Target, The Police, And the Damage Done
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 30, 2021
For decades, America’s most upbeat retailer counted on local law enforcement to sweep people and problems from its doorstep. Now it’s being forced to acknowledge the cost
Peter Waldman and Lauren Etter

Before police Sergeant Alice White assigns officers to work off duty at the East Lake Street Target store in South Minneapolis, they get what Target calls values training. Included are specific instructions for greeting customers with a smile and a friendly hello. It’s an unusual script for Minneapolis cops, who are known for adopting a more intimidating posture. That’s certainly been the case at some Targets. But in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by a Minneapolis policeman, Target Corp. is trying to recalibrate.

The 127,000-square-foot store on East Lake Street sits about 2 miles from the corner where Floyd was killed, and it was among the first buildings ransacked after the murder sparked an uprising across Minneapolis. The scene that night is etched in the minds of Target executives: people shoving aside red shopping carts and running out with armfuls of merchandise as sirens blared and police fired tear gas into the air. Hours later, across the street, protesters firebombed the 3rd Precinct building of the Minneapolis Police Department.

Four days after Floyd’s death, as the East Lake Street store lay in ruins and the damage at nine other Targets in the Twin Cities area was still being assessed, Brian Cornell, Target’s chairman and chief executive officer, issued a statement saying his team had “wept” that not enough was changing in the face of Floyd’s murder and other recent killings of Black Americans. “As a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose,” wrote Cornell, who’s led Target since 2014.

Target acted decisively. It rescued a job-training nonprofit in a poor Black neighborhood from collapse. It pledged to spend $2 billion by 2025 to help Black-owned businesses nationally. It announced $10 million in donations to Black civil rights groups and recovery efforts around the country. It funded a $700,000 awards program, administered by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for cities undertaking initiatives related to racial justice and police reform.

The East Lake Street store has been rebuilt. It was designed in consultation with local residents to “create environments where Black guests feel overtly welcome,” in the words of Target’s newly impaneled Racial Equity Action and Change committee. New windows, outdoor lighting, and shrubs give the store a suburban feel. What’s less suburban is a large piece of artwork on the store’s exterior depicting masked protesters exulting with raised arms in front of a flame-engulfed building that resembles the 3rd Precinct station.

Beneath the gleam and the paint, tensions linger. A lot of U.S. companies are evaluating their relationships with the Black community, but Target is grappling with a particularly raw set of challenges, especially in its hometown of Minneapolis. In a city with a legacy of racial segregation and police brutality, a yawning income gap between White and Black residents, and disproportionately high rates of arrest and incarceration of Black men, the unrest was in part born of a deeper pain that began well before a police officer took Floyd’s life—and that pain bears Target’s label as well, say community activists, academics, and even some former law enforcement and city officials.

For decades, Target fostered partnerships with law enforcement unlike those of any other U.S. corporation. It became one of the most influential corporate donors to law enforcement agencies and police foundations, supplying money for cutting-edge technology and equipment. When it developed a network of forensics labs, it made them available to police across the U.S. Starting in the early 2000s, Target developed a program, called Safe City, that poured money into police and sheriff’s departments to install neighborhood surveillance systems and buy equipment. In Minneapolis, Target worked with the City Attorney’s Office to have petty criminals banished from the downtown business district through what are called geographic restriction orders. Eight out of 10 people expelled were Black or American Indian, according to an analysis of city data. In an article last summer, Aren Aizura, a professor who teaches courses on race and gender at the University of Minnesota, wrote that Target’s deep ties to the police made the company “an appropriate outlet for rage.”

Target’s law enforcement partnerships were once a matter of singular pride for the company. It rode a wave of glowing publicity in the early to mid-2000s as it sold mayors and police chiefs on its public-private efforts designed to control urban centers and create safer communities. But as cities began confronting glaring racial disparities in policing practices, and amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the company began quietly backing away from its public- safety programs. It stopped funding Safe City in 2015, and last year, five days after Floyd’s death, scrubbed its “community & store safety” webpage of any mention of the trademarked name it had used to promote its law enforcement initiatives for the past 25 years: Target & Blue.

