Cops food hoax photo illustration
Photo illustration by Alis Atwell, all photos via Getty Images
Entertainment

Cops Love to Falsely Claim People Have Messed With Their Food

Why we’re often the ones getting messed with when police officers make food-tampering claims.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, United States
March 9, 2020, 12:02pm

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“The worst thing you can do is make an officer feel like they have done something wrong when you don’t have any evidence to support it,” Brian Hornaday, chief of the Herington Police Department in Kansas, told VICE. “As the leader of a law enforcement agency, you always want to believe that the person you have hired and has been sworn under oath will be honest all the time.”

It’s July 2019. Phillip Powell, a corrections officer with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in Indiana, is peering angrily at his McChicken, which he placed in the break-room fridge of the Marion County Jail at the beginning of his shift. Seven hours later, the sandwich has been bitten into, and Powell can only conclude one thing: A McDonald’s employee, out to score a cheap win against a cop, took several small bites out of his sandwich. After placing an anonymous call to a local radio station in which he accuses an Indianapolis McDonald’s of food tampering, he remembers he was the one who bit his sandwich, and he is placed on 16 hours of unpaid leave.

It’s now November. A McDonald’s manager in Bakersfield, California, is contacting the Kern County Sheriff’s Office because she believes she saw security footage showing 21-year-old Tatyana Hargrove rub a hamburger bun on the floor, spit in a burger, then serve it to a uniformed Bakersfield Police Department officer. Within two weeks, she and other employees are interrogated, and Hargrove is charged with battery and “attempting to mingle substances with food and drink.” The latter is a felony.

It’s Thanksgiving. Kiefer police chief Johnny O’Mara is furious that four of his officers received drinks from a Glenpool, Oklahoma, Starbucks with the word pig printed on the labels. He posts a photo to his Facebook page, which eventually leads to the firing of the barista and the location’s manager—a consequence O’Mara later claims was unintended.

It’s December. In Queens, New York, a New York Police Department officer in plain clothes is allegedly served a sandwich with a razor blade in it at the Bon Appetit Deli. Police commissioner Dermot Shea will later dismiss this as an accident in a follow-up to the tweet he posted a day before about the “full investigation” of the “abhorrent act” itself.

The same month, in Riverside, California, two uniformed deputies leave a Starbucks because, they believe, its employees are ignoring and laughing at them. Their sheriff will later criticize Starbucks for “[downplaying] what happened” in a Facebook Live interview.

And just before the end of the year, in Herington, Kansas, William Darling shows his police chief the words fucking pig written on a McDonald’s cup, a picture of which Hornaday proceeds to post to Facebook. When it is revealed days later that Darling wrote the insult on the cup himself, he resigns.

According to law enforcement officers, there’s a war being waged against them. The battlefield? Fast food eateries across the U.S. The boys in blue are struggling against service workers in green Starbucks aprons or black and gray McDonald’s polos who are primed to disrespect them, ignore them, write them rude little messages, even poison them. And in order to spread awareness about the minimum-wage menace, police departments have one weapon in their arsenal that they’re happy to deploy: social media.

“There are a lot of contemporary legends that go back at least to the early 19th century that deal with contaminated food,” said Joel Best, a sociology and criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware who has researched urban legends like Halloween candy contamination. “The famous old example of this is Sweeney Todd’s pies… [Modern examples include:] Burger King special sauce has semen in it, McDonald’s sells horsemeat, there’s rats in Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Best said food contamination—especially fast-food contamination—is a fixture of contemporary legends because of the inherent level of trust and vulnerability involved in a fast-food transaction. “You’re going into some place and you’re trusting somebody to give you something that you’re going to put in your body. What do you know about them? You know nothing about them!”

According to law enforcement officers, there’s a war being waged against them. The battlefield? Fast food eateries across the U.S.

Social media, he said, only supercharges our ability to share those stories. “The means of creating news, creating claims, is really in everybody’s hands.”

Darling, the officer who resigned in the wake of the McDonald’s hoax, said he did not intend to create news; instead, he initially intended his anti-cop cup to be an inside joke among friends, but it quickly spun out of control once his superior posted it to Facebook.

“I made a very poor decision towards the beginning of the situation. I allowed it to continue instead of having the courage to speak up and put an end to it,” Darling told VICE. “Of course, I was scared. I knew that because of my choice, my dream of being a police officer could be gone forever, based on one decision.”

Hornaday, who posted the cup, was seeking a response—but he said he was quickly overwhelmed by the volume of attention. “The intent was to generate awareness in hopes that the situation would be recognized by McDonald’s and any involved party would be appropriately disciplined,” Hornaday told VICE via email. “I anticipated an immediate response, which did occur… However, it grew larger and faster than any other social media post I have ever seen. The response was definitely not what was expected or wanted.”

The use of social media to spread these food-contamination stories and the ensuing pro-cop sentiment does feel predictable, even inevitable; after all, surges of anti-cop sentiment and outrage over police brutality spread the same way.

This has been especially true since Darryl Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. As the outrage around Brown’s death served as the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, Blue Lives Matter formed in tandem, a funhouse mirror reflecting the anger and sense of persecution back at the Black community.

Supporters of Blue Lives Matter of course tend to gloss over a fundamental difference: Every single person working in law enforcement in the U.S. chose to enter the field, while literally no one chooses the race they are born into. The coverage these food-tampering stories get only serves to reinforce the idea that law enforcement officers constitute a special class of citizen—one that simultaneously protects the public and is in desperate need of protection from the public—both in the American consciousness and in their own.

