"This situation could have been fixed while we were waiting in the parking lot for the other students to come out," said Castro, who was driving the van.
While waiting for the other students, Castro and Bridges observed three employees of Hannaford who appeared to be writing down the license plate number of the van. When they approached the employees, they refused to comment on what they were doing, said Castro.
"They said there was nothing wrong," she said.
Instead, someone at Hannaford called the Brattleboro Police Department and reported a possible case of credit card fraud. But between the phone call and the time the police arrived, the report changed to a case of retail theft.
Michael Norton, Hannaford's director of external communications and community relations, told the Reformer that Hannaford does have a policy for dealing with those suspected of retail theft, but he declined to discuss the policy, citing concern that shoplifters might take advantage of the knowledge.
However, said Norton, that policy did not come into play during the incident in question "because the conditions were not in place for a stop."
"Hannaford's internal policies support the associates' actions in stepping outside to observe a customer leaving the store with un-bagged items," he said. "It is at that point that the associates see something related to a direct request for assistance that one of the associates had received from the police just two days earlier."
When police tracked down the van, the students were pulling onto the campus of SIT Graduate Institute, at the same time people were leaving a fundraising event there.
"Chris and Victoria were upset and felt embarrassed," said Stephen Sweet, assistant dean of students and director of campus life at SIT. "It was a humiliating experience to be pulled over as our campus guests were leaving."
Bridges said the initial interaction with the officers was "definitely abrasive."
"They assumed I did it," he said.
Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn, who met with the students the day after the incident, said detectives had been investigating a case of fraudulent use of credit cards at the time of the Oct. 19 incident.
"The officers were called to the store but were told someone stole beer," said Wrinn. After stopping the van, the officers had a conversation with the people inside, who assured them the beer was not stolen.
"They were very convincing," said Wrinn. "They made a suggestion that they go back to Hannaford to clear it up and the officers followed them back. They immediately determined that the beer was paid for and we were done."
The day following the incident, Bridges and Castro attempted to meet with store management but were put off for two weeks, according to a letter the Community Equity Collaborative of Southeastern Vermont forwarded to Hannaford's corporate headquarters in Scarborough, Maine.
"When finally the meeting took place ... (they) felt Hannaford employees made excuses and minimized the seriousness of the false accusation and humiliating escort into the store by an armed, uniformed officer," stated the letter. "This marginalizing behavior by your employees led them to believe their concerns were not of interest to Hannaford management."
The letter calls for a public apology from Hannaford and an apology to the town of Brattleboro and financial reimbursement for "unnecessary use of police services."
Norton said the Brattleboro store and Hannaford retail leadership "have had, and will continue to have, conversations with all parties involved to fully understand concerns and to ensure everyone is treated fairly -- customers, associates and community members."
Norton also noted that Hannaford has zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.
"In this case, store associates were making a good-faith effort to follow up on information they believed was relevant to a police matter that had been brought to their attention previously," wrote Norton. "They were mistaken. We sincerely regret that the people involved had contact with the police when they had done absolutely nothing wrong."
Norton wrote that Hannaford store associates apologized to the customers immediately on the evening of the incident for the experience they had.
"Store and regional leaders also apologized for the experience in a follow-up meeting with the customers."
But that's not the way Bridges and Castro recall the night of the incident and the meeting two weeks later.
"They apologized to a third person, but not to us," said Castro.
In a letter to Nicole Maier, who was one of the passengers in the van on Oct. 19, Ron Leblond, Hannaford's director of operations for District 19, thanked Maier for meeting with him, the store manager and Bridges and Castro.
"For my part, I understand that we need to earn your confidence and, as we discussed, I am sorry about your experience," he wrote. "Our associates are committed to serve customers. I also have shared your perspective and experience with our Loss Prevention and Associate Relations leadership. We will integrate your feedback and do our best to improve the shopping experience."
The letter issued by the Community Equity Collaborative mentions a boycott of Hannaford Supermarkets in Vermont, but Bridges and Castro said their group of friends and acquaintances at SIT are simply choosing not to shop at Hannaford for the time being.
Curtiss Reed, Jr., the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, said Bridges and Castro have the right to be indignant about their treatment.
"At some point, the store knew the individual suspected of having the stolen credit card did not match the security video they had on file," said Reed. "But no one called the police back to cancel the call. When police arrived, they were told it was about stolen beer."
The whole "humiliating experience" that Bridges and Castro were subjected to, said Reed, "really speaks poorly about the store and about Hannaford."
In Wednesday's edition, the Reformer examines how unrecognized biases affect relationships between strangers.