Washington Township police said on Saturday that a 16-year-old boy had been arrested for using the public-address system at a Wal-Martto order all blacks to leave the Southern New Jersey store.
The boy, a high-school student, was arrested Friday night and charged with crimes of bias, intimidation and harassment in connection with the March 14 incident. If convicted, he could face as much as a year in a juvenile detention center, the police said.
According to the authorities and witnesses, the boy, whose name was not released because he is a minor, picked up a public address telephone, one of about two dozen accessible to customers in the Washington Township, N.J., store, and said, “All black people, leave the store now.”
A store manager quickly apologized over the public-address system, witnesses said, and the police and the store opened separate investigations that included the review of video files captured by in-store security cameras.
Rafael Muñiz, the Washington Township police chief, said that while the cameras did not record anyone speaking on the public address system, the video footage showed three people, including the suspect, standing near the public address telephone just before the announcement. Just after the announcement, those same three people were recorded as having rushed out of the store.
Investigators also scoured social networking sites, including Facebook, My Space and You Tube, and found postings that led to the arrest.
“We got lucky,” Chief Muñiz said.
The 16-year-old boy had been accompanied to the store by a friend and the friend’s mother, the police said. Neither the friend nor his mother have been charged even though the police chief left open the possibility that one or both could face charges on the grounds that they failed to report a crime.
A spokesman for the store’s parent company, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is based in Bentonville, Ark., said in a statement:“We’re pleased this matter is resolved. We have updated our intercom system at this store to prevent this from happening again. We again apologize to all of our customers and associates who had to listen to something so offensive.”
On Friday, the company said it had updated its intercom system in the Washington Township store “to prevent this from happening in the future.”
“We’re appalled by this incident and are amazed that anyone could be so backward and mean-spirited in this day and age,” the company said in a statement on Friday. “The words were incredibly hurtful to our customers — especially our African-American shoppers — and we regret that it happened more than we can say.”
Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, has a history of discrimination and labor complaints involving minorities and women but in recent years has increased its efforts to promote diversity at its stores. Since the mid-1990s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed about 60 employment discrimination lawsuits against Wal-Mart. Last year, the company agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused it of discriminating against African-Americans applying for jobs as truck drivers. The company currently faces the largest employment discrimination class-action suit in American history: a sex-discrimination suit brought on behalf of more than 1.5 million women who are current or former employees.
In the last six years, the company has tried to recast its image, including by tying bonuses of corporate officers to minority hiring and mentoring, giving employees diversity training and using suppliers owned by minorities and women. These efforts have earned praise from civil rights groups.