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Philly Police Commissioner’s Apology to Starbucks Men is a Total Face-Palm Moment

Starbucks arrest Philadelphia black men racial bias education may 29

I tried, people. I tried to do an even-handed analysis of who might have been at fault in the Starbucks-is-racist debacle in Philly. While there are several people who may have made some poor (and possibly even illegal) choices here, the cops aren’t the ones who were at fault.

And yet, the PR-machine and media circus kicked into high hear with frightening alacrity and forced the hand of the Philadelphia Police commissioner. Today, in a scene that was truly gross to witness in its utter unfairness, Commissioner Richard Ross apologized to live TV cameras. Here’s what he said:

Not everyone is aware that people spent long hours in Starbucks that aren’t necessarily expected to make a purchase… It is a… widespread belief that everyone knows that about Starbucks, but I’m here to tell you that I did not, and it is also reasonable to believe that the officers didn’t know that either.

I was under the belief that people went there, and they they spent hours and hours, but that the expectation was that they bought something first.   I was not aware of that, so that is on me.

Really? It’s on him? In what world is it the police commissioner’s responsibility to know the corporate policies of every business in Philadelphia? I don’t want one dime of my tax money spent on police seminars for officers to learn the nuanced differences between unlimited free Starbucks Wi-Fi and Panera’s peak-time 30-minute limit. Give. Me. A. Break.

In 2018, there are a great number of horrifying videos of inappropriate police action. Police, as a group, are far from perfect, and there are quite a number of areas in which some sensitivity training would be a great idea. But here, there is no indication whatsoever that police did anything wrong. If we can’t recognize proper police work when we see it, we’re all in trouble.

If we’re looking for some implicit bias, though, let’s please notice the black police commissioner apologizing to the world for failing to diffuse a powder keg ignited by some idiot barista calling 911 at the first sight of black men in a coffee shop (or, alternatively by two belligerent freeloaders who refused to make room for paying customers, depending on which narrative you believe. Either way, not the fault of the cops). Before I go full-scale bleeding-heart liberal meltdown and flip out over how everyone seems to be apologizing except the manager who started it all, let’s do a quick recap of what the police are supposed to do when they receive a 911 call.

The call comes in, the police respond. During that response, if an arrest is appropriate, they conduct one. In order to legally arrest someone for trespass, the police would have needed “probable cause.” As with any arrest, that does not mean the police need to be certain that a crime has been committed, but rather, that there exist reasonable grounds for thinking that someone broke the law.

In this case, the police were responding to a 911 call in which a store manager complained about two men who refused to leave the premises. When the cops arrived and saw those very men, doing precisely what the complainant described, their observations would certainly have constituted probable cause for a trespass arrest. There’s more, too. Commissioner Ross stated that although a “disturbance call” (police lingo for situations such as these) was a low priority, that the officers on the scene spent more than ten minutes in the Starbucks in an effort to get a handle on what had prompted the manager’s complaint.

In other words, the cops didn’t just take the barista’s word for it – they assessed the situation themselves. In their professional judgment, there was probable cause to make an arrest. Although the tone of Commissioner Ross’ statement was unabashedly apologetic, his statements about his officers’ conduct were substantively (and in my opinion, rightfully) defensive. Ross explained that the officers, who had been unfamiliar with the company’s loitering policy, were calm upon entering the Starbucks; he pointed out that the videos showed the police acting “relaxed,” sitting down at a table, as they “tried to work their way through the situation.” As Ross put it:

these officers in good faith were trying to do everything they could to prevent anyone from getting hurt. I understand how that could alarm people, but the intent was not to intimidate, but actually was to do something different.

Good faith? Appropriate intent? Relaxed investigation? Those are ways of describing good, legal, and utterly professional police work. As I’ve said before, police are not meant to be finders of fact – and for good reason. As enforcers of law, police must make in-the-moment judgments about problematic and sometimes dangerous situations. Under the law, police are not expected to be omniscient, but simply to be reasonable in their interpretation of available facts. So long as officers follow the law, and act with professionalism and respect for all citizens, they’ve done their jobs.

It makes exactly zero sense to expect a couple of beat cops to make a full-scale civil rights inquiry in the middle of a busy coffee shop; such a course of action would far exceed the parameters of police responsibility. An arrest is only the gateway to the criminal justice system; judges, courts, and lawyers provide filters and safeguards to protect against the prosecution of an innocent person for a crime that never happened. The system doesn’t always work to flush out those who have been unfairly caught up in its grips, but it’s worth noting that here, it did. The next apology I see on the airwaves better be directed at the police for wasting their time with what is clearly a private matter between Starbucks and its visitors.

[Image via screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos