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Black shopper's suit claims store tailed him

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


TAMPA -- A black Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy has sued J.C. Penney Co. Inc., claiming he was trailed by a security officer in the Citrus Park Mall store after he bought some ties in the men's department.

Michael Freeman, 42, also alleges in the lawsuit filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court last week that he was defamed by Troy Hamby, a manager for Citrus Park Mall.

Freeman claims that Hamby sent an e-mail to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office saying he was hostile and used vulgarities with JCPenney employees.

Freeman, in his lawsuit, claims he never raised his voice or acted inappropriately during conversations in which he complained about being singled out for surveillance because of his race.

"What happened is Mr. Freeman was the victim of racial profiling and when he questioned personnel inside the store, they decided to retaliate," said Guy Burns, a lawyer representing Freeman.

Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman for JCPenney, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. But she provided a copy of company policy, which prohibits racial discrimination.

Hamby, a loss prevention manager for the mall, could not be reached for comment.

Freeman, who has been employed with the Sheriff's Office for four years and also serves as pastor of Upon-This-Rock A.M.E. Zion Church in north Tampa, said he has experienced racial profiling in the past but never in such blatant form.

"It was humiliating," said the Pensacola native, who served in the Air Force for six years and now lives with his wife and three children in north Tampa.

The alleged incident occurred Jan. 11.

According to the lawsuit, Freeman noticed a security officer trailing him shortly after he bought some ties. The officer followed him, his wife and son as they visited other areas of the store, where Freeman bought several other things. Before leaving the store, the lawsuit states, Freeman approached a clerk in the boys' department and told the clerk that he and his wife are "regular customers of the store and the thanks they get is to be followed around the store."

Freeman asked to see the store manager, who listened to Freeman but did not grasp the nature of the offense, according to the lawsuit.

Freeman then asked for the name of the district manager, which was provided to him. When he returned home from the mall, Freeman phoned the district manager, who agreed to investigate, according to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 20, Freeman was informed that Hamby, of the Citrus Park Mall loss prevention department, had e-mailed the Sheriff's Office saying, "This black male claimed to be a HCSO deputy. This man was very hostile, he used vulgarities, and threatened my officer. I would hope this is not true, but after much consideration I thought someone should know what is going on with there (sic) officers."

Freeman claims the e-mail is false and that it maligned his reputation.

In addition to defamation, Freeman claims reckless infliction of emotional distress and intentional interference with an employment relationship. He seeks damages in excess of $15,000.

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