Starbucks has apologised to two black men arrested at a Philadelphia branch of the coffee chain in an incident that has led to accusations of racial profiling by the company and police.
Mobile phone videos captured the tense moment on Thursday afternoon when at least six Philadelphia Police Department officers stood over two seated black men, asking them to leave. A man named Andrew Yaffe arrives to tell police that the two men were waiting for him. The officer says that they were not complying and were being arrested for trespassing.
“Why would they be asked to leave?” Mr Yaffe says. “Does anybody else think this is ridiculous?” he asks people nearby. “It’s absolute discrimination,” Mr Yaffe adds. The two unidentified men are taken out in handcuffs soon after. They were released early on Friday with no charges filed.
One of the videos of the arrest rocketed across social media, with 4.5 million views by Saturday evening.
Lauren Wimmer, the attorney for the two men, told The Washington Post that her clients told a Starbucks employee that they were waiting for Mr Yaffe. Shortly after, a white female employee called the police, Ms Wimmer said.
Ms Wimmer said Mr Yaffe, who runs a real-estate development firm, said that he was there to meet the men to discuss business investment opportunities.
The two men, whom she declined to identify, were taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed. One officer suggested that they faced charges for “defiant trespassing”, Ms Wimmer said. They were held for nearly nine hours before they were released after prosecutors said they would not pursue charges.
Benjamin Waxman, a spokesperson for Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, said the office decided that there “wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge [the men] with a crime”.
Melissa DePino, who tweeted a video of the incident, said: “@Starbucks The police were called because these men hadn’t ordered anything. They were waiting for a friend to show up, who did as they were taken out in handcuffs for doing nothing. All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing.”
In a statement on Twitter, Starbucks apologised to the two men and said it was “disappointed this led to an arrest”.
An employee called the police for help to get the men out of the store but later regretted that it escalated into an arrest, said a company official familiar with the incident, who did not wish to be named. The employee was doing the right thing according to store policy, the official told The Post, but the company is evaluating its guidance out of concern that the options and decisions may not be clear.
“Did we set her up with the right protocol?” the official asked.
After the arrest, the police were also being criticised for their handling of the situation. Police Commissioner Richard Ross addressed the incident on Facebook Live on Saturday, saying that one or both of the men asked to use the restroom but had not purchased anything. An employee said the Starbucks company policy was to refuse use of the bathrooms to nonpaying members of the public and asked the men to leave, according to Mr Ross. The employee called the police when they refused.
“These officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy; they did what they were supposed to do. They were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen,” Mr Ross said. “And instead, they got the opposite back.”
Mr Ross said police arrested the men after they refused three requests to leave.
Mr Ross, who is black, said he was aware of issues of implicit bias – unconscious discrimination based on race – but did not say whether he believed it applied in this case. He said the incident underscores the need for more body-worn cameras to present different perspectives of police responses. The officers were not wearing cameras, he said.
At least two mobile phone videos captured the incident.
The police department said on Thursday that it was investigating and would comment once more facts were known. It was not immediately clear whether Mr Ross’s statement means the investigation has concluded.
Starbucks does not have a company-wide policy on asking members of the public to leave, said the company official.
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The company leaves safety and customer service protocol decisions up to store managers, the official said. They may leave restroom doors unlocked or add key code entries if they feel the store is more at risk for criminal behaviour. A store in the same area of Philadelphia experienced an armed robbery recently, the official said.
The official acknowledged that the incident is at odds with what many people have done at a Starbucks without drawing suspicion or calls to police. The stores are “community hubs”, the official said, where people often drop in to use the wifi or chat with friends without necessarily ordering anything.
Ms Wimmer said she spent a good portion of her time in law school in Starbucks without buying much and never had a problem as a white female.
The incident was about race, Ms Wimmer said. She suggested an experiment: go to a Starbucks and assess the demographics of people sitting there.
“Who is the manager going to call and say ‘please leave?’,” she asked.
© Washington Post