How Target Got Cozy With the Cops, Turning Black Neighbors Into Suspects

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 fund 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 shoplifters. 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.

In 2001, after Rogers retired, Target hired a former FBI agent named Brad Brekke to lead its asset-protection efforts. Brekke oversaw the construction of a network of forensics labs that could enhance video evidence, repair damaged audio recordings, and process fingerprints. Police departments sometimes use them to help investigate violent felonies, assistance Target provides pro bono. The company’s methods and technologies were featured in an interactive exhibit called “Target Take the Case” at the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington.

Under Brekke, Target stores acquired ever-more sophisticated video surveillance systems. Today, as cameras watch over stores, video and security analysts at regional investigations centers can surveil individual shoppers as they move from aisle to aisle. A Target team in Bengaluru, India, crunches data that can yield reports on loss trends for U.S.-based security investigators. The company’s video analytics experts have built and patented algorithms that can ascertain whether an individual shopper is displaying the behavioral characteristics of a thief, such as hovering in front of expensive electronics or deviating from a standard shopping pattern. A Target spokeswoman says that technology is not used in any of its stores. Nor is facial recognition, she says, which Target has tested but not deployed.

Target began expanding into inner cities in the 1990s. When it arrived in downtown Minneapolis, in 2001, a renaissance was already under way. The police department had successfully reduced violent crime by using the then-popular “broken windows” criminology theory, which advocated cracking down on petty offenses as a means of preventing more serious crimes. The city had remodeled the Nicollet Mall, a prized pedestrian shopping district, adding Austrian pine trees and granite to the walkways. A sprawling new Target on the mall, with a towering, glass-encased bull’s-eye, proclaimed the company’s primacy.

Despite the thriving economy, Minneapolis remained one of America’s most racially segregated cities, the result of redlining and racial covenants that helped prevent Black families from acquiring wealth and kept them out of desirable neighborhoods. Black residents faced an outsize chance of arrest and incarceration. This April the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department for potential patterns of racial discrimination and excessive use of force.

Downtown, two worlds collided. The largely White, middle-class Minneapolitans who lived in newly built apartments in the area, commuted to work there, and flooded the neighborhood’s bars on weekends chafed at the poor and mostly Black and American Indian people on the streets. Homeless and unemployed youth hung out on corners, dodged truancy officers, and packed downtown shelters at night. Surveys in the early 2000s found many Twin Cities residents felt uncomfortable working and shopping in their midst. It was less about actual safety—violent crime was down—than what Target executives called “safeness.” A Minneapolis police chief, quoted in a 2010 Police Executive Research Forum report sponsored by Target, used another term: the “ick factor.”

Jim Bender, a former Minneapolis cop who worked under Brekke at Target, found an idea for turning around the downtown business district at a police conference in England in 2001. The town of Northampton, northwest of London, claimed it had achieved great success reducing what it called “antisocial behavior” by installing surveillance cameras, sharing intelligence among businesses and police, and issuing civil orders to ban miscreants from the downtown center. Bender was impressed by the town’s high level of success, but he thought such a program would be a long shot in the U.S. Nonetheless, he scribbled notes on a cocktail napkin and shared his findings with Target’s executive committee upon his return.

To his surprise he found a receptive audience in Brekke and Target’s then-CEO, Robert Ulrich. The company was running short on prime real estate in the suburbs and eyeing expansion into more inner cities. “At the time, we were literally asking the question: As we expand into higher-risk areas, building stores in one of the boroughs of New York instead of a cornfield in Iowa, how do you keep the same shopping experience without spending five times as much money on security?” Brekke told a security publication in 2014.

Target dispatched Bender, Brekke, two other executives, and a senior Minneapolis police officer to Northampton to study the program, with the goal of replicating it at home. They ultimately convinced other Minneapolis businesses and commercial property owners of its potential value and enlisted the support of middle-class neighborhood groups and the city council. Only a handful of dissenters surfaced, largely those concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance cameras. “We wanted to be seen as a partner and not just this occupying big-box retailer that would come in and take over,” Bender says. Brekke explained the company’s rationale for the program to another security publication: “The guest demographic we seek is very much a woman with children,” he said. “We want to be a lot more like Disney World and a lot less like a flea market.” Brekke left Target in 2013 and declined multiple interview requests for this story.

