Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross apologized Thursday to two black men who were arrested while waiting for a business meeting at Starbucks, saying he made the situation worse by initially defending his officers’ actions.
Ross’ apology came at a news conference on the same day the men — Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson — told ABC’s “Good Morning America” they were handcuffed within minutes of arriving at the store April 12 for a business meeting.
Ross said he was not aware that Starbucks allows people to sit in stores 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 asked to leave and for this reason, me, I apologize to them,” Ross told reporters.
A store manager called police and said the two men were sitting in the store without placing an order. They were arrested for trespassing. The person the men were waiting for arrived as they were being arrested.
After a Twitter video emerged of the men being escorted out in handcuffs, Ross initially said the officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”
“For starters, I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law and not that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Ross said Thursday. “Words are very important.”
The commissioner said new policy guidelines will be unveiled soon on how officers should respond to similar calls.
Nelson and Robinson told ABC they went to Starbucks for a business meeting they believed would change their lives.
Instead, they walked out in handcuffs shortly after Nelson asked to use the restroom. He was told it was only for paying customers. A white store employee called 911 minutes later.
“The issue of race in this situation is not lost on me,” said Ross, 54, who is black.
“The optics are not lost on me. It is obvious the issue of race is indicative of a larger problem in our society, and 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 anyway if I have done that. … I have to do better.”
No charges were filed against the men. The video of the incident went viral and ignited protests and calls for boycotts.
“I was thinking, they can’t be here for us,” Robinson said of the police. “It didn’t really hit me what was going on, that it was real, till I was being double-locked with my hands behind my back.”
On Monday, the two men met with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, who apologized.
An attorney for the two men told “Good Morning America” that Starbucks has agreed to a proposal to enter into mediation with a retired federal judge.
The store employee who called 911 is no longer with the company. Starbucks has not said under what circumstances the employee left.
Starbucks plans to close its 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States for one afternoon on May 29 to teach employees about racial bias. The training will be provided to about 175,000 workers.
Ross said he does not believe race played a role in the officers’ actions but added, “As for that manager, that’s a whole other ballgame.”