As fallout over Starbucks arrests continues, Philly police chief stands by cops

Arresting officers 'may have gone according to policy, they may have followed the law, but they didn't have to do this,' says legal expert.

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Police Commissioner Richard Ross says the officers who arrested two African-American men inside a Center City Starbucks last week did

Police Commissioner Richard Ross says the officers who arrested two African-American men inside a Center City Starbucks last week did "absolutely nothing wrong." (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross hasn’t wavered: The officers who recently arrested two African-American men inside a Center City Starbucks did “absolutely nothing wrong.” Criminal justice experts agree, but say the charged incident could have ended differently. And probably should have.

“They may have gone according to policy, they may have followed the law, but they didn’t have to do this,” said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Street cops have considerable discretion while responding to a call. While arresting and detaining the men for hours was an option last Thursday, it wasn’t the only option.

“They could have removed them from Starbucks and simply sent them on their way. That certainly would have been within the discretion of the police officers, and it would have been appropriate to do,” said criminologist and former Philadelphia lawyer Phillip Stinson.

In response, the Police Advisory Commission, the city’s watchdog group for the department, has asked Ross to look at any videos of the incident, as well as interviewing all of the citizens and officers involved.

Executive director Hans Menos said he doesn’t expect that will reveal any police misconduct or a need to “crack a whip,” but he does think dissecting the incident could be a teachable moment of sorts, especially when officers  respond to future calls with racial overtones.

Menos said the viral incident may have turned out differently had the officers taken some extra time before acting.

“What I would love to see one day is that officers show up to a scene like this, and they’re doing a bit of an assessment or reflection and say, ‘Well, is this manager who’s calling us, does she have some bias issues that are unresolved? Maybe she called us, and she could have solved the problem differently,’ ” said Menos.

In a Facebook video posted a few days after the incident, Ross stood by the six officers who responded to the coffeeshop near Rittenhouse Square, saying they acted professionally and followed protocol.

“It is important for me to say that, in short, these officers did absolutely nothing wrong,” said Ross.

He also briefly addressed the public outrage swirling around the incident.

“I will say that, as an African-American male, I am very aware of implicit bias. We are committed to fair and unbiased policing, and anything less than that will not be tolerated in this department,” said Ross, adding that all new recruits go through sensitivity training.

Ross’ department has also launched an internal investigation into the incident, which still has a lot of unanswered questions — for police and for Starbucks.

According to audio posted Tuesday on the department’s website, the store manager called 911 Thursday to report “two gentlemen in my cafe who are refusing to make a purchase or leave.”

Roughly 15 minutes later, not long before 5 p.m., officers arrived at the Starbucks at 1801 Spruce St. near Rittenhouse Square.

Employees told police the men wanted to use the bathroom, but refused to buy something, per Starbucks’ policy. And when they were asked to leave, the men wouldn’t leave their table.

Ross said the six officers who ultimately responded to the scene “politely” asked the pair to leave three times. They arrested the men after they refused and took them to a police station.

The men were released hours later after Starbucks decided not to press charges.

The incident has fueled protests and painted every corner of the Internet after a customer uploaded a video of it to Twitter.

As of Tuesday, the post had well over 10 million views.

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