Philly police chief’s apology over Starbucks arrests met with demands to fix what went wrong

Commissioner Richard Ross apologizes after previously defending police for their handling of the incident.

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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross says language in the note left taped over a work station's trash can was

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross says language in the note left taped over a work station's trash can was "deeply concerning." (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY file)

Updated: 7 p.m.

Philadelphia’s top cop apologized Thursday for claiming the police officers who arrested two black men inside a Center City Starbucks last week did “absolutely nothing wrong.”

At a press conference at police headquarters, Police Commissioner Richard Ross said he should have said the arresting officers acted within the bounds of the law, and he added that the department as a whole needs to do better in communicating with the public.

“It starts at the top. It starts with me,” Ross said. “Messaging is important, and I failed miserably in this regard.”

The public apology came a week after police took Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson into custody at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks when the store manager called 911, claiming the two men failed to buy anything and refused to leave.

The men said they were at Starbucks for a business meeting and were waiting for a third man to arrive. The man, real estate investor Andrew Yaffe, showed up during the arrest.

Ross said he and the officers did not realize that Starbucks routinely allows people to hang out in its cafes without making a purchase.

“I can appreciate — in light of the Starbucks policy and how well known it is to many — why these two men were appalled when they were asked to leave,” Ross said. “For this reason, me, I apologize to them.”

Protesters seek departmental changes

The incident led to protests in Philadelphia and beyond over what many people saw as a prime example of modern-day racial bias. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said it “appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”

The issue of race was not lost on Ross, who is black. “I should not at all be the person that is a party to making anything worse, relative to race relations. Shame on me if, in any way, I’ve done that,” he said.

Ross said the police department was working on a new policy for handling similar trespassing calls. The mayor’s office said Thursday evening the policy would be finalized and released by end of next week.

The chief’s apology was well received by people who gathered outside police headquarters Thursday night for a protest put on by POWER, an interfaith organization based in Pennsylvania. But protesters said they also wanted city leaders to take action to fix what went wrong during the incident.

Speaking to a group of a few dozen people, the Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church listed POWER’s three demands: purchase body cameras for all police officers in the next 12 months; increase funding for the Police Advisory Commission; and retrain law enforcement officials on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques.

“This is much bigger than [Ross]. It’s bigger than just the one manager at Starbucks. It’s bigger than the two men who were arrested,” Tyler said. “What happened encapsulates really a great deal of the black experience in America.”

Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough emphasized that rank-and-file cops have wide discretion over situations such as the Starbucks incident. He said they should judge the situation themselves to decide what kind of police response is necessary.

“We don’t want to hear phrases like ‘I was just following orders,’ ” Zevit said. “We’re asking individual officers to really see the breadth and depth of their power in the moment.”

Starbucks apologized to the two men shortly after the incident, saying the company was going to review its policies. The company also plans to close all of its roughly 8,000 U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 29 for mandatory all-staff racial bias training.

According to an incident report obtained by NPR, the Starbucks store manager told police that Nelson and Robinson cursed at her after she told them the bathroom was for customers only. The manager then asked the men to leave, but they refused, according to the report.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s incident report on the Starbucks arrests which took place on Thursday, April 12, 2018. (Obtained by NPR.)

A Starbucks representative told WHYY that the company does not have a universal policy on bathroom access.

“With 28,000 stores globally, different regions, circumstances and cultural norms necessitate different guidelines for their stores. There is not a company-wide policy on restroom use, however, this was a protocol for that particular store,” according to the statement.

Nelson and Robinson told the Associated Press they feared for their lives during the incident, having been surrounded by police only minutes after they arrived at Starbucks for a meeting.

“Any time I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind,” Nelson said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

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