Nearly 85 percent of those arrested or cited in connection with shoplifting calls at Eagan’s new outlet mall were people of color, according to a Star Tribune analysis of nearly 1,000 calls to police in the first eight months the center was open.

The percentage of blacks and other minorities arrested or charged with shoplifting offenses at Eagan’s Twin Cities Premium Outlet was higher than at nearby Burnsville Center, in all of Minneapolis or at a similar outlet mall in Albertville.

Eagan police say the mall has attracted organized and sophisticated shoplifting rings, but say they typically rely on the mall and store security to report suspected shoplifting.

“We get these calls from third parties who we believe are providing information in good faith,” Eagan Police Chief Jim McDonald said. “When we get down there we don’t get to adjust the circumstances.”

Mall officials deny that they or the retailers are singling out any particular group.

“We would never put up with any evidence of racial profiling,” said Les Morris, a spokesman for the group that owns the Premium Outlets chain. He declined to comment further without reviewing the reports himself.

Allegations of racial profiling first surfaced in a cellphone video posted online in March, after Eagan police stopped four black shoppers who were accused of stealing eyeliner from a cosmetics store. Police found nothing, the shoppers were allowed to leave, and the video was shared widely on the Web.

Police said the incident was like many others where they respond to a call from a store employee suspecting shoplifting. Others point to the arrest data so far as a sign of bias — intentional or not — by those tasked with spotting theft.

“I would be stunned to see that the majority of people doing the shoplifting there are those people of color they’re picking up,” said Jim Bonilla, a professor emeritus at Hamline University whose studies include organizational behavior and diversity. “We tend to see what we’re looking for.”

Organized theft

As soon as developers broke ground at the Twin Cities Premium Outlets Eagan location, police began preparing for an uptick in traffic and activity in the area. Officers reached out to nearby agencies with retail centers and even traveled to a California city with a similar Premium Outlets mall. Eagan reassigned two officers to patrol the area.

“Bottom line is expect that your activity will be going up,” McDonald said. “And we’ve experienced that.”

Total police calls across the city are down, but they are up in the area around the mall.

In just the mall’s second day open, cameras at the Swarovski jewelry store recorded Yefim Levintant, 76, and Flora Levintant, 73, taking about $1,640 of jewelry. The couple were recorded twice more before their September arrest in connection with the theft of nearly $3,000 of products, according to police reports.

The Levintants’ cases stand out because they actually live in Eagan. More than half the mall’s shoplifting cases involve residents from Minneapolis or St. Paul. Most of the others traveled to Eagan from somewhere else in the metro area.

“It’s telling me that people with criminal backgrounds are coming out here to steal and to probe to see how easy it is to steal,” McDonald said.

The calls often require multiple officers to track down groups of suspects who scatter through the mall, McDonald said.

The National Association of Shoplifting Prevention says shoplifting costs businesses up to $13 billion each year. The association does not gather data on shoplifter demographics, said spokeswoman Barbara Staib, adding that shoplifters don’t fit one profile. But organized groups or individuals will travel along corridors, hitting several malls along the way, she said.

That’s what police say Cornelius Walker Jr., of St. Paul, did during a two-week span in which he stole roughly $7,500 of merchandise from the Eagan mall, Burnsville Center and the Mall of America, using foil-lined shopping bags to evade security sensors.

“If mall management and police take a real benign approach to what’s happening then [the criminals] will keep coming,” McDonald said.

Varied policies

During the Eagan mall’s first eight months open, 85 people have been arrested or cited after shoplifting calls at the Eagan mall — nearly 85 percent were people of color.

In all of Minneapolis’ 316 shoplifting arrests last year, 71 percent were of people of color.

In the time that the Eagan mall has been open, 54 percent of the 66 people arrested or cited for shoplifting at Burnsville Center, also in Dakota County, were people of color. Eight of 14 arrested at the Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Albertville were black.

Peter Lund, the Eagan mall’s general manager, said stores set their own policies for handling shoplifting. He said the mall’s own security reports any suspected crimes to police.

But Laurence Leske, who worked loss prevention for Saks Fifth Avenue in Eagan from August to December, said store management was hesitant to confront customers without “definitive proof” of shoplifting.

Leske called any notion that loss prevention targeted certain demographics “totally bogus.” Saks management declined to comment.

Arthur Haggins, 38, of St. Paul, posted the March 10 viral video in which Eagan officers searched him and three other shoppers. One of two videos from the encounter, called “Racism [expletive] Eagan outlet,” was shared more than 2,200 times online.

“If you don’t see the whole video you can easily imply that we’re profiling,” said McDonald, who referred to a police report that said an employee was “99.9 percent sure” someone from the group stole from the store. No one has filed an official complaint of racial profiling at the mall, he said.

Haggins said he’s frustrated the police were called and that he’s “tired of talking about it.”

Bonilla, the Hamline professor, said the mall’s early numbers suggest a case of “cultural incompetence” where those looking for shoplifters begin with a set of biases. And it could deter shoppers from going to the mall, he said.

“Let’s put aside the issue of social justice — this is bad business,” Bonilla said.