Claims that fast-food workers poisoned officers intentionally proved to be unfounded, but the ensuing uproar underscored a tense new dynamic.
Around 8:30pm Monday (local time), officials said, three New York City police officers stopped for milkshakes at a Shake Shack restaurant in Lower Manhattan.
The drinks had a bitter taste, and the officers began to feel sick. They were soon on their way to a hospital to be treated for possible poisoning, with reports quickly spreading that Shake Shack workers might have specifically targeted them because they were officers.
In the end, the incident did not appear to be nefarious, and the taste may have been tied to the faulty cleaning of a milkshake machine. Still, the brief but furious uproar it touched off highlighted how tense officers and their unions are feeling as they move about a city that has been roiled by protests over police brutality.
Weeks of protests inspired by the killing of George Floyd have increased scrutiny of the criminal justice system and systemic racism across the United States, including in New York City, with activists calling to "defund the police."
The fallout in New York has been swift and substantial. The City Council proposed cutting the police budget by $1 billion. State officials enacted a set of reforms that included opening up police disciplinary records that had long been kept secret. The police commissioner said he was disbanding a plainclothes unit that had been involved in some notorious shootings.
The Police Department itself has already disciplined several officers for misconduct during the protests, which, while overwhelmingly peaceful, erupted at times into altercations between police clad in riot gear and demonstrators hurling projectiles.
It was against this backdrop that the milkshake incident exploded.
The officers, who are assigned to a Bronx precinct but were in Manhattan for a protest-related detail, ordered the milkshakes using a phone app, said a law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.
When the officers arrived to pick up their order at the Shake Shack in the Fulton Center transit hub, the shakes — one cherry, one strawberry, on vanilla — were waiting on a counter, the official said.
The officers immediately noticed that the shakes "smelled a little bitter, tasted a little funny" and reported it to their superior, the official said. When they began to feel ill, they were taken to a nearby hospital.
At around 10:45pm, the Detectives' Endowment Association raised the spectre of a targeted attack.
"Tonight, three of our fellow officers were intentionally poisoned by one or more workers at the Shake Shack," the union wrote in message on Twitter. "Fortunately, they were not seriously harmed."
The Police Benevolent Association followed a short time later with a similar message, writing that the officers' drinks had been intentionally spiked with "a toxic substance, believed to be bleach or a similar cleaning agent."
The messages were shared widely online, and numerous media outlets reported on the possibility that New York officers had been poisoned on purpose.
But video surveillance footage from the restaurant did not show employees tampering with the drinks, and investigators determined that a liquid used to clean the shake machine had inadvertently gotten into the beverages somehow, the law enforcement official said. No other customers at the restaurant on Monday reported getting sick, officials said.
At 4am Tuesday, Rodney Harrison, the department's chief of detectives, wrote on Twitter that a "thorough investigation" had found "no criminality" by Shake Shack workers.
In a statement early Tuesday, Shake Shack expressed relief that the officers had not been seriously injured, and the company said it was still investigating what had occurred.
In a later statement, the company said it had "found no evidence in our own internal investigation, nor have we heard from authorities, that there was any contaminant in the shakes."
Donovan Richards, a Democrat who chairs the City Council's Public Safety Committee, warned the city's police unions against speculating about possible crimes based on partial information.
"They didn't even get all the facts before they reached a conclusion," Richards said.
Representatives with the detectives and patrolmen unions did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
But in messages posted online, both unions acknowledged that the episode did not appear to be sinister while nonetheless using it to urge officers to stay on their guard.
Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, wrote that "based on the current evidence" no one had tried to harm the officers. Still, he added: "We urge you to remain vigilant at all times, both on and off duty."
The detectives' union thanked investigators "who responded efficiently to this potentially disastrous situation" and commended "Shake Shack for their full and timely cooperation in the investigation."
The union added: "The fact remains, please stay vigilant, stay safe and always be aware of your surroundings."
Written by: Edgar Sandoval
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES