PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) – Philadelphia’s police commissioner is apologizing to two black men who were arrested at a Starbucks last week.
Commissioner Richard Ross, who is black, apologized to the two men on Thursday after he previously staunchly defended police for their handling of the incident.
“I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law, and not that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Ross said. “Words are very important.”
Ross says that he “failed miserably” in the messaging around the arrests. He says that the issue of race is not lost on him and he shouldn’t be the person making things worse.
“Shame on me if, in any way, I’ve done that,” he said.
Ross says the police department did not have a policy for dealing for similar situations, but does now. He says it will be released soon.
Rashon Nelson initially brushed it off when the Starbucks manager told him he couldn’t use the restroom because he wasn’t a paying customer.
He thought nothing of it when he and his childhood friend and business partner, Donte Robinson, were approached at their table and were asked if they needed help. The 23-year-old entrepreneurs declined, explaining they were just waiting for a business meeting.
A few minutes later, they hardly noticed when the police came into the coffee shop — until officers started walking in their direction.
“That’s when we knew she called the police on us,” Nelson told The Associated Press in the first interview by the two black men since video of their April 12 trespassing arrests touched off a furor around the U.S. over racial profiling or what has been dubbed “retail racism” or “shopping while black.”
Nelson and Robinson were led away in handcuffs from the shop in the city’s well-to-do Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in an incident recorded on a white customer’s cellphone.
In the week since, the men have met with Starbucks’ apologetic CEO and have started pushing for lasting change at the coffee shop chain, including new policies on discrimination and ejecting customers.
“We do want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody again,” Robinson said. “What if it wasn’t us sitting there? What if it was the kid that didn’t know somebody that knew somebody? Do they make it to jail? Do they die? What happens?”
Nelson and Robinson said they went to the Starbucks to meet Andrew Yaffe, a white local businessman, over a potential real estate opportunity. Three officers showed up not long after. Nelson said they weren’t questioned but were told to leave immediately.
Yaffe showed up as the men were being handcuffed and could be seen in the video demanding an explanation for the officers’ actions. Nelson and Robinson did not resist arrest.
“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.”
It was not their first encounter with police. But neither had been arrested before, setting them apart from many of those they grew up with in their gritty southwest Philadelphia neighborhood.
Nelson and Robinson spent hours in a jail cell and were released after midnight, when the district attorney declined to prosecute them.
Nelson said he wondered if he’d make it home alive.
“Any time I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind,” Nelson said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Robinson said that he appreciates the public support but that anger and boycotting Starbucks are not the solution.
The men said they are looking for more lasting results and are in mediation with Starbucks to make changes, including the posting in stores of a customer bill of rights; the adoption of new policies on customer ejections and racial discrimination; and independent investigations of complaints.
“You go from being someone who’s just trying to be an entrepreneur, having your own dreams and aspirations, and then this happens,” Nelson said. “How do you handle it? Do you stand up? Do you fight? Do you sit down and just watch everyone else fight for you? Do you let it slide, like we let everything else slide with injustice?”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said it has been a difficult week for many Philadelphians reliving the trauma of racial profiling. He apologized to both Robinson and Nelson, adding that he acknowledges their pain, the pain of so many others and is committed to healing as one city.
Read the mayor’s full statement here:
“It has been a difficult week for many Philadelphians witnessing and reliving the trauma of racial profiling. I want to apologize on behalf of the City of Philadelphia to Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson for the experience they’ve been put through. I want to acknowledge their pain and the pain of so many others, and commit our City to healing it together over the coming days, weeks and months.
“Sometimes courage is as simple as a willingness to evaluate your own words and actions, and to account for them. Today we saw such courage with the words of Police Commissioner Richard Ross. I applaud his ability to reflect on this very difficult week, and to articulate his changed perspective. It’s that courage and self-reflection that makes the Commissioner such an effective leader. The current realities of race relations and bias in 2018 warrant ongoing re-evaluations by each and every one of us.
“It is important to remember that this City has made substantial progress, under reforms instituted by Commissioner Ross, toward reducing the number of pedestrian stops and frisks made without reasonable suspicion in Philadelphia. Under this Administration, the number of pedestrian stops conducted in the City have dropped 50% from 2015 to 2017, along with a similar decrease in the percentage of pedestrian stops conducted without reasonable suspicion. The actions of the Administration and PPD since January 2016 have made a difference in how policing in Philadelphia is conducted and how it impacts the citizens of this great City. The Commissioner and I remain committed to working with the ACLU in the current litigation, with the oversight of the federal judge, to address any issues surrounding racial disparities in those stops.”
Kenney says interviews with the officers involved is underway.
The Internal Affairs Division is expected to complete their investigation next week.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)