Woman helps homeless man, store calls police

Safeway apologized after its employees called police on an African-American woman who was helping a homeless person outside their store.

Posted: Aug 3, 2018 9:45 AM
Updated: Aug 3, 2018 10:01 AM

Barbecuing while black. Napping while black. Now add helping homeless people while black to the list of things that can lead to a visit from police.

Employees at a Safeway supermarket in Mountain View, California, called 911 on an African-American woman and her family because they suspected them of shoplifting, police said. Safeway has since apologized for what the store said was a misunderstanding.

Erika Martin told CNN that the incident occurred when she stopped at the store last month to help a homeless man she knew hung out there. She gave him a bag of dog food and some treats for his pit bull. Her two sisters were also there and gave two men care packages with soap, toothpaste, hand sanitizer and other hygiene products.

"I help the homeless as much as I can. I see homeless people weekly and I try help them the best that I can," Martin said.

Martin said her son, who's about to turn 10, and her nieces and nephews went into the store to see if the bakery was giving out free cookies and to get samples from the deli.

Martin stayed outside and talked to her sisters and the man to whom she gave the dog food.

She said a Safeway employee came out of the store, looked directly at her and rushed back inside, which she thought was strange.

As Martin prepared to leave, two police cars drove up and one stopped behind her so she couldn't back out of her parking place. They asked why she was there and if she had any warrants, Martin said. She told them that she'd never even had a parking ticket.

Mountain View Police spokeswoman Katie Nelson said that a Safeway employee called the police and to report a theft in progress. Five officers were dispatched to interview store employees and the Martin family.

"It was extremely clear to us that no one who had been identified was potentially involved in any sort of criminal activity, and we explicitly said as much to Safeway employees," Nelson said.

Martin said one of the officers told her that Safeway had called the police because she matched the description of someone taking items from the store and said the suspect was wearing a spaghetti-strap shirt.

Martin said she was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt that said "Y'all need Jesus," and had not even gone into the store. Nelson said the description "somewhat matched" the top one of Martin's sisters was wearing.

The employee told the police that the children were running back and forth to a car parked outside.

"During the initial dispatch call, a Safeway employee informed our dispatcher that both employees and customers believed a man and a woman as well as children were working together to try and take items from the store," Nelson said.

Martin said the questioning scared her son and he started crying while talking to one of the officers.

He told her that when the children asked for cookies the woman at the bakery counter told him that "We don't have anymore cookies to give to you," Martin said. He said they looked behind the counter and saw that there were cookies back there.

The officer asked if they had taken any cookies and he said no.

"My son was crying so much, he was so scared because he thought he did something wrong. He thought the police were going to arrest him for looking behind the counter," she said. "To see my child in so much fear broke my heart."

She said police let them go after about 30 minutes

"In that short amount of time, we not only determined that no crime occurred, we explicitly told Safeway employees as such. None of the people Safeway identified in their call to us nor in their subsequent interview with us committed any crime whatsoever," Nelson said.

"We were very appreciative of the way the family allowed our officers to wrap up the call, and we apologized for inconveniencing their evening," she said.

After one of Martin's sisters, Faith Martin-Ware, posted a video of the July 8 incident on Facebook, news outlets began picking up on the story.

Martin said she and her sisters had shopped at that store three or four times a week but are not comfortable going back there now.

"We were there to do a good deed and we left feeling humiliated, embarrassed, hurt and shocked," she said.

Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said in a statement that employees called police because a man suspected of shoplifting there in the past was in the store.

"Safeway has reached out to Ms. Martin to sincerely apologize for the misunderstanding, and we look forward to continuing the discussion regarding her concerns. We have also commenced an internal investigation, which remains ongoing," she said.

Martin said that a store manager has apologized for what happened and she is scheduled to speak with someone with the Safeway corporate office on Wednesday.

Gutshall said that Safeway held store-wide employee meetings earlier this year to reiterate their policies against racial discrimination and racial profiling of customers, and plan to roll out training on implicit bias later this year.

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