The Starbucks at 18th and Spruce Credit: Google Street View

Updated April 15

The arrest of two black men inside the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce streets in Rittenhouse on Thursday has come under intense scrutiny, with many claiming it shows blatant discrimination in action. The Philadelphia Police, the Philly Mayor’s Office and Starbucks are all launching investigations into what happened.

In a video posted to Twitter on April 12, Philly Police officers can be seen calmly confronting the men, cuffing their wrists with zip ties, then leading them away.

Other people in the cafe at the time can be heard protesting that the men “didn’t do anything” and “were just sitting there” before they were arrested.

Per comments in the thread, the men’s offense was not ordering anything as they sat and waited for another friend to arrive. “All the other white ppl are wondering why it’s never happened to us when we do the same thing,” wrote Melissa DePino, the woman who posted the video.

The men were released from custody after the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to have them arraigned. Starbucks initially said on Twitter that it was looking into the incident, and then on Saturday afternoon tweeted an apology to the men.

Philly Police tweeted Saturday morning that the department was looking into the matter, and followed up Saturday afternoon with a statement from Commissioner Richard Ross via Facebook Live.

The PPD officers in the video “did absolutely nothing wrong,” Ross said, explaining that because they were responding to a trespassing call from a business, the officers had an “obligation” to remove the men from the premises.

Mayor Jim Kenney issued a statement Saturday afternoon that expressed dismay over what had happened.

“I am heartbroken to see Philadelphia in the headlines,” the statement began, “for an incident that — at least based on what we know at this point — appears to exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”

Late Saturday night, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a formal letter of apology. In it, he pledged the company would “make the necessary changes” to help ensure something like this never happens again. Johnson will be traveling to Philly to speak with customers and local leaders. He also hopes to potentially meet with the men who were arrested, the letter said.

What we know

  • DePino, a local author, did not shoot the video, she told Billy Penn, but posted it after a friend recorded it.
  • A more extended video of the same incident from a different angle was posted on YouTube.
  • The incident occurred around 4:30 p.m., DePino told Billy Penn. At the time she tweeted her video (5:12 p.m.), she said, the men were being put into a patrol car.
  • According to DePino’s original tweet, the men hadn’t yet ordered anything because they were waiting for a friend, who arrived just as they were being led away.
  • Per Commissioner Ross, the men entered, sat down, then tried to use the bathroom. Starbucks employees mentioned the company policy that bathroom use required a purchase, and asked the men to leave. When the men refused, Ross said, that’s when the cops were called.
  • On arrival, the officers asked the men to leave — per Ross, three times. The men continued to refuse, and so were arrested.
  • Per a PMN report, the white man seen questioning the cops in the viral video is Andrew Yaffe, a real estate developer who said the two arrested men were there to meet him.
  • Per DePino, who told Billy Penn she is in contact with the affected parties, the men were reportedly released from PPD District 9 custody around 1:30 a.m. Friday morning. This would mean the men were held for approximately eight hours.
  • The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office declined to have the men arraigned because of lack of evidence, a spokesperson for DA Larry Krasner confirmed to Billy Penn.
  • Commissioner Ross said the men were released because after the paperwork was processed, PPD “discovered” Starbucks no longer wanted to press charges.
  • The charge being considered was “defiant trespass,” per criminal defense attorney Lauren A. Wimmer, who was involved in getting the men released. Wimmer tweeted Saturday morning that what had happened to them was not only “reprehensible,” but was also “illegal.”

She corroborated the idea that the two men were simply waiting for a friend, and suggested that they “were blatantly discriminated against based on their race.”

  • Starbucks initially said it was investigating the incident, and then issued two apologies. The first was via a tweet posted Saturday just before 1 p.m., which said the company was “disappointed this led to an arrest,” and that it was reviewing its policies “to try to ensure these types of situations never happen in any of our stores.”
  • In the Starbucks CEO letter sent Saturday night, Johnson says, “Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did.”
  • Mayor Kenney, in his Saturday statement, called for the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to examine Starbucks policies and procedures surrounding implicit bias training.
  • Commissioner Ross underscored that the Philly Police go through regular implicit bias training. He also noted that as an African American male, he is all too aware that implicit bias exists.
  • On Saturday, there were protesters standing outside the cafe, per photos posted to Twitter.
  • What we don’t know

    • The identities of the men who were arrested.
    • The identities of the arresting officers.
    • The names or job descriptions of the Starbucks employees who called the police to begin with, although attorney Wimmer told PMN she believes a manager was involved.
    • Whether body cameras on the police officers would have made a difference in conduct of any parties involved. Commissioner Ross, in his FB Live statement, said this incident “underscores the need to continue our body cam program.”
    • Whether Starbucks does mandate implicit bias training.
    • Exactly how Starbucks’ current policy would have treated this situation. The cafes have traditionally allowed people to linger. In 2009, the company released a statement saying it does not have any time limits for guests: “We strive to create a welcoming environment for all of our customers. We do not have any time limits for being in our stores, and continue to focus on making the Third Place experience for every Starbucks customer.”

    Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.