The Waffle House restaurant chain has become the target of a boycott campaign in recent weeks, following several incidents in which employees called the police on black customers.
Now, the chain is embroiled in a new controversy, after a video showing police handcuffing a black couple who had disputed the cost of a drink went viral.
In the early hours of May 2, the couple, identified as Donald Copeland and Ms. Hart in a police report, placed a to-go order at a Waffle House in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Before getting their food, they noticed that they were being charged more for one of the items than the price listed on the menu.
The couple asked an employee about the charges, said that they would not pay the additional amount, and attempted to call the chain’s corporate headquarters.
The employee responded by calling the police, later telling the officers they wanted to press charges if the couple did not pay. After a lengthy interaction with officers, the two were placed in handcuffs.
“We haven’t been served at all. We haven’t been served so how is it theft? We asked her to explain the bill to us; she gave us no food or nothing and called you guys,” Hart says in the video.
The incident comes amid an ongoing conversation about racial profiling and the mistreatment of black people in public places like restaurants and retail stores. And Waffle House restaurants have been the scene of such encounters on more than one occasion.
The dispute started over a $2.50 charge for orange juice
Body camera footage of the incident shows police interacting with Copeland and Hart. The video begins when police arrive at the Waffle House, and one officer calls for Copeland to come outside.
When Copeland looks at the officer, saying something about police “putting hands on me,” the officer quickly responds.
“Oh, I’m going to put my hands on you?!” the officer says. “Get out of here. You want to trespass?”
As officers continue to insist that Copeland come outside, the man begins recording with his cell phone. He then passes the phone to Hart as he walks out of the restaurant. For several minutes after, Copeland and Heart argue with the officers.
Officers tell Copeland and Hart that they will go to jail unless they pay their bill, at one point asking an employee if they want to press charges. Copeland can be seen attempting to tell officers that he has not actually been given the food they want him to pay for.
The police had their Tasers drawn during parts of the exchange.
Hart and Copeland are eventually placed in handcuffs.
“The problem is you guys want to run your mouth,” one officer says later in the video. “Right when I walk in the door, he wants to start talking about ‘you guys ain’t gonna put your hands on me.’ Okay, I’m trying to talk to him like a man to see what’s going on, but he wants to start saying stuff like that. And then you want to pull your phone, which that’s fine, you’ve got the right to record ... but what you did, the crime that you and your boyfriend or your husband committed is you didn’t pay your bill.”
They were later released from custody without charges after they agreed to pay and never return to the Waffle House where the incident occurred.
According to reports, they were later given a full refund.
Video of the incident went viral after the woman posted cellphone footage of the incident and spread further after activist and Intercept columnist Shaun King posted a clip of the couple’s police encounter on Twitter.
Here is the body camera footage of this outrageous wrongful arrest of a Black couple @WaffleHouse. They were arrested for theft & trespassing. They never even received the food. They were overcharged a $1.50 for an orange juice and asked to call customer service. pic.twitter.com/c7a74NhKoH— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) June 13, 2018
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, the local police department defended itself, saying that officers had “followed proper protocol.”
“We met with other interested parties in regard to this matter, and all parties involved determined that while there was no misconduct of the officers, that the situation could have been handled differently by both parties involved,” the post said.
Calls to boycott Waffle House are increasing
In April, a widely shared video showed a black woman, Chikesia Clemons, being violently arrested by police, while inside a Waffle House restaurant in Saraland, Alabama.
Clemons was thrown to the ground and had her top pulled down by police after employees called 911, claiming that the woman had made threats while disputing a charge. At one point of the video, an officer can be heard telling Clemons “I’m about to break your arm.”
One month later, video showed a 22-year old named Anthony Wall being choked by a police officer following a verbal dispute outside a North Carolina Waffle House. Wall said that employees called police because Wall, who had taken his sister to prom that evening before going with her to the restaurant, sat at a table that hadn’t been cleaned by waitstaff.
After Clemons’s arrest, the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter called for people to stage a nationwide sit in of the restaurant chain in early May. Public figures like Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., and actor Mike Colter, have also encouraged people to stop eating at the restaurant.
Waffle House has repeatedly defended itself from criticism, saying that in many of these cases, employees were right to call police.
“We understand the concern over these incidents, and welcome continued communication with the community, its leaders and the customers involved,” the chain said in a statement. “With respect to the Saraland, Ala., and Warsaw, N.C., incidents, we concluded that our employees acted appropriately by calling the police in light of safety concerns for our customers and themselves. In the Fort Walton Beach, Fla., incident, our review of the matter is continuing ... we hope that people will consider all the facts before making up their minds.”
In a statement to CBS News, the company said it would “be doing additional training for the team members of this restaurant on the proper way to handle situations like this.”
Their response stands in stark contrast to the reaction of other companies, like Starbucks. After two black men in a Philadelphia store were arrested in April, Starbucks announced a companywide racial bias training for some 175,000 employees.
The coffee company also recruited several civil rights experts for the training, made the training materials available to other companies, and announced a number of in-store policy changes.