Lawsuit Likely Following Alleged Assault by Whole Foods Store Guard in Oakland

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Oakland Fire Department personnel treat a man who was reportedly beaten by Whole Foods Market security guard.  (Zoe Marks via Facebook)

Updated, 5 p.m. Thursday: Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris has been retained to represent the man severely injured in an altercation with a Whole Foods security guard on Sept. 3.

Burris said the man, who has not been publicly identified and is requesting to remain anonymous, suffered a concussion and facial fracture that required emergency surgery after he was "shockingly grabbed, choked and slammed to the ground by a Whole Foods security guard."

"He was severely beaten and he sustained significant injuries," Burris told KQED Thursday. "We expect to file legal action against Whole Foods and the security company."

A witness to the incident, which occurred in an Oakland Whole Foods store near Lake Merritt, previously told KQED that the injured man had "done nothing. He wasn't aggressive. He wasn't shouting. He had initiated no physical contact. ... This was just someone who was trying to buy groceries."

Burris said it appears that a verbal dispute between the man and a Whole Foods cashier was met with an aggressive response from the security guard.

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Whole Foods "permanently removed" the guard Sept. 4 and replaced the store's security contractor, Concord-based Admiral Security Services, with another security company the following day.

Oakland police are investigating the incident, and Whole Foods has also hired an "independent investigator," company spokeswoman Beth Krauss said earlier this week.

Burris said the Oakland Police Department has not responded to his requests for an incident report, and the security guard has not been identified. The department did not immediately respond to KQED's request for an update on its investigation.

"Given the facts as I know them now," Burris said, "it strikes me that criminal charges should be filed."

Krauss said in a written response Thursday that the company generally does not comment on pending litigation, but in this instance provided a statement from Northern California Regional President Rob Twyman.

"We understand this issue is very important and we strongly believe every customer is entitled to a mutually respectful, safe experience in our stores," Twyman wrote, reiterating that the company had removed the security guard from service, disarmed all Whole Foods contracted guards in Northern California and enhanced training. "We have also engaged our community partners in dialogue about how to move forward. We will continue this dialogue to learn more about how to better serve Oakland and help restore trust and confidence in Whole Foods Market."

An "anti-black violence" demonstration is scheduled outside the store at 230 Bay Place in Oakland at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Update, 9:45 a.m. Monday: The latest, below, on the Oakland Whole Foods incident in which a man was reportedly assaulted by a store security guard. The incident caused a stir on social media, with a pair of graphic photos circulated of the man lying face down on the ground, his head surrounded by a halo of blood. As a result, Whole Foods replaced the security firm in charge of the store, which has been identified in the media as Admiral Security Services, based in Concord.

Whole Foods' regional spokeswoman Beth Krauss wrote in an email to KQED over the weekend that the guard acted after the man -- who Oakland police said Thursday was sent to the hospital and was in stable condition -- made "physical contact" with a store employee. The company has hired  an "independent investigator" who has now interviewed staff members; OPD has also interviewed the staff, Krauss said. She said there have been differing accounts of what occurred and that, "We don't really have one truth." There is no security video of the incident, she said.

The store is now waiting to hear from OPD on the police report, Krauss said. She said Whole Foods does not know the ID of the victim, yet, and thus hasn't contacted him.

Some demonstrators gathered  outside the store on Sunday to protest the incident, and the Oakland store has been fielding plenty of criticism on its Facebook page.

"There are no cases -- ever -- in which our protocol calls for violence. The actions of the security guard were completely contrary to our policies and values .... ," the store wrote in one response.

Update, 3:05 p.m. Saturday: More fallout from the Thursday night incident in which an Oakland Whole Foods shopper was reportedly beaten by a store security guard: The company, which earlier said the guard involved has been "permanently removed" from Whole Foods Market, said Saturday that it has replaced the security company the man worked for.

The company said in an email statement that it has hired Concord-based AGS Private Security. The previous contractor had been identified as Admiral Security Services, also based in Concord.