In 2004, Target donated $300,000 to the Minneapolis police to install 30 cameras covering dozens of blocks and build a radio system to connect police directly with businesses, private security guards, and social-service workers. This local program was later named the Minneapolis SafeZone Collaborative. Inside the downtown police precinct, in a room called the “fusion center,” the cameras were monitored around the clock. Bender says he and others at Target cooperated with the City Attorney’s Office to develop a version of Northampton’s civil orders: Minneapolis’s geographic restriction orders. The writs, which are still used today, bar offenders from entering specified areas of downtown.

In 2009 the Minneapolis Police Department made nearly 9,000 arrests in the SafeZone, a 60% increase since the beginning of the program in 2004, according to the city’s arrest data. More than 80% of the arrests were for misdemeanors, and 7 out of 10 offenders were Black. Roughly 20% of Minneapolis is Black. Between 2009 and 2021 at least 214 people were subject to geographic restriction orders, 74% of them Black and 10% American Indian. There were likely more such orders—some records are missing, including those for orders issued before 2009.

Mary Ellen Heng, Minneapolis’s deputy city attorney in the criminal division, says that geographic restrictions have been a useful tool but that her office has reflected on the racial disparities and is considering using them less. “We were trying to find ways to really address what was going on in our communities rather than just cycle these individuals through the jail,” she says. “We also have to be cognizant of those disparities that do exist and make sure we’re not making them worse.”

Target expanded its Safe City initiative to more than 25 cities nationwide. After opening a store in West Baltimore in 2008, it gave the Baltimore police a Safe City grant of $300,000 for portable command posts, enhanced cellphone tracking, and in-cruiser computers. The company donated $200,000 to the Los Angeles Police Foundation to purchase data-mining software and services from Palantir Technologies Inc., a surveillance and intelligence company. Target also became a corporate sponsor of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Regional Crime Center, a hive of high-tech surveillance tools with its own motto: “Investigate. Collaborate. Incarcerate.”

In Albuquerque, Target gave the police department $100,000 to develop an intelligence-sharing database accessible to businesses, security companies, and law enforcement agencies, with each user initially vetted by Target employees. The surveillance network featured images and reports of suspicious individuals, ranging from actual crime videos to speculation, often with suspects’ names and license-plate numbers attached. People accused of shoplifting or other misbehavior at a Target in Albuquerque could be tracked and turned away from a Walmart or a Kohl’s, and vice versa, says David Correia, chair of the University of New Mexico’s American Studies department, who’s part of a research collective studying Albuquerque’s trouble-plagued police department. In effect, Correia says, the Target-funded system was the engine of a private blacklist.

Around 2010 the SafeZone program became part of a new nonprofit called the Mpls Downtown Improvement District (DID), controlled by a group of local businesses and landlords. For at least two years, Target paid the salary of the organization’s safety director, Shane Zahn, a longtime Target security executive who’d helped set up SafeZone. The program’s name was changed to Vibrant & Safe Downtown, and the DID Ambassadors were introduced—cheery men and women who stroll and Segway through the streets wearing fluorescent polo shirts and carrying radios. They greet visitors, answer questions, scrape gum off the sidewalk, and report icky people to the cops.

Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender of Hennepin County, says the surveillance mechanism had the effect of stigmatizing and targeting her clients, many of whom were poor, Black, and young. “It was a real Big Brother thing,” she says. “You couldn’t be in the downtown business district without being looked at by cops who were using technology. There was a perception that the cops were just sitting there watching tape, looking for what we felt were Black clients doing something that they thought was suspicious as an excuse to go search them.”

The Downtown Improvement District’s signature plan was a program called Downtown 100, or DT100. The stated goal of the DT100 was to focus special attention on the people downtown who had the most contacts with police, steering them away from trouble and toward opportunities for stable housing, counseling services, and treatment for addiction. The DID also funded a dedicated prosecutor and probation officer for downtown defendants.

Every week a dozen or so Minneapolis cops, prosecutors, parole officers, social workers, drug counselors, and shelter administrators met to discuss the DT100 listees. Once a month, the group held what it called a Court Watch meeting, with business representatives, private security executives, and neighborhood-watch activists. In a conference room in the downtown Central Library, the group would watch as a moderator flicked through mug shots projected on a screen, taking several minutes to talk about each individual. This person is about to be released from jail, so be on the lookout. This person is seeking chemical dependency treatment. This one is about to be sentenced by a judge. The latter circumstance gave the group its name and one of its central functions: In some instances, when someone on the DT100 was up for sentencing, members would assemble community impact statements from businesses and residents to be sent to the judge requesting a stiff jail sentence. Sometimes the Court Watch group would request a geographic restriction. Many of the city’s social-service providers and unskilled jobs were in the area in which DT100 people were barred.

