PHILADELPHIA — The video of the police arresting two black men in a Starbucks, viewed more than 10 million times online, quickly prompted a full-blown crisis: accusations of racism, protests both in and around the cafe, and a corporate apology on “Good Morning America.”
But to some black Philadelphia residents who venture into Rittenhouse Square, the neighborhood where it happened, the treatment depicted in the video was a frustrating reality of everyday life.
Christian Hayden, 30, recalled a security guard searching his bags as he left a nearby Barnes & Noble. The guard found his copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir “The Beautiful Struggle,” and would not let him leave until the staff had checked the shelves to make sure no copy had been stolen.
Trevor Johnson, 27, a bike courier, recalled being arrested in the square four years ago after an officer asked him to turn off his music and he got up to walk away.
And earlier this year, Michele Bradshaw, 49, said she left a Nordstrom Rack not far from the Starbucks after she noticed a security guard following her through the aisles of clothing.
In fact, statistics show that Rittenhouse Square, with its hotels, boutique museums and upscale shops, has the highest racial disparity in the city when it comes to police pedestrian stops. Although black people account for just 3 percent of the residents in that police subdistrict, they made up two-thirds of the people stopped by the police in the first half of 2017, according to figures collected by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It is clear that African-Americans are not welcomed in that part of the neighborhood, period,” said Jordan A. Harris, a representative in the state house and chairman of the state’s legislative black caucus.
On Tuesday, Starbucks, whose chief executive, Kevin Johnson, has apologized for the incident, said it would close more than 8,000 of its stores on May 29 to conduct anti-racial bias training for nearly 175,000 employees.
A small group of activists and clergy members met with Howard Schultz, the company’s executive chairman, and the Philadelphia district attorney for about an hour on Tuesday afternoon.
Though most of the attention is being directed toward Starbucks, some activists, politicians and policy experts place the blame for the incident on a system of law enforcement that is disproportionately harsh toward black people.
“I think the cops’ behavior was not only outrageous, but it was par for the course,” said Rashad Robinson, the director of Color of Change, a racial justice organization. “It’s what happens day in and day out in communities around the country.”
But the case also raises tricky questions of law enforcement policies and practices, like when officers should make arrests instead of using other methods to resolve nonviolent disputes.
A manager at the Starbucks cafe called the police, saying that the two men were sitting in the store without purchasing anything and that they had refused to leave.
The eight-minute video clip of the encounter shows three officers in bicycle helmets standing around two black men, who were sitting and calmly responding to the officers’ questions. One of the men told the police that they had a meeting, and the officer told him, “I’ll give you one more chance” to leave.
A few minutes go by, with the officers and the men continuing to exchange words, when a white man who was supposed to meet the men showed up. He began arguing with the officers, saying that they were discriminating against the two black men. Eventually, the white man said they would just go somewhere else, but the officer responded, “They’re not free to leave,” adding that they had already failed to comply.
A short time later the two black men were placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station to be booked.
Initially, the city’s police commissioner, Richard Ross, emphasized that the officers who made the arrest “followed policy, they did what they were supposed to do, they were professional in all their dealings with these gentlemen — and instead they got the opposite back.”
But in an interview with a local television station on Monday, the commissioner struck a more conciliatory note and admitted that he wished that Starbucks had never called the police.
“The whole thing is unfortunate,” Commissioner Ross told WPVI, an ABC affiliate. “Wish it hadn’t happened, from start to finish.”
Though he defended the officers and said that it appeared they had not done anything wrong, the commissioner said that the department was now reviewing its procedures. “If we had our druthers, we wouldn’t have came there in the first place,” he said.
Policing experts said that while it was not clear the officers did anything in violation of the law or police policy, the emphasis at many departments would have been on trying to avoid any incident like the one that played out.
Audio of the 911 and dispatch calls, released on Tuesday, also raised questions about how those calls may have affected the officers as they responded to the call.
“Hi, I have two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” said the Starbucks employee who called 911.
But when the dispatcher put out the call to the police, he said: “We’ve got a disturbance there. A group of males refusing to leave.”
Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville, said it was “troublesome that an arrest occurred,” given the tremendous discretion officers have to handle such situations.
“Using every available alternative to a physical arrest, within department policy, should be the goal in a case like this,” said Mr. Serpas, who is now a professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, said that the incident reflected a systemic problem with how the police deal with such episodes.
“This is a very typical example of the difficult place police officers find themselves in every day, where a business is on one side, saying, ‘We want you to enforce the law, because these people are being uncooperative and are technically violating the law,’ ” Mr. Bueermann said. “And on the other side, officers are trying to be sensitive because of the nature of the situation and everyone involved.”
This city has struggled for years to curb discriminatory police stops. The police department entered into a consent decree with the A.C.L.U. after the organization sued the city in 2010.
Since the election two years ago of Mayor Jim Kenney, who campaigned partly on an agenda of curbing unjustified police stops, the total number of pedestrian stops has fallen by half. The proportion of unjustified stops has also dropped sharply, according to Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the Pennsylvania A.C.L.U., crediting the mayor’s efforts.
But the racial disparity in pedestrian stops has not budged, and one in five stops are still made without any justification, she said.
Black residents say that those stops are acutely felt in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood in the center of the city, the site of the now infamous Starbucks. The area was quiet on Tuesday afternoon. A few birds chirped in the cold. Tulip tree blossoms crowned in pink the park that is at the center of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was the part of town where African-Americans were driven out because of riots started by white residents in the mid 1800s, according to Marcus Anthony Hunter, the chairman of the Department of African-American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The rise of housing projects, and later urban renewal, eventually led to a decrease in the black population, he said. And over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has become almost all white because of gentrification.
Linda Richardson, a 71-year-old black woman, lived just off Rittenhouse Square in 1967, with her white husband and their young daughter, when the neighborhood had become majority white. People often mistook her for her daughter’s nanny. Even back then, she said, she remembered that little black boys who wanted to play in the square were often asked to leave.
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