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One Bad Cup of Coffee

The forced relationship between local policing and customer service.

By Keira Abernathy

The weeks since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have seen a national reckoning with the police. Thousands of people have taken to the streets and put their health and safety on the line to demand that we defund, disarm, and disband the police state. Police abolition has become a household topic. With their jobs on the line, police officers around the nation are trying to prove their necessity and relevance to an increasingly skeptical public. 

As one tactic to try and prove the dangers of their job, police departments and their unions are sharing photos of questionable injuries supposedly sustained during protests, ignoring the severe consequences of their “less lethal” counterinsurgency tactics. Others are trying to prove that this danger goes beyond the streets into an all-out war on cops, particularly low wage food service workers tampering with their foods. Most recently a teary officer shared her fear of getting an egg McMuffin from McDonalds that was prepared out of her sight, while New York City cops alleged Shake Shack poisoned their milkshakes, and a California officer claimed a Starbucks barista placed a tampon in his Frappuccino. Such instances are clearly intended to prove that anti-cop bias is real and makes the jobs of police officers dangerous and necessary. Of course, it is easy to debunk both these food tampering claims and the supposed workplace dangers of policing, which studies have shown is remarkably less dangerous than dozens of professions. But to police, it seems that, contrary to what Captain Robert Powers claims, one bad hamburger would in fact spoil the bunch.

With this in mind, I set out to find out whether food service workers in Northampton have had negative encounters with police on the job, given the recent outpouring of stories of harmful police interactions at City Council meetings this summer. Interestingly, very few of the workers I spoke to had served cops in uniform at their jobs. This is perhaps best explained by the fact that Northampton police officers are not required to live in town, but within 15 miles of the nearest border of the town, suggesting perhaps they grab their morning coffee somewhere besides the town in which they work. Those who served cops the most tended to be on King/Pleasant Street rather than Main, suggesting perhaps stopping in for coffee on the way on or off I-91. And when cops were customers, they weren’t very good ones. Cops were poor tippers, often asked for a police discount, and were quick to call management over the slightest issue. One King Street Shelburne Falls barista, who asked to be identified as Olivia, reported that she served an officer who had blocked the parking lot exit with his cruiser. After completing his transaction, Olivia asked him not to park there in the future. The officer then called management to complain, and Olivia was asked to not finish the two weeks of work for which she had recently given notice. 

Instead, most workers encountered police on the job when they were called on a customer. In most of these instances a manager or fellow customer called the cops on a houseless person, who was often doing something non-disruptive like sitting, sleeping outside, or having a cup of coffee. This puts houseless people at risk of violence or arrest, and in the winters can mean putting them back outside in the snow, or leaving them to go hungry. One barista recalled the cops being called on a houseless person before their sandwich was done cooking. When the cops are called on a customer, typically a “trespass” is issued, meaning that the person can no longer enter the restaurant without facing further police violence, leaving them with fewer options in a town with both extreme heat, extreme cold and no wet shelter. This was perhaps most extreme at Haymarket, which, because of its common account system has a large food insecure or houseless clientele. According to a former barista, cops would at one point patrol through the cafe every day and never stop to buy anything. 

Many food service workers expressed discomfort at the police being called to their work. Some had negative encounters with the police in their personal lives and felt that it was retraumatizing to have the police respond at their work. Others would try to de-escalate situations as much as possible on their own instead of calling the police, but this was work that they were neither compensated for nor trained in. Others expressed frustration at being so overworked, understaffed, and underpaid that they could not do this de-escalation work themselves and had to resort to calling the police. Of course, calling the police could create more work as customers were sometimes left agitated and upset after having armed officers approach and, in some cases, harass them, requiring de-escalation. Calling the police also provided no longer term solutions than trespass warnings. Police do not provide the houseless with food, shelter, or medical care. Nor, in the rare event of serious harassment towards a worker or fellow customer, do police address the underlying cause of the harassment or provide support to the victim beyond barring the harasser from the restaurant. Counseling, de-escalation, and even mediation are all services that could better serve the needs of everyone involved in these situations.

Workers said that most of the impetus to call the cops came from management. Whether official or unofficial policy, a call to management about a customer almost always meant being told to call the cops or management doing it for you. Alternatives to this would have to be undertaken unpaid from workers on their own time, and with most food service in Northampton being nonunionized, workers have very little recourse to make these policy changes heard. It is clear that management interests are in catering its ideal client which is often a rich tourist or student who wants to see “paradise city,” not the houseless. Thus calling the cops is a way for business owners to protect their income, despite exposing their workers to risks. 

This collaboration between business owners and police goes deeper than the occasional call. Some businesses, including the recently closed La Fiorentina, provided a discount to police officers. Others like the Chik-Fil-A in Chicopee and Bruno’s Pizza in Amherst, display their support for police in other ways, like hosting pro-policing events or displaying police charity posters. Northampton Brewery is owned by the wife of a former cop, and cops frequent the business. Business owners have expressed their disdain for the houseless, and implicit support for the police in a number of other ways. The owner of the recently closed Convino Wine Bar blamed her business closure on the houseless in Northampton in a newspaper article. A number of local business owners spearheaded the campaign for surveillance cameras downtown, and others have spoken against proposed cuts to the police budget this summer. 

After the recent 10% cut, Northampton currently has 60 full time police officers, for a city of 25,000 with almost no major crime. Supporters of the police claim that Northampton is a liberal, progressive town and that these values extend to the police. But the experiences of our food service workers tell a different story. Northampton’s police seem to spend very little time or money in our downtown, despite being some of our town’s highest paid employees. Instead, they seem to serve the interests of the business owning class to target and harass the houseless population. This actively harms our community, by traumatizing houseless people and workers and spending substantial sums of money that could go towards building healing and restorative community institutions. When the police pepper spray teenagers and bring out multiple police dogs to a peaceful march it is clear the hostility they have towards the people. But this happens every day on a much more mundane level, as the cops collaborate with bosses at the expense of the workers.

In the week preceding the police budget cut, a number of Northampton businesses signed on to a letter in support of defunding the police. Such public support from business owners is exciting, given the influence they have over city leaders. But this must also be paired with a commitment to no longer working with the police. When cops are allowed to come into a space and harass the houseless and workers, it is clear that they create harm in the community rather than stop it. As workers are forced to return to work, many are agitating against unsafe conditions, and demanding more PPE, closing in-person dining, and ending ties with the police. Such advocacy reminds us, that it is the people, not the bosses nor the police, who keep our communities safe.

Keira Abernathy is a history student and activist who lives in Northampton.

A manager at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters contacted The Shoestring to dispute the manner in which the worker interviewed for this article departed the company

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