Cleveland, TN - After a uniformed Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) officer was kicked out of Outback Steakhouse on Friday night, the company had apologized and the officer accepted the apology. But a Snopes columnist's failed "fact check" on the situation brought new attention to the incident and uncovered shocking statements.
TWRA Officer Andrew Ward posted about the incident on social media, and called the situation “a first.”
“While I was at work tonight (in uniform) I stopped by Outback Steakhouse to eat supper with my wife,” he wrote in the post. “I was approached by the manager and asked if I would put my gun in my truck. I let her know that I couldn’t because I was in uniform.”
Officer Ward said that the manager left for a moment to go make a phone call, but then soon returned to his table.
“We were asked to leave because Outback is a gun free zone,” Officer Ward wrote.
The company later apologized and Officer Ward accepted the apology, along with a $100 gift card.
Under the "what's false" section, LaCapria wrote that, "The customer asked to leave was a wildlife officer, rather than a police officer."
Except, wildlife officers are police officers.
UPDATE: After this article was written, Snopes edited their "fact check" to say, "The customer asked to leave was a wildlife officer, rather than a state or local police officer." It appears that they missed the fact that the word "\*Tennessee" in "Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency" is indicative of them being a state police agency.*
LaCapria also claimed that "an individual commenting on behalf of Outback Steakhouse" denied that Outback was a gun-free zone.
She failed to cite any other source besides this unnamed "individual." And it's not clear why the "gun free zone" is a disputed part of the story, because Officer Watts only said that he was told it was a "gun free zone."
With Snopes at least one out of two for incorrect facts, Blue Lives Matter decided to fact check Snopes' claim that Outback wasn't a gun-free zone.
Sandy Malone with Blue Lives Matter spoke with the restaurant's corporate office to nail down if guns were permitted in Outback Steakhouse.
“We do not permit guns in our restaurants because we often have families dining with us, and we have a bar. Law enforcement is the exception for obvious reasons,” said Elizabeth Watts, director of media and community relations for Bloomin’ Brands, Inc., parent company of Outback Steakhouse.
“All [Outback Steakhouses] are supposed to be gun-free zones – that’s our company policy,” Watts continued. “Generally speaking, we do not wish for people to have guns … we just want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable.”
Then when Watts was asked about the specific incident with the police officer that occurred at their Cleveland, Tennessee location, she apologized, saying “We made a mistake and it shouldn’t have happened."
Then Watts continued, “You do know it was a wildlife officer, right? Because you said police officer. And it was a wildlife officer.”
Blue Lives Matter asked her to clarify what she meant, and if that meant they didn’t consider the wildlife officer a law enforcement authority.
“I think when people say police officers – obviously there’s federal, local – there’s all different kinds of police officers,” Watts replied, clearly uncomfortable with the question.
“It’s not any different – we made a mistake, it shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened at all,” she finished.
Blue Lives Matter contacted TWRA Communications Manager Doug Markham who asserted that their officers are not only police officers, but that they are some of the most trained officers in the state.
“Our officers are very much commissioned police officers," Markham said. He added that they had college degrees and had to undergo extensive specialty training as well as full training in firearms and defensive tactics.
Because TWRA officers are fully-commissioned police officers, they are not only capable of enforcing all state laws, but they can respond to back-up any other law enforcement agency.
Not only that, but the job of wildlife officers is especially dangerous, because just about every person they arrest is armed and they work far away from backup officers.
While people may claim that their official title isn't "police officer" that's not the case for deputy sheriffs, state troopers, or other law enforcement positions. (Note: Even as a municipal police officer, my title was "Patrolman" not "police officer.")
Blue Lives Matter spoke to a wildlife officer who said that it's aggravating to constantly deal with people who don't think that they are police officers.
The wildlife officer cited a time that he stopped a drunk driver and the driver almost took off because he refused to recognize the wildlife officer's authority to conduct traffic stops. That suspect learned the hard way that wildlife officers have full authority to enforce the law.
We have been unable to reach Officer Watts for a comment, but prior to the latest developments, he said that he accepted the company's apology.
“The amount of support our community has shown us is truly humbling,” Officer Ward said in a final post on the matter. “Outback has called and apologized to me and my family and we have truly accepted this apology. There was a mistake made and that’s it... we all make mistakes...and must move forward with our lives.”
“They have apologized profusely and I have accepted their apology and the issue in my opinion has been concluded,” he said.
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