A still-inexplicable decision by a Starbucks manager last week led to the arrest of two black men for unjust reasons. That, not the behavior of cops, was the cause of the latest eruption of angst. That doesn’t mean anyone should be satisfied with the way the officers resolved the situation.
A Starbucks manager in Philadelphia told the men it was against company policy for non-paying customers to use the restroom, even though white customers said at least one non-paying white customer used the facilities. That manager responded to the men’s presence by calling the police, even though white customers have said they did the same thing multiple times and no one called 911. The manager asked the men to be removed for allegedly trespassing.
It’s not hard to imagine the men feeling put upon and unfairly singled out, particularly given they were apparently just waiting on a friend. There have been no reports they were affecting the shop’s business, yelling or disturbing the peace. According to an eyewitness who spoke to media outlets in Philadelphia, they were “quietly hanging out and chatting.”
Starbucks has apologized for what happened while claiming the manager did not want the men arrested. But the company still must answer why it employed a person who felt an urgency so great she had to call the police. What made them seem like potential threats? (The manager no longer works at the store.) Talk of a boycott and angry Americans protesting in front of the store likely has every Starbucks executive trying to re-establish the trust it has lost with its customer base. The company has no choice other than to struggle – for as long as necessary – to get this right. That’s the power of the marketplace, and as it should be.
Then there are the police.
“These officers had legal standing to make this arrest,” said Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross.
He’s right. The first officers on the scene tried to deescalate the situation by getting in touch with supervisors for guidance. They were trying to avoid an ugly outcome as they initially interacted with the men, who were rightly angered by their treatment by the Starbucks manager and refused to leave. Sometimes the public unfairly asks officers to solve problems better dealt with in other ways. This was one of those times.
It would be unfair to harshly judge the officers. But you don’t have to blame them for Starbucks’s mess to ask officers to be better. Police across the country would be wise to use this latest viral video of police-community interaction as a springboard to think of new ways to equip officers with more tools to handle murky situations, including ones which they should not have been pulled into.
Police must find ways to solve these dilemmas short of arrest. Theirs is a higher purpose, which is why citing technical legal definitions to explain their actions will never be enough. They must understand the environment we are in and why a day that begins with men quietly sitting in a Starbucks – something Americans of all backgrounds do every day without incident – can’t end with those men in handcuffs.
There was no imminent threat, no danger. When that’s the reality, officers must exhaust all other options – even if it means spending more time impressing upon a store manager why her thinking is wrongheaded instead of telling the men to leave.