A late-night run to IHOP left 10 black Washington University students “scared and humiliated” after local police mistook them for dine-and-dash suspects and followed them in cop cars as they walked back to the restaurant.
The students, incoming freshmen from across the country, showed they had receipts for their meals, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The IHOP had identified the suspects as four black men in their late teens, early 20s.
Police in Clayton, Missouri, have apologized for what has angered school officials, parents and other black students on campus.
“The fact that these 10 students, all of whom are African-American, were scared and humiliated is unacceptable to us,” the university said in a statement.
The school’s provost, Holden Thorp, also shared his reaction in a tweet on Monday.
“I’m embarrassed to be a resident of Clayton,” Thorp tweeted. “Thanks to all our folks who are providing support to these great students, many of whom I’ve thankfully already had the pleasure to teach.”
According to KMOV in St. Louis, the university’s Association of Black Students demanded an apology from the police, too.
“The officers involved in this incident, a false accusation against ten Black Washington University students claiming that they left a restaurant without paying, engaged in the most dangerous form of racial profiling by relying solely on the race of the incoming students when stopping them,” the group wrote in a statement.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Kevin R. Murphy, Clayton’s chief of police, did not dispute what the students say happened on the night of July 7.
“We are so sorry this was the start for these newest Washington University in St. Louis Bears,” the police department said in a statement shared by local media.
“For more than one hundred years we have welcomed university students from around the world to be a part of our community. While it is our duty to respond when businesses call for help, we aim to do this in a way that is as respectful and safe for all concerned as we can be.
“Chief Murphy has reached out to the university within hours of hearing about this to try to meet with these students to both hear what they have to say, but also to assure them (and their families who may be distant) that Clayton and Washington University have a long and proud tradition of safety and support for all students.”
According to St. Louis public radio, the students were part of the school’s Arts & Sciences First-Year Summer Academic Program designed to help incoming students acclimate to college life. The Post-Dispatch described them as science, technology, engineering and math - STEM - students.
“The community in which they would learn, live, socialize and engage was a very important factor in deciding which school they would attend,” Jill Friedman, the school’s vice chancellor of public affairs, said in a statement.
“We won their confidence, and they chose to join our student body because they believed they would have an exceptional experience at Washington University and here in St. Louis.”
Details of the incident, according to local media including the Post-Dispatch, were described in an email from Rob Wild, an associate vice chancellor who works with new students.
“Needless to say, the students were shaken and upset,” Wild wrote in his email last week to other university administrators. “This is obviously extremely disappointing. Not how any of us would like to welcome our new students.”
The email said the students were walking from the IHOP on Clayton Road to the Galleria Metrolink Station about 12:30 a.m. when two Clayton police officers pulled up in separate vehicles.
“They were told they were suspects in a crime that just occurred at IHOP where a group of customers left without paying their bill,” Wild wrote, according to the St. Louis newspaper.
“Several of the students produced receipts to show that they had paid. However, our students were still forcefully told that they were suspects and had to walk the three blocks back along Brentwood Boulevard, with now six police cars in tow to make sure they complied — a humiliating experience.
“When they arrived at the restaurant, the manager quickly confirmed they were not suspects. The officers dismissed them without any apology.”
Wild wrote that it’s “confusing why they were forced to walk back and detained for such a long time.”
The police say two of the students, who did not have receipts, volunteered to return to the IHOP to prove they had paid for their food.
In the police version of the incident, posted on the city’s website, someone at the IHOP called to report a dine and dash by four black males. The caller said they left without paying a bill of about $60. The caller described what they were wearing and said they headed toward a MetroLink station - not the one the students walked to.
“After searching the area, an officer in a neighboring jurisdiction notified dispatchers that a group of individuals potentially matching the description of the suspects had been located near Galleria Parkway,” the police’s statement says.
“A Clayton officer contacted the individuals and observed that there were several individuals meeting the description, including African American males in white shirts, black pants, and one individual wearing red. Members of the group were carrying bags and upon closer inspection, the officer identified that the bags were labeled from IHOP.
“To confirm, the officer asked if they had just dined at IHOP and the group confirmed that they just left the restaurant. The officer explained that a call was made to report a theft.
“Three receipts from the group of ten individuals were presented. Two of the individuals, one wearing white and one wearing red, stated they paid cash for their meals and presented no receipts. Two individuals offered to walk back to the restaurant to confirm their payment with the restaurant.
“Upon returning to IHOP, the manager confirmed they were not the suspects and the officer expressed appreciation for their time.”
The police statement says the parents of a student filed a complaint on July 10, which triggered an investigation. The next day, university officials contacted the city to schedule a meeting and to voice their concerns too, the city’s website says.
On July 12, after a meeting between university and city leaders, police say they asked for the names of the students and their parents so they could talk to them about their concerns.
“The university asked us not to speak to the kids because they were working on a final exam,” Murphy told the public radio station. “They asked if we could wait to until they come back for the beginning of fall session next month.
One of the students involved was Denise Washington’s son. The St. Louis woman, who got her MBA from Washington University, told the Post-Dispatch that she filed a complaint with the police department so that “something this crazy doesn’t happen again.”
She told the newspaper that, like many black parents, she has talked to her 17-year-old son about always being prepared in case of an encounter with the police - including always having receipts for purchases.
An IHOP spokesman told KMOV that “discrimination of any kind is not tolerated” by the restaurant chain.