Town offers apology after Black couple wrongly accused of stealing apples

Courtesy photoThe Rev. Manikka Bowman and her husband Jeff Myers say they and their children were wrongly accused of trying to steal apples from Connors Farm in Danvers and then accused by a Danvers police officer of "playing the race card."

DANVERS — Town of Danvers officials apologized on Thursday to a Black Cambridge family after they were wrongly accused of trying to steal apples during a Labor Day visit to Connors Farm — then accused by a Danvers police officer of "playing the race card" when they questioned why they were singled out to be searched. 

Rev. Manikka Bowman, who is vice-chairman of the Cambridge School Committee, and her husband Jeff Myers, who works in commercial real estate, took their children, 7 and 18 months, to the farm for apple picking, a favorite fall activity of their older child, who had been going on apple picking trips since preschool. 

"We had just finished picking our apples," Myers said in an interview. "We wanted to go to the farm stand to buy some apple cider donuts. As we were walking, a gentleman appeared in front of us and said we had too many apples." 

Some of the apples the couple and their children had picked had fallen out of the bag and into the bottom of a stroller, the couple believes. 

What happened after that has convinced the couple that they were victims of racial profiling by employees of the farm stand. 

Myers said he and his wife were at first confused as to why they were being questioned, then alarmed as a second employee approached. The two workers then led the couple to the farm stand building, where they asked to look inside Bowman's handbag. 

Myers said he and his wife figured they could pay for any extra apples, along with the donuts they were planning to buy, before leaving. 

It was then that they realized what was happening. 

"Conceal and steal were words they used a lot," said Myers. 

"Up until that point, we were having a good day," said Myers, who noted that the staff in the orchard were helpful and friendly throughout the day and that it was only when they encountered the security staff that things soured.

When they asked to speak to a manager, a third employee told them that he was a manager, but refused to give them any information on how to contact the owners. Then, Myers said, the man alerted a police officer working a detail at the farm that day.

"My impression is that when we pushed back and asked for more accountability, they got the police involved," Myers said. 

He said the officer seemed even-tempered, but "I don't think he fully appreciated what we were telling him." 

Their older child was crying at that point. 

To resolve the situation, Myers said, they paid another $8.81 — only to realize once they got home that one of their other bags was not quite full and that most of the "overage" would have fit in that bag. 

On Wednesday night they shared their story on social media, asking for the farm's owner to issue a public apology and donate the money they spent at the farm — approximately $100 — to the Essex County Community Foundation toward racial equity work, and commit, along with the Danvers Police Department, to training in diversity, equity and inclusion. 

On Thursday, town officials responded with a public statement apologizing for the officer's "racially insensitive" comment and saying they will meet with the family. 

"The town extends its apologies for the unsettling experience the family had at a local business and for the comment made by a Danvers employee," the statement, signed by Select Board Chairman Gardner Trask, Town Manager Steve Bartha, police Chief James Lovell and Human Rights and Inclusion Committee Chair Dutrochet Djoko, said. 

"Let us be very clear, discriminatory behavior has no place in Danvers, or in any community," the officials said. "In their letter, the family asked that the Town commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion training for its staff — a request we believe is entirely reasonable and appropriate."

The town's statement also urged the owner of the farm to offer an apology. 

The farm's owner, Robert Connors, issued an apology later Thursday, saying he had reached out to the family. 

"We do regret this incident that happened over the weekend," Connors said in a voicemail to a Salem News reporter. "We've extended our personal apology to the family. We do our best to train our employees to handle all customer issues with courtesy and respect." 

He said he will arrange for diversity, equity and inclusion training for his employees, as the family had requested. 

Earlier Thursday, someone with access to the farm's Facebook page posted a comment that included what appeared to be an indirect reference to the incident, which was being widely discussed on social media at that point. "Just a friendly reminder that we reserve the right to inspect all backpacks, bags and strollers that exit our orchard," the post read, in part. By late Thursday afternoon, that post no longer appeared on the farm's Facebook page. 

Myers said he and his wife appreciate the town's effort to reach out to them after an upsetting incident for both the couple and their children.

"At the end of the day, we want to be respected and treated like anyone else," said Myers.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.

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