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June 08, 2018

Philly police issue new trespassing policy after Starbucks incident

Police Starbucks
Richard Ross Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

Following the incident in April when two black men were handcuffed and led out of a Center City Starbucks, Philadelphia police have issued new guidelines for officers handling trespassing incidents.

Police announced Friday they've provided the new policy to officers so they can better handle situations involving someone refusing to leave a business that is open to the public.

“We’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so as we explore and implement new practices that reflect the importance of diversity, public safety and accountability,” Commissioner Richard Ross said.

Police said a review showed they did not have a specific set of guidelines for officers handling instances defiant trespassing, which is a crime in Pennsylvania. The new policy reiterates the conditions necessary to charge someone with defiant trespassing and adds one important step to the procedure.

In order to arrest an individual at a business for defiant trespassing, the offender must know and understand they aren't allowed there; have been told that they need to leave; and refuse to leave in the presence of a police officer.

Philadelphia police spokesman Jeff Chrusch said the key difference in the new policy is that now the owner of a business, or an authorized person such as a manager, must sign the paperwork necessary to charge an individual for defiant trespassing, a third-degree misdemeanor. Under the law, a police officer is not an authorized person in such situations.

Police said the new policy will allow officers greater discretion in dealing with trespassing incidents on a case-by-case basis. Mayor Jim Kenney praised the policy in a statement also released Friday and announced his administration's intention to pass legislation that would make defiant trespassing a civil offense so that it results in a fine instead of an arrest. 

On April 12, officers were called to the Starbucks location at 18th and Spruce streets. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson had been at the coffee shop for a business meeting and waiting for a friend to arrive. Nelson asked to use the restroom but was told it was only for paying customers.

The manager came to their table and asked if they wanted anything, but they said no and explained they were still waiting for their friend. Shortly thereafter, the manager called the police, who arrived and arrested them after they refused to leave.

The incident, which was caught on video, caused an uproar among many who believed the incident was indicative of racial bias. Critics said that plenty of people use Starbucks locations as meeting places and spend lots of time in stores without purchasing anything.

Starbucks reacted to the incident by changing its bathroom policy, opening restrooms to people who aren't paying customers. CEO Kevin Johnson apologized to Nelson and Robinson and the company shut down all stores for one day last month for racial bias training.

Commissioner Ross apologized to the two men as well, promising to implement a new policy to better handle similar situations in the future. The process of implementing the new policy, released publicly Friday, has been a "positive learning experience," the department said in a news release.