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As Starbucks Protests Continue, Philadelphia Police Chief Apologizes to Black Men Arrested

A somber and introspective Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, under heavy criticism for the arrests of two 23-year-old Philadelphia men at a Starbucks near Rittenhouse Square a week ago and his defense of the police action, apologized to the men Thursday and said he had made the situation worse.

By Mensah M. Dean and Chris Palmer

A somber and introspective Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, under heavy criticism for the arrests of two 23-year-old Philadelphia men at a Starbucks near Rittenhouse Square a week ago and his defense of the police action, apologized to the men Thursday and said he had made the situation worse.

"I'm here to discuss the unfortunate incident that has been in the news about this great city, an incident that I fully acknowledge that I played a significant role in making it worse," Ross told reporters during a hastily arranged noontime news conference at Police Headquarters.

"For starters, I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law and not that they didn't do anything wrong," he said. "Words are very important."

Ross said he had been unaware that people sit inside Starbucks for hours, and added that he thought the officers also had not been aware of that practice.

The commissioner's comments came hours after the two men broke their public silence by appearing on ABC's Good Morning America and as protests continued to swirl Thursday, including a 5 p.m. march from Police Headquarters ending in a rally by upward of 100 people at City Hall.

"While it is no excuse, my lack of awareness of the Starbucks business model played a role in my messaging," Ross said at his news conference. "While this is apparently a well-known fact with Starbucks customers, not everyone is aware that people spend long hours in Starbucks and aren't necessarily expected to make a purchase."

"I apologize to them," he said in remarks intended for Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the men arrested for sitting in the store without making a purchase.

He said a new department policy has been completed to guide officers responding to similar trespassing and disturbance calls, but he did not say when the policy would be implemented. One reason for the policy, he said, is so that officers will not be manipulated by businesses. He said he was not sure if that happened in this instance.

Ross said that the number of officers who responded to the store -- at least seven were seen on cellphone videos inside -- may have alarmed some people, but that the number was not excessive and that the officers acted "in good faith ... to prevent anyone from getting hurt."

Nelson and Robinson were arrested after a Starbucks manager asked them to leave because they had not bought anything. They were released almost eight hours later without being charged.

Ross, who noted he is a 54-year-old African American, said: "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 have done that."

He said it was wrong for him to have said during a Facebook Live video over the weekend that the "officers did not do anything wrong." Still, he said, they followed the law.

Ross said that he did not think the officers acted in a racist manner and that "they were put in an untenable position."

He disagreed with accusations on social media that he doesn't understand race issues. "I've been an African American my entire life and, yes, I've been in situations where I have seen racism and prejudice in a variety of ways," he said. "Based on what these officers responded to, I just don't believe that was the case here."

But he added: "As for that manager, that's a whole 'nother ballgame."

Before taking questions, Ross, who was hired by Mayor Kenney, stressed that he had not been ordered to apologize to Robinson and Nelson. "No one asked me to do this. No one made me do this," he said.

Videos of the arrests a week ago sparked national outrage, public apologies, and a racial-bias training program at the coffee chain's 8,000 U.S. cafes.

The two arrested men called for change in their interview with  Good Morning America that aired Thursday morning. The men declined to comment Thursday through their lawyer, Stewart Cohen, and his spokesman, Dan Fee.

Still angered by Ross' initial response to the arrests, dozens of people Thursday protested outside Police Headquarters and marched to City Hall, chanting, "Police Department, you can't hide, we can see your dirty side."

The protest was organized by POWER, an interfaith group that also helped lead Monday's sit-in at the Starbucks where the arrests occurred. Some marchers Thursday demanded to meet with Ross and Kenney. Others called Ross' apology insincere.

"Their only sin is in the color of their skin," Faye Anderson of North Philadelphia said of the two men who were arrested. She said Ross "showed his true colors" when he defended the officers.

The activists demanded that $3 million be budgeted annually for the citizens' watchdog Police Advisory Commission (instead of the current $750,000) to hire more full-time investigators to deal with complaints against police, and to buy body cameras.

In interviews earlier Thursday, two African American state legislators weighed in on the growing controversy.

State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) said that although he respects Ross, "apologies alone are not enough."

"And quite honestly," Harris continued, "I think black people are tired of apologies without systemic change."

Harris, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he had asked Ross to meet with the caucus to discuss policy changes and what he termed a "pervasive culture" of officers' treating minorities differently.

"When the police are called for everybody else, they are the guardians of the community," Harris said. "When police are called with African Americans, we get the warrior."

Harris said he believes that the Starbucks manager who called the police is prejudiced -- but that the officers were culpable because they followed through on her request.

"When you take her prejudice and match it with the enforcement of the police, now you have racism," Harris said. "Now you have police being the agents of racism and bigotry."

But State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.) -- who initially had said the police response at the café "should be reviewed" -- said he thought Ross "responded appropriately" to the criticism that has engulfed the Police Department.

Williams said the arrests reminded him of slaves being shackled or civil rights activists being taken into custody over peaceful resistance, and was "stunned" that most of the initial outrage, in his view, was directed toward Starbucks and not the police.

Still, Williams said he did not think the responding officers were bad people or should be fired. He said he hoped the moment could be seized to work to prevent such an incident from happening again.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said he believed the officers acted professionally and appropriately. "I stand 100 percent behind the police officers out there," McNesby said. He called Ross a "stand-up guy" and said he supported the commissioner.

Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard, an activist, radio personality, and columnist for the African American newspaper the Philadelphia Tribune, criticized Ross on Facebook after Thursday's news conference.

Coard acknowledged their friendship, but wrote that it was "probably best if you just shut the f-- up and start acting like a Black man who understands that Black Lives Matter."

Staff writer Dan Spinelli contributed to this article.


Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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