Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross issued an apology on Thursday for saying his officers handled the racist incident at Starbucks appropriately. But he did not address the Philadelphia Police Department’s racist history.
“I just think that as we work to make this city safer and better we do have to acknowledge that there are still things that we need to work on,” Ross, who is Black, said. “It starts at the top and that starts with me. Messaging is important and I failed miserably in this regard.”
Ross previously came to his officers’ defense and said they did “absolutely nothing wrong.” He walked back these comments on Thursday.
He said neither he nor his officers were aware that people frequently spend time at Starbucks without making a purchase.
“I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law and not that they didn’t do anything wrong. Words are very important,” Ross said.
So is representation. Through a Herculean effort at white male affirmative action, the Philadelphia Police, our country’s fourth largest police department, is 56 percent less diverse than the city population, not including gender. According to Governing Data, in 2013 Philadelphia’s white population was 36.3 percent, but the police force was 56.8 percent white and 83% male.
Ross discussed race at his press conference:
“For those who either naively, even some maliciously, who think that I don’t understand issues of race. I’m 54 years old and been African American my entire life. And yes I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen racism and prejudice in a variety of ways. Based on what these officers responded to, I just don’t believe that was the case here. As for that manager That’s a whole other ball game. But again, I understand the optics. I understand it, and I’d be remiss to say I didn’t.”
Optics in this one incident is the least of their problems. Last year Internal Affairs found that an officer with a Nazi tattoo had not violated any departmental policies. The tattoo was a Nazi eagle; the Philly Voice explained at the time: “That symbol features an eagle with outstretched wings, its head pointed left, and holding a wreath containing a swastika. The photos of [Officer Ian Hans] Lichterman’s tattoos did not show whether his eagle was perched on a swastika” but the tattoo does include “fatherland” in large letters above the Nazi eagle. His other arm has a large tattoo of an assault rifle.
The Anti-Defamation League categorizes this as a hate symbol. But the Fratneral Order of Police Lodge No. 5 had no qualms with the officer’s ink because there was no policy saying they should.
John McNesby, its president, insisted there was “nothing wrong.”
“There was nothing there to investigate,” he said. “He had a tattoo. There was no policy. He had it for years. He had no discipline. There was no issue with it.”
Philadelphia, the police department and two supervisors in the narcotics department faced a lawsuit in December brought on by several Black cops, claiming racism in the department. Black officers were not given the same work opportunities as their white counterparts, the officers claim, and a white corporal faced no repercussions for driving a car with a Confederate flag on it. Officers were also asked to falsify documents.
Before the suit was filed, the Philly Inquirer reported, “an anonymous letter was sent to Police Commissioner Richard Ross from ‘Stressed Black Personnel of the Narcotics Bureau’ alleging that their two white supervisors routinely encouraged officers to violate department policy, spoke contemptuously of African American citizens, and created a ‘racially hostile work environment’ for black officers.”
Going back even more, the department faced a racism lawsuit in 2009. White officers were posting on the website Domelights.com. CNN reported at the time: “Domelights’ users ‘often joke about the racially offensive commentary on the site … or will mention them in front of black police officers,’ thus creating ‘a racially hostile work environment,’ according to lawyers for the all-black Guardian Civic League, the lead plaintiff in the suit.”
Ross called himself “flawed, like many other folks.” But it seems as though the entire department is flawed.
However, being “flawed” is not an acceptable explanation, and change requires more than choosing the correct words, according to the men who were arrested.
Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, the men in the viral Starbucks video, appeared on “Good Morning America” early on Thursday to discuss their experience, and they gave an interview to The Associated Press.
The men are 23-year-old entrepreneurs and have been best friends since grade school. According to Nelson, he initially brushed it off when a Starbucks employee asked if he needed help, to which he simply responded no and said he was waiting to begin a business meeting.
All of that changed when Nelson saw the police officers walk in. The men arrived at the caf at 4:35 and the 911 call was made at 4:37.
“That’s when we knew she called the police on us,” Nelson told the AP.
“We were there for a real reason, a real deal that we were working on,” Robinson said. “We put in a lot of time, energy, effort. … We were at a moment that could have a positive impact on a whole ladder of people, lives, families. So I was like, ‘No, you’re not stopping that right now.'”
“When you know that you did nothing wrong, how do you really react to it” Nelson said. “You can either be ignorant or you can show some type of sophistication and act like you have class. That was the choice we had.”
Robinson told “GMA” he wants this situation viewed as “a stepping stone to really stand up and show your greatness.”
“You are not judged by the color of your skin, as our ancestors were, or anyone else. This is something that has been going on for years, and everyone’s blind to it, but they know what’s going on, if you get what I mean.”
He also said it’s time to take “those actions and put them into place.”
“It’s not just a Black people thing. This is a people thing. Put action into place, and stop using your words.”
Speaking with the AP, he said that boycotts and frustration are not, in his opinion, the appropriate course of action for lasting change.
“We need a different type of action not words,” he said. “It’s a time to pay attention and understand what’s really going on. We do want a seat at the table.”
Nelson told The AP he feared for his life during the arrest.
That fear is not unjustified, as evidenced by the numerous examples of racial profiling by police officers as well as employees in establishments such as Starbucks and LA Fitness.
Earlier this week three employees at an LA Fitness in Secaucus, N.J., were terminated after they were accused of harassing two Black men who were simply trying to work out.
The Starbucks manager who made the 911 call has not been publicly identified. She reportedly no longer works there, through a “mutual” agreement, according to the company. It is not clear if she left that location specifically or the whole company.