How police can avoid the Starbucks circus

The best defense to questions about your department’s integrity is ongoing commitment to the issues about which you are most likely going to be criticized


This article originally appeared in the June 2018 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Crisis Comms | Feed the News Cycle | LEO Near Miss, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

Remember the circus high-wire act where a daredevil rode a unicycle high above the ring as the spotlight glared and everyone’s head turned to see whether the rider was going forward, backward, or down? Welcome to the Starbucks public relations department.

After a viral video showed Philadelphia police arresting two men based on a Starbucks’ manager’s complaint, the narrative spun toward accusations of racism. Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner first stated via a Facebook live video that his officers did nothing wrong, then held a subsequent press conference and apologized to the men arrested. Fortunately for Philadelphia PD, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz kept the spotlight on the store and drew the media into the story.

What can police leaders learn from the coffee giant’s response to accusations of racism? (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)
What can police leaders learn from the coffee giant’s response to accusations of racism? (Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Many police departments, including my own as chief, have or will face a controversy over race, use of force or tactics, or all three. When my officers engaged in a routine investigation of a disturbance, the suspects’ resistance was witnessed (out of context, of course) by members of the public who rallied to the defense of the offenders. I immediately consulted with my civilian leaders asking if I should invite a diversity consultant to meet with my officers to mollify our vocal critics. The advice was not to act too hastily. It was good advice.

Starbucks’ response included shutting down all the company’s stores for an afternoon of employee racial-bias education. Let’s look at some of the ups and downs of the coffee giant’s response for lessons applicable to the scrutiny our departments receive from the media.

Take responsibility

Starbucks took both the blame and the responsibility. If somebody deserves an apology, I’m all for it. But taking responsibility doesn’t always mean accepting blame. My officers were completely correct in how they handled their call. We had regular anti-bias training (required in Colorado) and our statistics showed no evidence of disparate treatment by race.

Pay the price

Some estimates are that the Starbucks half-day training resulted in $12 million in lost revenue. In addition, the social media response and negative comments from employees may have resulted in a zero net benefit to the company, at least in the short term. If your agency decides to promise re-training, accept the reality that the public relations value may be neutral or negative. You may also be tacitly admitting you are doing badly in an area where you are in fact being quite proactive, effective and progressive.

Make it public

Starbucks’ training materials are on the company’s website. There were no secrets. The company executives, as well as outside experts, were involved. If you are in a position to say you were wrong, this is a good model to show remorse and correction. If you need to educate your public about why you were right, be transparent about your existing policy, training and activity.

Not my circus

The best defense to questions about your department’s integrity is ongoing commitment to the issues about which you are most likely going to be criticized. If integrity is embedded in policy, practice and training, you might avoid working in the spotlight on the high wire without a net.

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