Can Businesses Refuse to Serve Cops?

Some NYPD officers and supporters are mad at Dunkin' Donuts after a clerk allegedly refused to serve two officers because they were cops. Is that even legal?
Image by Lia Kantrowitz

In a turn of events that has already made for one of the best New York Post stories of all time, NYC police are said to be in an uproar against Dunkin' Donuts, accusing a worker at one of the chain's Brooklyn locations of telling two officers, "I don't serve cops."

The inciting incident took place on July 30, and the Post has dished out story after story about the alleged snub ever since. One dispatch, on Sunday, claimed at least some active-duty NYPD officers are engaged in a full-on boycott of the franchise. That account quoted an officer in New York's 73rd precinct as saying, "No D&D in the 7-3" upon buying coffee at a corner store—instead of the ostensibly mandatory Dunkin' he otherwise would have purchased.


The hilarious Twitter takes for this emerging saga practically write themselves:

Of course, racially charged killings and a new president who seems to actively encourage brutality are dominating the lion's share of America's policing attention these days—and deservedly so. Besides, you know, serious crimes, there are almost certainly better places for cops to direct intense scrutiny than whether or not a shop clerk was mean to a couple of their own.

"This seems like a sideshow in policing issues," as Columbia Law School professor and cop expert Jeffrey Fagan told me in an email.

But the tabloid frenzy raises real questions at a time when tension between police and those they serve remains high, and citizens are taking lots of creative public actions in the name of the Resistance. Is it your right as an American to refuse to serve officers of the law? While it's not usually profitable to turn away business, what if that's the proverbial hill you want to to die on? And what if the cops want revenge?

The Post's Dunkin story should be taken with a grain of salt, first of all

The initial Post report that set off this fiasco had some ambiguities that bear mentioning from the jump. Besides the fact that the cops in that story were in plain clothes, not police uniforms, the manager of that store—who has apologized—insisted to the paper that his clerk never actually said, "I don't serve cops." According to that version of events, the officers simply waited in the wrong place for several minutes, where service never materialized. Dunkin' corporate later offered this same explanation. These key details helped lead debunking site Snopes.com to rate the initial claim that launched this whole thing "unproven."

But as often happens with stories involving the police, the Dunkin/cop beef, however tenuous its bare facts, has taken on a life if its own at this point. An actual New York City police union, specifically its Detectives' Endowment Association, called for a boycott of Dunkin' Donuts. And fans of police have been moved to open their hearts, and wallets, to the slighted NYPD officers. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to call the snub "illegal."


Actually, it's a free country, and you can turn away cops

It's worth stepping back for a second to acknowledge that those dumb signs reading, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone," are, generally speaking, expressions of free speech. In most cases, no one can force a business to serve people they don't want to. That's why companies have historically had the power to enact enforceable prerequisites to entry that dictate you can't, for instance, dress like a douche, or that you can't be a biker. So, yes, you could turn someone away because of their job—if you really wanted to.

"It's not against the law to refuse to serve police officers, or any other kind of occupational category," said David Sklansky, a Stanford University law professor and co-director of Stanford's Criminal Justice Center. "It's like saying, 'Bus drivers are not welcome here,' or, "Trash collectors are not welcome.' It's a dumb and insulting thing to do to any group of workers, but it's not illegal."

Such policies become discriminatory when they're being used to turn away legally protected classes of people. You can't refuse service on the basis of someone's race, color, religion, or nationality, according to Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and on the basis of other factors that vary by state. But unless you're in a place where some weird local law lumps police in with the other protected classes, you could theoretically say to every cop, "Your money is not welcome at my vape shop," if that's what your heart demands.


It's worth noting that as of last year, Louisiana actually does have a state law adding police to their hate crime statute, so specific protections for cops aren't completely unheard of. But Sklansky told me this has nothing to do with whether or not you can kick them out of a store, and is just an expansion of traditional laws already on the books. "There's a long tradition of having higher penalties for offenses committed against law enforcement officers," he pointed out.

"No cops" policies still seem like a lot of trouble

This is an ongoing issue for a gym in Atlanta callee EAV Barbell Club, where police have apparently never been welcome. The owner recently made headlines by putting up a sign that read, among other things, "No fucking cops." Jim Chambers told the local news he had to take the sign down, but only because the attention it was drawing was negatively impacting his customers. As of Tuesday, he said the policy itself was still in place.

He's not the only one. Not long after the 2015 Waco, Texas, biker shootout, a tattoo shop in Oklahoma posted a sign saying, "In light of recent events in Waco, TX and other places, people wearing the insignia/patches of police departments are not welcome on these premises." Local accounts suggest the place then received insults and threats in response to a Facebook post about the policy. The Facebook post ended up getting removed, only to be followed up with one that reads, "Wolves don't concern themselves with the opinions of sheep."


Things escalated more quickly last year at a teriyaki restaurant in Washington. The owner reportedly told a group of police not to come back, and allegedly later added that they should tell their cop friends not to come either—possibly because cops made customers feel uncomfortable. The local sheriff posted about the fracas on Facebook, raising the prospect of serious blowback. This led the owner to go on the local news to blame the whole incident on his bad English. He cried, begged the police to come back, and told them they could eat for free. That restaurant appears to have been roughed up on Facebook, but its Yelp score seems to have recovered.

Perhaps more common than a business owner setting a blanket policy is something like this Dunkin' Donuts incident, when an employee of a chain restaurant tells cops to leave. This is the America we live in. Generally speaking, companies fire low-level employees who do this, so consider yourself warned.

Police can retaliate, you know

Cops are, of course, still supposed to show up at a publicly anti-cop business if a crime takes place there. In such a case, according to Fagan, there are "dozens of ways" vengeful police could theoretically make the owner or employees suffer for an anti-police policy. Those include "slow response time, mis-recording the crime report, or mis-filing," he told me. The police could also ask for extra proof or evidence, or downplay the severity of an alleged offense. And "unless they're ignoring murder or something serious," Fagan added, they would probably get away with it.

So, yeah, as a rule, it's probably not a great idea for you or your business to turn away cops as a matter of practice, even if you don't like them—and even if your chance of suffering legal blowback is small. Meanwhile, Dunkin' Donuts is reportedly considering a name change: just "Dunkin." It remains to be seen what kind of impact, if any, said rebrand might have on the relationship between the chain and New York's finest.

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