Philadelphia, PA – The Philadelphia police commissioner fell on his sword during a Thursday press conference and said he felt responsible for the way things had been handled following the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood on April 12.
During the press conference, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross apologized multiple times to the two men who were arrested for trespassing, as well as to the police officers who were involved in the incident, and said he’d failed the entire city.
He also announced that a new policy was going into effect that would ensure police “don’t get manipulated by any employee into extracting anyone from a business that shouldn’t be.”
Although the police commissioner didn’t provide all the details of the new policy, he said it would require officers who responded to a trespassing call at a business to confirm the business’s policy with the management, and make sure the business would actually press charges prior to making an arrest.
“Although it’s probably somewhat of a unique policy, it’s one that we feel given the circumstances and all that has happened with this that it warrants our implementing a policy of this kind,” Commissioner Ross explained.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, both 23, were waiting for a business colleague to meet up with them at a Philadelphia Starbucks on April 12 when the store’s manager called police to have them removed for trespassing because they hadn’t purchased anything.
The commissioner said officers responded to the coffee shop, and asked the men to leave, but they wouldn’t. He said the officers negotiated with Nelson and Robinson for 10 minutes before they took them into custody.
The men later said that they were in fear for their lives as they ignored the officers' requests to leave.
“This is a very routine call, believe it or not,” Commissioner Ross said.
The difference was that Starbucks policy does not require customers to make a purchase to stay in the café, he explained.
The commissioner said that after the incident he learned there was a wide-spread belief that everyone knows that Starbucks doesn’t require people in their restaurants to be paying customers.
“I’m here to tell you that I did not. And it is also reasonable to believe that the officers didn’t know it either… I was under the belief that people went there and they spent hours and hours but that the expectation was that they bought something first…,” Commissioner Ross said.
Following the arrests, the commissioner made a statement that the officers involved had done nothing wrong. There was a huge backlash from activists who claimed police had arrested the men for “being black at Starbucks.”
During the press conference, he amended that statement and said he should have said “they acted within the scope of the law.”
“Again it starts with me. It starts with me grossly misunderstanding Starbucks’ policy. And quite frankly it took me awhile to even get my brain around it because I still was thinking that the process centered around a need to buy something first. And then you could hang out all day long. That is what I thought,” Commissioner Ross said. “Clearly I was wrong. So I can only assume the officer thought as much as well.”
“They did not know, at the time, that this was a situation unlike most businesses where you’re expected to make a purchase,” he said.
He said the officers would have rather not been called to respond to that incident, and repeatedly pointed out that the Starbucks employee who called police to remove the men had violated the company’s own policy.
“These officers have probably on countless occasions responded to calls like that from merchants who wanted people gone because their policy is in fact that if you don’t purchase something you’re supposed to leave,” the commissioner explained.
He said there’s no way the officers should have known the policy of the company differed from the action the store manager was asking them to take.
“If there’s an issue where you have a company policy that allows people to stay without purchasing and that’s the reason for your call, it begs the question why that happened in the first place,” Commissioner Ross said, hefting some of the blame back on Starbucks.
“Had they known that, this would not have gone that way. The more important thing to emphasize is that I guarantee you they had better things to do. Than deal with a call like this which essentially from Starbucks own policy violated their policy. They would have rather been out there preventing someone from getting hurt in another way than in this fashion. So they were put in some ways in an untenable position… it is me who in large part made the most of the situation worse than it was,” he said.
The commissioner said he’d spent a lot of time discussing the policy with the CEO of Starbucks to get a better understanding of things, but that he felt the policy was a necessary response to the incident that happened in the coffee shop. Starbucks will be closing 8,000 stores for a day of “unconscious bias” training in May.
He said that he now understood police hadn’t been able to resolve the situation with Nelson and Robinson because both parties were viewing the situation through different lenses.
“For this reason, me, I apologize to them. We have already completed a new policy that guides our officers on how to deal with similar situations,” Commissioner Ross said.
“You can’t expect them to walk in every business and know intuitively what their policy is,” he said.