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Starbucks viral arrest: Philly’s top cop gives model response

Since viral controversies can burst on the scene faster than fire, a constant readiness to respond is a modern essential in public service

Every law enforcement officer knows that things can go from routine to wild with little notice. That’s not only true on the streets, but it’s also true in the chief’s office. Of all the things that would show up on the Philadelphia police blotter, who would have expected that a video of a minor disturbance call at a coffee shop would spark protests in the street after millions of views and comments on social media?

In case you missed it, a 911 call from a Starbucks reported a trespassing complaint. Two men were at the coffee shop, hadn’t ordered anything, and were refused the access code to the bathroom door. Officers from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) arrived, were not successful in resolving the dispute, and arrested the two men. The men asking to use the bathroom were black, the arrest was videoed by a bystander, and the narrative of racism exploded online.

To the surprise of many in the law enforcement community, Philly’s top cop, Commissioner Richard Ross, rose quickly to speak about the incident, plainly stating that the officers did nothing wrong. Ross, who is black, is a Philadelphia native and 28-year veteran with PPD. Testifying recently on the connection between social media posts and murders, Ross seems to be extraordinarily aware of the power of the new media. Here are six things Ross did right:

1. The right person

When a statement comes from the chief there is no filtering, no hiding behind a public relations screen and no question about what the administration really thinks. Ross didn’t wait to build credibility on this message as subordinates struggled to construct a statement that tried to please everyone and avoid more controversy. We heard it straight from the top.

2. The right message

The best number of talking points is one. The best sound bite is short, succinct and quotable. Ross’ statement will be remembered as just that. The officers did nothing wrong. There was not much room for misinterpretation. Anticipating the ubiquitous body camera questions, Ross addressed the absence of police video quickly and effectively.

3. The right medium

Taking to Facebook Live, Ross avoided depending on traditional media to get his message out. There were no shouted questions, no reporters lobbing accusatory questions, no need to select which media outlets to connect. It was Ross’ own show to run without interference, knowing that the target audience would be watching and listening.

4. The right timing

This story, on the cusp of a weekend, could easily have hung in a malaise of a long weekend of silence from the police department. The Commissioner took enough time to assess the simple facts of the event, then went live with a response in a timely manner. There was no festering speculation, no accusations of awkward silence. This allowed the police department to be a part of a narrative they helped to construct, rather than being a late addendum to the reporting. As we learned from Ferguson, waiting is a sure way to lose the message that the public needs and deserves to know.

5. The right focus

It would be easy to slip into a defense, explanation, or criticism of Starbucks management for decisions that led to the initial 911 call. As Ross quickly supported his officers, there was no need to get entangled with issues related to Starbucks. In fact, most of the criticsm was naturally drawn to Starbucks, since the question of police discretion quickly became secondary as the officers’ actions were examined in the light of the Commissioner’s affirmation of their professionalism.

6. The right preparation

While the patrol officer is practicing his quick-draw in front of a mirror at home, police administrators and public information officers must practice agility in their specialty of serving the public with good information. Philadelphia has made efforts under Commissioner Ross to improve community relations, to reduce racial bias in decision-making, and to keep social media interactions active and positive. Since viral controversies can burst on the scene faster than fire, a constant readiness to respond is a modern essential in public service. Being quick on the Twitter finger with the right message at the right time from the right person can save the day.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.