US police chief apologises after Starbucks arrests uproar

Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, sit on their attorney's sofa as they pose for a portrait following an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma, AP)
Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, sit on their attorney's sofa as they pose for a portrait following an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma, AP)

Philadelphia's police chief publicly apologised on Thursday after the arrest of two black men in a Starbucks store triggered uproar in the United States, admitting he "failed miserably" with his initial response.

After the coffee chain moved to repair the damage to its image in the wake of a series of protests at Starbucks outlets, the city's police commissioner Richard Ross told reporters his force also needed to do better.

"It starts at the top and that starts with me," Ross, who is himself African-American, told a press conference in the East Coast city.

"Messaging is important and I failed miserably in this regard. It is obvious the issue of race is indicative of a larger problem in our society and I should not at all be the person that is a party to making anything worse relative to race relations."

Ross was widely criticised after he initially said his "officers did absolutely nothing wrong" during the arrests which followed a 911 call from a Starbucks worker who said the men were trespassing, after refusing to buy anything.

Police said officers had "politely" asked Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson to leave before finally arresting them. They reportedly asked first to use the bathroom, but were told it was only for paying customers.

A video, which went viral after being posted on social media by a customer, showed several uniformed police officers questioning and then handcuffing the pair despite offering no resistance.

Ross said he himself had "to do better" and that his force now had new policy guidelines over how to deal with a similar situation in the future.

"Previously we did not have such a policy... but we have a policy now," he said.

"I'm not going into it at this point in time but we will be pushing that out at a later date."

Speaking for the first time about the arrest, Nelson told the ABC network on Thursday that he and Robinson had never been given a chance to explain themselves when the police arrived in the downtown store last Thursday.

"As soon as the officers approached us, they said we have to leave. There was no question of 'was there a problem here between you and the manager (or) what happened?'"

The two men's lawyer Lauren Wimmer has told a CBS affiliate in Philadelphia that they had been waiting for a third man to arrive for a business meeting.

The chain's CEO Kevin Johnson has already apologised and has ordered that all Starbucks stores and corporate offices across the United States close for an afternoon next month to conduct "racial-bias education".

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