Sunnyvale resident Erika Martin says she and her family were on an altruistic mission to help local homeless residents earlier this month, dropping off care packages and dog food for a homeless man and his dog outside the Safeway on Shoreline Boulevard.
The well-intentioned trip soured, however, when Martin found herself blocked into her parking space by a police car and questioned by officers. Employees at the grocery store had called in a possible theft in progress, and Martin and her family members found themselves the suspects in the investigation.
Police officials described the interaction as friendly and cordial, saying that officers quickly found that the reports were unwarranted and sent the family on their way. But Martin and her family members say they are upset over what they believe is just one of multiple racial profiling incidents they have faced while living in the Bay Area.
"We don't feel comfortable going back to this Safeway, especially the children, because of what happened to us," Martin told the Voice shortly after the incident. "We were there to do a good deed and we left feeling embarrassed, hurt and shocked."
The theft report and police stop occurred around 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 8. Martin and her sister, Mountain View resident Faith Martin-Ware, parked in the Bailey Park plaza after attending a church service at Christ Temple Community Church in Palo Alto, intending to drop off a package of hygiene products for homeless people near the Safeway. Martin, who works at Google, also brought dog food for a homeless man with a dog who frequents the plaza.
After spending several minutes in the parking lot talking from inside her vehicle, Martin said two police cars -- and later a total of five officers -- pulled up right next to her to ask probing questions to determine whether she, her sister or their children were complicit in a reported grocery store heist.
The heavily redacted incident report states that employees and customers in the store believed that the family had sent in their children to "grab goods from the shelves" and take them back to the car, and that they had reportedly stocked up a cart full of goods as a ruse intended to create a distraction. The reports implicated Martin, her son and her sister's children as playing a role in the alleged theft.
Martin and Martin-Ware contend that many of the details in the report are inaccurate, including the amount of time they were stuck in the parking lot and allegations that they were collaborating with a black man inside the store to conduct the heist.
Police were told that Martin entered the Safeway and headed toward the back of the store, and at one point "made eye contact" with a suspicious man also considered a potential shoplifter, who was described as a black man in his 30s, according to police spokeswoman Katie Nelson. Trouble is, Martin said she never got out of her car at any point, handing off the dog food through her window to the homeless man. She was also wary of exiting her car when police were present, wanting to avoid escalating the situation.
"If they were to look at the Safeway footage it would show that I never got out of my car and I never went into the store," Martin said. "What description was given to them? I have no clue. They never told me the description of the person. No one ever told us the items that were taken out of the store."
Police say officers spent 10 minutes talking to Martin and her sister, while Martin said it was closer to half an hour. The incident report states officers concluded that the theft reports had no merit and left after about 26 minutes.
The children referred to in the report were likely Martin's 9-year-old son and her nieces and nephews, who she said went into the Safeway for a free cookie from the bakery staff -- a common practice at the grocery store chain. Martin said her son was getting increasingly worried that his denied request for a cookie was the reason for the police stop, and said he felt the need to confess it to officers.
"He was so nervous, you could barely understand what he was saying," she said.
The Voice reviewed the body camera footage from two of the officers involved in the police stop, and found it largely corroborates the family's version of events. Police never accuse Martin of stealing, but state she is "associated" with a reported theft. Officers can be seen talking to the store manager inside the Safeway, who told police she saw a woman taking things from the store but could not tell officers what was taken.
Given the flimsy evidence against her, Martin said she believes that profiling played a role in the accusations and ultimately led to her getting stopped by police in the parking lot. She and her sister frequent the Safeway and know many of the store employees by name, which she said made the theft allegations all the more troubling. What's more, she said, store employees and customers frequently witness thefts and nobody calls police, yet they took the extra effort to report her family.
Nelson said police have responded to a total of 10 theft calls at the Shoreline Safeway over the last 12 months, of which seven involved a theft from the store itself. Only three of those incidents involved a suspect described as a black man or woman, while the others are described as either Hispanic, white or Asian, Nelson said.
The city's online crime-tracking data website, CrimeReports, shows only six theft cases at the Safeway in 2018, which is relatively low compared to the Safeway on San Antonio Road and the Nob Hill on Grant Road.
Martin-Ware said she was upset over the incident, in part because it wasn't the first time she has faced accusations of stealing, with a similar incident occurring inside a Walmart while she was with her 11-year-old son. She said she's seen and even recorded people bounding out the door with baskets full of alcohol and nobody bothered to call police, leading her to believe it was racially motivated.
"I'm just shocked it happened right after we were getting out of church and helping out homeless people," Martin-Ware said.
Martin-Ware said officers talked amongst themselves before approaching her and saying she fit the description of the person accused of stealing, and asked if they could search her car. She said she gave them permission to look through the window to see what was inside, and allowed them to check the trunk. She said police likely didn't have a probable cause to start looking through her things, but she was nervous about not complying with officers.
"I found it very weird, but I thought if I didn't let him search that I would get arrested," she said.
Martin-Ware recorded part of the police stop on social media during the July 8 encounter.
Shoreline Safeway employees declined to comment on the incident, instead referring the Voice to Safeway's corporate office in Pleasanton. Safeway spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall said in a statement that the company apologizes for the misunderstanding and has since "been in contact with a customer involved in the incident." The statement did not mention Martin or her family, instead stating that local law enforcement was called concerning an "adult male with a history of suspected shoplifting at the store who had a shopping cart full of merchandise."
The initial call to police stated that the suspect inside the store, described as a black man in his early 30s, may have known Martin and her family, which aroused suspicions that they might be working together. Officers concluded that the man was not involved in any theft, either, Nelson said.
Nelson maintains that officers responded appropriately to the reported theft and the information given to them, and that they never directly accused Martin and her family of stealing. She said the police officers were quick to find the reports had no merit, and that the family was both cooperative and compliant.
"We did our due diligence in responding to a call, and (Martin) was very helpful in allowing us to resolve the situation quickly and without any issues," Nelson said.