- Senior New York City police officers and union bosses created and quickly propagated a story falsely accusing employees at a lower Manhattan Shake Shack location of intentionally poisoning three officers.
- One union head said the nonexistent incident was proof that the police were “under attack.”
- Right-wing commentators, as well as mainstream outlets, credulously ran with the story. As is often the case, the sensational and false headline will outlive the correction.
- Police officers are fallible and want to protect their own interests, just like the rest of us. That’s why the news media and the courts should treat their word with healthy scepticism, just like the rest of us.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A narrative falsely accusing Shake Shack employees of poisoning New York City police officers with bleach was apparently an act of fast-moving misinformation perpetrated by senior officers and union representatives.
The fact that these lies came from law enforcement – and contributed to a dangerous false narrative that spread widely – should give us pause about just how much credence the word of “authorities” should automatically be given. That applies to the courtroom and the news media.
The ‘poisoned’ cops weren’t poisoned and didn’t even get sick
According to the New York Post – an unapologetically conservative tabloid not known for taking adversarial positions against the police – the slanderous tale was concocted after three NYPD officers tasted something funny in their milkshakes, threw them out, received an apology from the restaurant’s manager, and accepted complimentary vouchers for free food and drink.
Not much drama there, right?
But when the three officers told their supervising sergeant about the bad milkshakes a few hours later, an Emergency Service Unit was deployed to set up a crime scene, and the three cops were sent to Bellevue Hospital. They were released having never shown any symptoms, according to the Post.
The restaurant was quickly cleared of wrongdoing by detectives after employees were interviewed and surveillance footage was viewed. The worst thing you can say about the Shake Shack employees is that the acidic solution (not bleach) that they used to clean the milkshake machine should have been rinsed more thoroughly.
But before allowing their own NYPD colleagues a few hours to conduct a proper investigation, a lieutenant in the Bronx reportedly emailed several NYPD unions alleging that six cops “started throwing up” after drinking Shake Shack milkshakes.
The police unions jumped into action, propagating lies that contributed to an all-too-easy-to-believe narrative for people who believe cops are under siege.
The fake story went like this: The cops were on a protest detail in lower Manhattan and went to a Shake Shack where “a toxic substance, believed to be bleach, had been placed in their beverages,” as the Police Benevolent Association’s president, Pat Lynch, put it in a statement on Twitter – since deleted, but archived here.
Lynch added that the three officers (who never developed symptoms) were “at the hospital receiving treatment and are expected to recover.”
In another since-deleted tweet, the Detectives’ Endowment Association’s president, Paul DiGiacomo, wrote that the officers had been “intentionally poisoned by one or more workers” and that “after tasting the milkshakes they purchased they became ill.” DiGiacomo added that this was evidence the police were “under attack.”
In fact, the story was bunk from the start. The officers ordered their drinks ahead of time with a mobile app, and they were packaged and waiting for pickup when they arrived. Shake Shack employees would have had no way to know they were serving cops.
It wasn’t just right-wingers who bought the story hook, line, and sinker. Nonideological mainstream TV outlets all ran with the story, relying on the strength of the words “police said.”
As is often the case, the sensational and false headline will outlive the correction.
The police shouldn’t be considered more reliably truthful than anyone else
“According to authorities” is a ubiquitous phrase in news reporting. Oftentimes, they’re the only source cited. And most of the time, they’re probably reliable sources.
But the police are both people and institutions. They’re fallible, they have ulterior motives, and they want to protect their own interests.
That’s why in addition to the many necessary reforms to law enforcement that should be undertaken, we – the public, the media, and the justice system – should also rethink just how much we should take police sources at their word.
The media should treat statements from the police like those from any other fallible government organisation. News outlets shouldn’t just automatically print official or background statements by law enforcement without a healthy dose of scepticism or additional sources. And the criminal-justice system shouldn’t take police statements as de facto truth.
In her book “Misdemeanorland,” the Yale law professor Issa Kohler-Hausmann writes of an “assembly line” criminal-justice process in the US that often relies on an officer’s word in court and a “presumption of guilt” on behalf of the accused. Essentially, if you don’t have rock-solid witnesses or video, it’s a defendant’s word versus the cop’s, and the person not in uniform will almost always lose.
Just like any other people and institutions, the police have their own interests. That’s fine. But for obvious reasons, those interests include not having their arrests undermined in court. That alone is a good enough reason for scepticism, and not treating officer testimony as an act of faith.
Because the police will never be a monolith, an individual officer’s reputation – not just the badge and the uniform – should be what affords merit to their words.
In the case of the Shake Shack poisoning hoax, a supervising officer, an even more senior officer, and at least two union heads escalated a minor incident that carried no malicious intent and spread an incendiary lie that will never be corrected in the minds of those who want to believe it.
If it’s now harder to reflexively take law-enforcement officers’ testimony at their word, it’s dishonest cops like the ones who pushed the idea that cops’ milkshakes are “under attack” who deserve the ire and scorn of honest police officers.