Here's the full statement:

Here’s an update on the incident that took place at Whole Foods Market Oakland on the night of Thursday, 9/3. As we continue to work through this, we are posting updates to https://www.facebook.com/wfmoakland.

While we don’t yet have the final results from the police investigation of this incident, we do have a ZERO TOLERANCE policy for violence. As a result of the violent behavior of the security guard at Whole Foods Market Oakland, we are replacing this security firm in the store. The new firm is A.G.S. Private Security, owned and operated by Ms. Gloria Lawrence of Concord.

We are also working with all of the private security firms we contract with now to reiterate and reinforce our expectations that they abide by our code of conduct.

Much of what’s been reported about this incident has alleged that the use of an EBT card had a role in the altercation. We want to clarify that EBT cards are readily accepted forms of payment at all Whole Foods Market stores. In fact, there’s no way or reason for a cashier to know if a customer is using an EBT card unless items not covered under EBT regulations are presented for payment, or the customer voluntarily displays the EBT to the cashier.

We know we still have more to do. We are reviewing our internal processes and policies to evaluate opportunities for improvement. In addition, since our store opened we’ve worked hard to develop relationships with community organizations. In the coming days and weeks, we will reach out to these and other community partners to help us learn how we can continue to evolve our support for our diverse Oakland community.

Original post, last updated 3:12 p.m. Friday: Oakland police are investigating a Thursday night incident at a Whole Foods Market near Lake Merritt that witnesses describe as an attack by an armed security guard on a shopper. Whole Foods says the guard has been permanently removed from working at any of the company's stores.

The incident came to light when Zoe Marks, a Seattle native and lecturer in African studies at Edinburgh University who's visiting in Oakland, posted Facebook and Twitter accounts of what she described as a "horrific" incident.

Marks wrote on Facebook: "I just saw a young man violently assaulted by an armed security guard at Whole Foods, slammed repeatedly against concrete pillars, put in a chokehold, restrained, and suffocated until he was thrown face down on the pavement unconscious. The guard locked him out of the store despite the fact he was immobile."

Marks posted pictures of an unidentified man lying near the store's entrance, bleeding profusely and being treated by paramedics who reportedly transported him to a local hospital. Marks said store employees did nothing to intervene and failed to call paramedics.

Whole Foods spokeswoman Beth Krauss said in an email that "store leadership verified that 911 had already been called; they arrived shortly thereafter."

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10101201873218245

Oakland police said in a brief statement Friday that the man was hospitalized in stable condition. The statement added that a police dispatcher had been contacted by the Oakland Fire Department "to report a call from a security guard at that location (who) was reporting a man who was unconscious."

Krauss of Whole Foods said "an altercation that escalated to violence" had occurred Thursday evening at the Oakland store, located near Lake Merritt at 27th and Harrison streets.

"The graphic images circulating on Facebook and Twitter are disturbing to say the least," Krauss wrote. "Whole Foods Market considers the safety and security of all team members, customers and members of our community a top priority. The security guard involved in the incident has been suspended, and we are actively investigating the details with our security firm. While we move swiftly to gather the facts, we want to make it clear that Whole Foods Market takes a zero tolerance approach to violence."

Marks said in an interview Friday that the incident appeared to begin when the man had some difficulty buying groceries with an electronic benefit card, or EBT -- a form of payment issued to food stamp recipients. She said she was standing in a checkout line but didn't overhear the exchange that led to the violence.

However, she said, "He'd done nothing. He wasn't aggressive. He wasn't shouting. He had initiated no physical contact. ... This was just someone who was trying to buy groceries."

With the man lying outside the store's entrance and the store's employees failing to act, she said, "The other customers who were watching this all go down basically all demanded that paramedics be called. People were shouting they were never going to shop at Whole Foods again. Everyone was shocked."

Marks said she was one of about about four witnesses who supplied statements to Oakland police. Fire officials and Oakland police have not yet responded to requests for comment.

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Alex Emslie of KQED News contributed to this post.