The list was shared widely in the community; anyone on it would be tracked. If a person subject to a geographic restriction was spotted, the police would swoop in and the person could be charged with a new misdemeanor offense of violating a court order.

Norman Irving started hanging out downtown in 2011, just as the DT100 was revving up. He was 16 and had recently lost his mother. His father died when he was 2. The youngest of six kids, he was often on his own. He dropped out of high school and met up with a pack of other homeless kids downtown. They smoked and sold weed and crack and slept wherever they could find warmth.

Irving got his first misdemeanor in 2011 for riding a bike on the sidewalk. He got his second for sleeping in a car, his third and fourth for interfering with traffic and jaywalking. His fifth infraction was for possession of drug paraphernalia, and his sixth was for trespassing. All in 30 months.

Anne Kent, a social worker at a downtown counseling and drop-in center called YouthLink, was attempting to help Irving find a better path. In 2014 she finally had some good news to report to the weekly DT100 meeting: Irving had been accepted for subsidized housing. That night one of the policemen who’d attended the meeting arrested him for possession or sale of narcotics at a local shelter. Kent was furious. The bust disqualified Irving for his first chance at stable housing in three years. Kent says she confronted the arresting officer: “I’m, like, why him?” The cop said he saw Irving swallow the evidence. “What do you want us to do, ignore that?” the officer asked.

Irving was sentenced to 180 days in county jail and three years’ probation. After being released he managed to get a dishwashing job downtown, but he had to evade the cops because he’d been geo-restricted from the area. One day on his way to work he was confronted by a pair of transit cops who’d been alerted to his presence. As he tells the story, one barked at him, “What the f— you doing downtown with your little Black ass?” He eventually got dispensation from a judge to travel downtown strictly for work, but he went back to what Kent calls “crimes of survival” in the streets.

In 2016, now with nine misdemeanors and one felony on his rap sheet, Irving was part of a group that robbed a man and his girlfriend at gunpoint outside a Walgreens in northeast Minneapolis. The man fled, and Irving shot him in the arm and leg. The man survived. Irving pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree aggravated robbery and served three and a half years in state prison.

Now 26, he has a car, works at Chili’s, and avoids downtown at all costs. “My experience in downtown Minneapolis was a lot of harassment,” he says. “I got stopped standing in a bus stop, loitering, jaywalking, spitting on the ground. All I can say is I’m doing way better now never going down there.”

To many downtown residents, shoppers, and office workers, Irving’s trajectory validates the aggressive approaches of SafeZone and the Downtown 100. Kent sees it differently. She says the relentless surveillance and police pressure pushed young people of color, many already suffering from severe childhood trauma, toward a life of crime. “Instead of geo-restrictions, I would ask, ‘Can Target offer these kids internships?’ ” she says. “They don’t want to be stealing phones and getting into trouble. They want to be working.”

William Menday experienced the system from both sides—as a homeless teenager dodging cops for years and, in his early 20s, as an outreach worker for Minneapolis social-service agencies. An immigrant from Liberia, via Newark, N.J., Menday started his homeless odyssey at 15, joining a crew of eight other runaways on the downtown streets.

Menday eventually enrolled in community college and was hired by YouthLink and a homeless shelter to work with clients in the street. He toured the Downtown Improvement District fusion center inside the 1st Precinct police station and attended Downtown 100 meetings, watching in silent disbelief as mug shots of people he knew were projected on the wall. “I felt like an invisible man entering a KKK meeting,” says Menday, now 29. Suddenly it all made sense to him: why in certain places, such as in front of the Target on Nicollet Mall, cops would always show up to hassle them; why some people were literally barred from downtown; why the social-service agencies seemed to be working so closely with the police.

“I realized,” Menday says, “they were systematically watching us downtown on the cameras so they could put charges on us and move us out of the way.” In recent years he’s learned about Target’s seminal role. “I always thought there was an aura of prejudice around that Target store,” says Menday, who lives with his wife and two baby daughters and works in a hospital IT department. “Now I know why.”