“Our court systems in this country rely upon people taking an oath and telling the truth,” Hornaday said. “That is what makes the law enforcement profession so sacred. To treat it like it is any other type of profession is a disservice to the public.” (Perhaps the apparent prevalence of police perjury, or ‘testilying’—when police officers lie on the stand to help convict people—might explain the doubt some people have about that oath.)

Darling, who is currently seeking employment outside the field of law enforcement, echoed Hornaday’s reverence and cited the risk law enforcement officers take as the thing that sets them apart from the general population.

“Law enforcement officers are constantly expected to have ‘thick skin,’” Darling told VICE. “But to say that [negative feedback] doesn’t bother law enforcement would be foolish. For over five years, I put a uniform on every day for the sole purpose of serving something bigger than myself. When derogatory terms and phrases are used towards law enforcement, it is an attack on a profession, much like racist remarks made based on the color of skin.”

These stories, it seems, express a siege mentality and a sense of righteousness more than anything else. They don’t have to be literally true, because to the law enforcement officers who tell them and the people who share them, they feel true.

“There’s this sense that we live in a society where there’s a lot of conflict, that the police are at odds with the public,” Best said. “So, this can become expressed in stories, and some of these can be hoaxes. Some of them may have no basis in anything… They’re just a terrific story. And once it starts getting told, it gets repeated and repeated, because that’s just ‘the way things are.’”

The use of social media to spread these food-contamination stories and the ensuing pro-cop sentiment does feel predictable, even inevitable; after all, surges of anti-cop sentiment and outrage over police brutality spread the same way.

Corporations like McDonald’s and Starbucks are, naturally, quick to capitulate to the narrative. What shrewd business would risk alienating law enforcement officials and the patriots who love them?

“McDonald’s and our independent franchisees take deep pride in serving and supporting the law enforcement teams that protect and serve our communities,” McDonald’s director of security Rob Holm said in a statement to VICE. “Everyone who walks into a Starbucks should feel welcome and have a positive experience. In cases where that doesn’t happen we work to apologize and address it. We have deep appreciation for law enforcement and the officers who keep our stores and communities safe,” read a statement from Starbucks.

According to Bill Marler, a personal injury lawyer who specializes in foodborne illness and poisoning cases, it’s worth noting that deliberate food tampering is extremely uncommon. “We’ve had hundreds of thousands of cases over the last 30 years,” Marler told VICE. “We may have had 20, 25 intentional contamination cases we’ve looked at. It’s super rare.” He also said that while he found the law enforcement officers’ food tampering allegations credible, the intentional contamination he’s seen in civil court tends to be targeted at businesses rather than at an individual.

The Bakersfield, California, case is a rare example of food tampering allegations leading to an arrest and charges. But a complicated history may have contributed to the relative silence about it on social media. After Tatyana Hargrove’s manager reported her to the Bakersfield Police Department (BPD), Hargrove and her coworkers were interrogated until one of them tearfully confessed to allegedly observing her spit in a hamburger, rub its bun on the ground, and at some point quip, “Black Lives Matter, fuck the pigs.” In a police interrogation, Hargrove denied the allegations, admitting only that she dropped the bun by accident and didn’t replace it, but maintained that she didn’t spit on it, didn’t know it was being served to a police officer, and didn’t say “fuck the pigs.” At a December 18 arraignment, Hargrove pleaded not guilty.

Local news outlets quickly picked up on the fact that Hargrove, the accused tamperer, had lost an excessive force lawsuit against BPD in October 2019. The suit stemmed from a 2017 incident in which then 19-year-old Hargrove alleged she was punched in the face and mauled by a police dog while officers pursued a Black, bald, machete-wielding man eight inches taller and 10 years older than she was at the time. It is unknown whether this history played a role in the department’s decision not to take to social media.

It’s notable how much quieter law enforcement agencies were in the aftermath of these incidents, once investigations wrapped up and public interest petered out, than they were when initially drawing the public’s attention to them in outrage. The statements provided to VICE were markedly less verbose than the ones released directly on social media or laundered through sympathetic local sources. Hornaday and Darling were the only law enforcement officials willing to answer questions about any of these incidents at length, and then only over email.

The McChicken-loving corrections officer Powell did not respond to a request for comment, and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office provided VICE with the same statement it previously released to the press, which concluded with: “We recognize that McDonald’s is a valued civic partner, and any insinuation in private or in the media to the contrary is unfounded.”

The Kern County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment, as did the BPD, and the officer who ate the contaminated hamburger did not respond to a request for comment. The Kiefer Police Department declined to comment, and Johnny O’Mara did not respond to a request for comment. The NYPD declined to comment, and the man who picked up the phone at the Bon Appetit Deli said he was “just working” and didn’t “know about that.”

The Riverside Police Department sent VICE a three-sentence statement it had previously released: “We are aware of the ‘cop with no coffee’ incident that occurred in Riverside on 12/12/19, involving our Riverside County Sheriff deputies. We are in communication with Starbucks Corporate addressing the issue of deputies being denied service.”

All these bland statements are a product of how the incentives run. Social media allows cops direct access to the public and a way to weaponize deep wells of public sympathy for them; local news outlets are quick to notice and pass on the bad things happening to their local departments, and national news outlets, eternally hungry for content to aggregate, slurp the shit up and beg for more. It’s all keyed off outrage, and there’s a lot more of that attached to an incendiary story about a cop being degraded than there is to a quiet admission that degradation isn’t quite what happened. Don’t expect any changes—as long as we readers continue to fall for it, anti-cop “violence” is virtually guaranteed to go viral.

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