The Philadelphia Police Department Friday announced a new policy on how to confront people accused of trespassing on private property, two months after coming under fire for arresting two black men waiting for a colleague at a Starbucks.
Officers are now instructed to first attempt to de-escalate and mediate disturbances between property owners and accused offenders. Before an officer arrests someone, that person must understand he or she is not allowed on the property. The officer also must witness the person refusing to leave.
“While business owners may exclude persons from their establishments, they cannot misuse the authority of police officers in the process,” according to the policy. “Such misuse may lead to a technically lawful arrest, but can create the appearance of improprieties on behalf of the officers and the Department.”
The policy is promising, said Phillip Stinson who studies criminology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. But getting it to stick, to become second nature to officers, will take time — if it happens at all, he added.
“It’s very difficult to change officers’ habits, the way that they handle situations. There would need to be ongoing training and constant reminders that we want to encourage officers to de-escalate situations.” he said. “The more difficult that somebody on the street presents themselves to the officer, the more likely it is that they’re going to get arrested.”
With or without training, the policy won’t make life easier for African-Americans, said Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, one of the groups that protested the arrests.
“It looks good on paper, and it seems like it gives police more room to make fewer arrests,” said Khalif. “But the fact remains that, when police are in contact with black and brown bodies, discretion is never something that’s on a positive end for us.”
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were arrested April 12 within minutes of arriving at Starbucks. A viral video of their arrest sparked national outrage and has led to policy changes at the world’s largest coffeehouse chain, including unconscious bias training and a new policy that allows anyone to sit in its cafes or use its restrooms — even if they don’t buy anything.
The men reached a settlement with Starbucks and the city last month. They were not prosecuted, and their arrest records have been expunged.
Philadelphia police also came under fire in the wake of the arrest for how the incident was handled, with critics questioning why the men were arrested so quickly for something many see as common practice at the coffee shops.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross initially defended his officers’ handling of the encounter but later publicly apologized to the men in a somber press conference.
“We’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so as we explore and implement new practices that reflect the importance of diversity, public safety and accountability,” Ross said.
WHYY’s Aaron Moselle contributed to this report.