Downtown businesses have benefited greatly from all the security programs over the years, says Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association. Kaufman, who’s been in her position since 1997, remembers when Target introduced SafeZone and says she’s grateful for a program that made downtown shopping and dining safer and more inviting. “The businesses I represent see it as a real asset to the community,” she says. “When you have an increased presence on the streets, whether it’s cameras or actual people, it does make people feel safer.”

Some of her colleagues saw their stores damaged during the George Floyd uprisings, and Kaufman and others were left emotionally seared by the racial “reckoning,” as she calls it. Still, amid a recent spike in crime downtown, Kaufman says her members don’t believe people of color are being unfairly targeted. “Their belief is that’s who’s committing the crimes,” she says. They are desperate for even more aggressive policing, particularly of low-level crimes they believe erode the thriving business atmosphere. She was surprised to learn there are critics of SafeZone and the hometown company that she says has provided so much support to the community. “Who doesn’t love Target?” she asks. “Target’s the greatest.”

In the wake of Floyd’s death, Target executives watched social media light up with posts about the company’s longstanding law enforcement ties. A Twitter post showed the East Lake Street store graffitied with the phrase “Black Lives Aren’t Targets” next to a crudely sprayed Target bull’s-eye. An activist named Marjaan Sirdar published a three-part investigation for the alt-left online magazine Unicorn Riot, saying Target “weaponized” its partnerships with Minneapolis cops and prosecutors against Black youth, “leading to a feeder program from the streets to prisons, all for the sake of increasing Target’s brand and increasing profits.”

This spring a group of community activists who live in the Bryant neighborhood abutting George Floyd Square gathered over a Zoom meeting to discuss the Downtown 100 program, which still exists, now under the name Downtown Strategic Justice Partnership. Social-service workers and former Downtown 100 youth swapped stories about how they believed the program had played a role in the city’s recent unrest. There was a shared sense that the program had in ways both big and small left Minneapolis’s Black community shattered.

They reminisced about a rap song some of them had written years ago at a downtown center for youth arts:

I heard about a list a hundred names long.

Downtown Minneapolis. These people don’t belong.

Now what’s scarier, than invisible barriers, I don’t even know where it is.

Geo-restricted from the place we kick it.

Crosshairs on me cause we bad for business.

Young, black and gifted, Latinos and Mixed kids.

Downtown 100 seemed like a hit list.

Heredia, Target’s vice president, says the company understands that its ties to the police are under scrutiny. Leadership made a decision, he says: Instead of severing those ties and walking away from its substantial investments of time, money, and energy in cops, the company would use its credibility with police to become part of the push for progressive change.

In March, as Target grappled with how to handle off-duty officers at its East Lake Street store, the company’s security and community relations executives met with A Mothers Love, a group of Black moms who provide support and services to families who’ve lost children to gangs, guns, and prison. The group, along with its sister organization of dads, We Push for Peace, proposed that Target adopt a “soft security” model at the store, something the groups had helped implement at a nearby Cub Foods supermarket that was also ransacked last summer. We Push for Peace members, trained in trauma care, procedural justice, and de-escalation techniques, greet shoppers as they enter the store and confront shoplifters with empathy, providing food if the motivation is hunger, while telling them theft won’t be tolerated. Women from A Mothers Love provide tutoring services for kids at the market and try to divert people demonstrably addled by poverty, drugs, or mental illness toward social services. Security guards in the back come out only if needed. “We offer them something different than a police officer in people’s faces,” says Lisa Clemons, a former Minneapolis cop who founded A Mothers Love.

Target’s Heredia says the company hasn’t ruled out a partnership with the groups but is concerned that they might not have the resources to deal with the sometimes tense issues that crop up in the store. Brazen shoplifters take merchandise out through the fire exits, he says, and fights break out in the parking lot. For now the company has instead decided to stick with the Minneapolis Police Department—specifically officers chosen and trained to be “community-centric” and “ambassadors for empathic … culture change,” according to emails between Target and the MPD obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek through a public-records request. Target helped select Sergeant White, one of four female Black cops out of a squad of 600 sworn officers, to run the off-duty program at the East Lake Street store. With a smile, and a gun. —With Jordyn Holman and Andre Tartar

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