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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actor Rob Brown, who stars in HBO show "Treme," sought to broaden his racial-profiling lawsuit against Macy's on Wednesday into a federal class action case, with his lawyer saying Brown hoped to use his celebrity for "social change."
Brown withdrew the lawsuit he filed last month in New York State Supreme Court against the department store and the New York City Police Department and, instead, filed two new lawsuits with the U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan seeking class-action status.
A federal judge must decide whether to grant the lawsuits class-action status.
Brown said undercover police handcuffed him and put him in a cell at Macy's Manhattan flagship store in June after an employee there accused him of credit card fraud.
The employee and the police, he said, could not believe that Brown, as a young, black man, could afford to buy a $1,300 watch and some sunglasses without stealing someone else's card.
The lawsuit against Macy's says that after realizing their mistake, a police sergeant apologetically offered to escort him to his next destination in a police car with flashing lights.
"If he wasn't Rob Brown, the actor, and he was just some person of color off the street, he would have been kept there, handed over to the police and charged with a crime he didn't commit and put into the criminal justice system," said Brown's lawyer, Douglas Wigdor.
"So, he feels strongly now that he has the ability to create substantial change and help other people," Wigdor said.
Both Macy's and the police have denied any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Macy's President Terry Lundgren and top executives from other retailers facing similar complaints have met with the Reverend Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders to discuss the issue.
New York City's Law Department, which handles lawsuits against the police department, said it had seen the lawsuits and would review the claims.
Macy's said it cannot comment on pending lawsuits, although a spokeswoman said the company forbids racial discrimination by its employees.
In October, the department store said it was taking Brown's accusations "very seriously" and had started its own investigation into the incident, saying its initial findings were that its employees did not summon police and were not involved in Brown's detention.
Brown filed two lawsuits on Wednesday - one against Macy's, the other against the police department and city administration. According to court papers, they were filed on behalf of all "innocent Black, Hispanic, Asian and other non-White shoppers" falsely targeted for theft by the retailer and by police officers based on their race or ethnicity.
He asks the court to order Macy's and the police to change their practices and pay unspecified damages.
In 2005, Macy's paid $600,000 to settle claims that many of the chain's New York stores had profiled customers based on race, handcuffing and detaining those suspected of shoplifting.
Editing by Edith Honan and Leslie Gevirtz; Editing by Sandra Maler