Tony Heredia, Target’s vice president for compliance, ethics, and corporate security, says that ending Safe City funding had nothing to do with race but was prompted by internal assessments that showed the program wasn’t meeting Target’s goal, as well as other considerations. The company never intended to be the perpetual funder of Safe City programs across the U.S., he says, and wanted to focus its philanthropic efforts on other public-private partnerships and community-engagement initiatives. A spokeswoman says nobody at the company recalls Target’s involvement with the City Attorney’s Office on geographic restrictions, but nonetheless the company doesn’t support their use. She says Target received questions about its Target & Blue program after Floyd’s death and removed the trademark from its website because it was inaccurate and out of date.

“Our goal is to create safe environments for all, and to do this we invest in a variety of tools, technology, programs and partnerships,” the spokeswoman said in a written statement. “We understand the concerns that have been raised about law enforcement and support the calls for holistic change in policing.”

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who oversaw the introduction of the Safe City program in the city, says Target always had “a holistic way of looking at public safety.” Rybak is now president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, which has received project funding from Target. “The biggest difference between then and now,” he says, “is that so many of us have come to a recognition that what we thought was helping had a dramatic negative impact on people of color.”

Alicia Smith, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, in South Minneapolis, has advised Target since last summer on community relations. She says Target shouldn’t use off-duty cops to prevent shoplifting and other crimes at the East Lake Street store and instead should bring in community groups to address people’s needs without criminalizing them. But she says the company is moving in the right direction. “Target is reevaluating and doing some deep thinking and recognizing they certainly have contributed a lot of harm,” Smith says. “You can’t undo the harm, but you can stop perpetuating it.”

In Minneapolis, Target is a ubiquitous and powerful presence. It’s one of the largest employers in the city, and its name and bull’s-eye logo are attached to sports stadiums, cultural institutions, and a wide range of public events. The company’s history dates to 1902, when a banker named George Draper Dayton bought a dry-goods store in the city and built a chain of upscale department stores. The family became known for its philanthropic generosity. Mark Dayton, a great-grandson of Target’s founder, was Minnesota’s Democratic governor from 2011 to 2019. Jim Rowader, a longtime Target executive, is now the Minneapolis city attorney.

The Daytons opened Target in 1962 as a suburban, discount complement to its urban showpieces. Target gradually became the largest part of the organization, and the Dayton family’s philanthropy was channeled through the Target Foundation. By the turn of the millennium, as Minneapolis fought stubborn inner-city crime, the foundation adopted a new beneficiary: the police.

Always a prodigious user of technology and data, Target has one of the most sophisticated security departments among retailers anywhere. By the 1990s it had become an early adopter of surveillance cameras in its stores to combat organized retail theft, in part because of the forward thinking of a security executive named King Rogers. He learned that in places with other crime problems to worry about, it wasn’t easy to persuade cops to care about shop lifters. So Rogers built cases internally, to make it simple for cops and prosecutors to pursue defendants. Target collected video evidence of shoplifters in the act, interviewed them on tape, and delivered the evidence to law enforcement. “What they were doing was essentially the police work that the police didn’t have the time or incentive to do,” says Richard Hollinger, an expert in retail crime and professor emeritus at the department of sociology and criminology and law at the University of Florida.

At home, Target wooed cops in the winter with food and drinks in warming huts in its parking lots. For several years, the company funded a Hennepin County prosecutor to pursue repeat property crime offenders. Nationally, it introduced Target & Blue, which provided police with grants to buy cameras and other equipment. It sponsored National Night Out parties, to bring cops and communities together, and the Shop With a Cop program, for police officers to take underprivileged kids holiday shopping at Target stores.

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