“It does happen. All the time. Just not to you and me.”
The first time we met Howard Schulz, the founder and chairman of Starbucks, he was speaking to more than 200 of the nation’s highest ranking black law enforcement officers during their conference in Seattle. He was explaining his company’s efforts to promote better relationships between black and Latino communities and police through a program he initiated called “Coffee with a Cop.”
It was early last year, and Schulz told the group how two years earlier, following riots and protests in the wake of a spate of high-profile killings of black men by police, he and then Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole had begun inviting residents and local cops to meet in his Seattle coffeehouses, so both could hear the others’ points of view.
It was effective, Schultz said. About 70 percent of the participants walked away from the events feeling better about the other side.
Schulz’s audience that day was the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), which is made up of the highest levels of African-American leaders of local police and sheriff’s departments, state troopers, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, U.S. Marshals, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies.
We were there doing research for our upcoming book, The Black and The Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement. We thought the conference would be a good first stop on our year-long book project to examine police and race. We wanted to understand how and why those relationships play out in continual shootings of unarmed black men, racial profiling and disparate rates of arrest and incarceration.
Matt had been a member of the organization for much of his 24 years as a special agent with the ATF and knew many of the officers. Despite having covered law enforcement issues as one of my jobs as a local and national newspaper reporter for more than 20 years, I was a novice to the group.
Starbucks’ “Coffee with a Cop” meetings had spread to other cities, Schultz explained, and he announced plans to host 100 more events that year. He would hold the first events in five cities in partnership with NOBLE and two other police organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“We are pleased to host meetings in our stores . . . where police and the community can meet and share experiences to foster greater understanding and empathy,” he said.
And then came the embarrassing arrest just days ago of two black men in Philadelphia, hauled off by police in handcuffs for doing nothing more than sitting and waiting to meet someone in Starbucks, the place where millions of Americans sit every day and wait for other people. The company immediately recognized the “reprehensible” mistake its employee had made by calling the police. It refused to press charges, issued an apology, met with the men who were arrested and promised company-wide bias training.
Not the Philadelphia police. Instead, they did what we found police departments do incident after incident. They hunker down and back their officers at all costs. We saw it following police incidents in Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and New York. “Don’t back down,” seemingly is their mantra. Find policy that will justify your officers’ actions.
And that is exactly what Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross did. In a Facebook video, Ross said his officers “had legal standing to make an arrest. In short, these officers did absolutely nothing wrong. They followed policy. They did what they are supposed to do.”
He never asked whether just because his officers could do something, should they do it? Was there a better way? Was it good police policy for six officers to arrest two men for doing what virtually everybody in the same space was doing? Do you really want a policy that will enforce discriminatory policies or actions without exception as they did in the Jim Crow South?
As we interviewed hundreds of police, government officials and victims of police abuse across the nation, we found that police actions are driven daily by the stereotypes and biases too many Americans hold of black people, black men in particular. Their mere presence incites anxiety and fear in many. Consequently, for people of color, the Starbucks incident is just part of the continuous nightmare of racial profiling by America that often ends with tragic results.
The same day the two black men were being arrested in Philadelphia, a 14-year-old black teenager was shot at and nearly killed by white residents in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Brennan Walker overslept and missed his bus and then got lost while he walked to school. So, he knocked on a family’s door that morning to ask for directions to his high school.
The wife saw a black face and accused him of trying to break him into the family’s house. The incident was caught on the family’s doorbell video. She yelled, and her husband came running, picked up with his shotgun and fired, but missed. Walker ran and hid in some bushes. And then he cried.
Just 34 minutes away in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, Theodore Wafer five years earlier shot an unarmed, 19-year-old in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun and killed her. Renisha McBride had knocked on his front door in the early morning hours to ask for help after wrecking her car nearby. He was sentenced to 17 years. Meanwhile, the list of unarmed black men killed by police continues to climb; the most recent is Stephon Clark, 22, shot by police eight times in the back, according to the family coroner, in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California.
These incidents continue to happen, we found, because America usually condones or excuses them. The most common excuse for police is “I feared for my life,” and there is the ongoing supposition by many that there was something the black person did to cause whatever happened to him or her. Even when African Americans tell our white friends who know us well, who respect us, who we work with or supervise, we can see that look in their faces that says, “No, police don’t do that. The person did something wrong to cause the officer to react that way.”
Melissa DePino, whose online video post of the arrests in Philadelphia has been viewed seven million times, got her lesson on the breadth of America’s bias as much from the incident she recorded as from the reactions to her post. Now, she knows what most people of color know.
“Ever since I posted this, I’ve had white strangers AND friends say, ‘there must be something more to this story,’” she wrote in a tweet. “That assumption is a big part of the problem. It does happen. All the time. Just not to you and me. Believe it . . .”
Matthew Horace and Ron Harris are the co-authors of the upcoming book, The Black and The Blue: A Cop Reveals Crimes, Racism and Injustice Inside Law Enforcement, which will be available in August. Ron Harris is a journalist and adjunct professor at Howard University. Matthew Horace is CNN contributor, a former policeman and a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.