Officer discrimination or misunderstanding?


Officers’ social media posts spark outrage in the public over incidents at two restaurants

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A few St. Marys police officers complained last week that two local restaurants had refused to serve them because of their jobs, sparking public outcry and threats about boycotting both establishments.

The incidents were conveyed to the public by police officers who posted on their social media accounts about the alleged discrimination.

After speaking to the St. Marys police chief and restaurant personnel this week, it is not clear whether that is exactly what happened. Two employees involved in those complaints are no longer employed at those restaurants, but both establishments deny accusations they would refuse service on that basis. 

The complaints

During an interview this week, St. Marys Police Chief Mike Wilkie, said the most recent complaint involved Sonic Drive-In in St. Marys on Thursday, June 11, and was documented in an incident report. 

Two St. Marys police officers arrived at 9:15 p.m. in a patrol car and waited for service in a parking space. They were picking up food for a fellow officer who had been hit by a car the day before. 

“I was sitting at stall 14 waiting for service. While waiting I observed a female yelling at another vehicle that had pulled into another stall. I am unsure of what was said. A few minutes later I could hear someone asking how they can help in stall 13, but no vehicle was present,” said the reporting officer in his report. “After about 15 minutes, I move my vehicle to stall 13, assuming that our stall was out of service. After a few minutes, a gentlemen came out the door and asked have we been helped.”

Before the officer could answer, the woman came out of the restaurant yelling at the male employee to return and take drive-thru orders. 

“He informed us he will take the drive-thru orders and be right with us. After waiting 10 more minutes, I headed to the drive-thru line,” the report stated. 

After waiting for the two vehicles in front of him to be served, he pulled up to place his order. He had to wait for about five more minutes before someone told him through the speaker that they were closed. 

“I drove to the next window and ask why we could not be served. The same female informed us that they were closed. We explained to her that we had been waiting long enough and that she had seen us at the stalls. I asked her if I was being denied service because I am a police officer,” the report stated. “The manager said, ‘I'll just make it for you,’ and I answered I no longer want her service. I then left the window and I can hear her yelling at another employee.” 

Based on the timeline stated in the report, it would have been close to 10 p.m., which is their advertised closing time on Thursdays. 

Wilkie said the other incident, which happened approximately two weeks ago, occurred at Waffle House on Highway 40, just past the Kings Bay Road intersection. Because that was not in St. Marys’ jurisdiction, no report was filed by the SMPD.  

“That one, as I understand it, involved a black female who said (not serving the officers) was because of COVID-19 (restaurant capacity restrictions),” he said. 

Seeking resolution

“In both cases, I contacted the corporate headquarters,” said Wilkie, because he felt those offices could approach the issue from a more objective manner.

He said Sonic management pulled the surveillance video and questioned the subjects involved. However, Wilkie said, they were unable to substantiate that the individual was refused service because of his status as a police officer. 

Wilkie said a Sonic employee was still fired as a result what was learned through the investigation, but he was told it was due to job performance issues unrelated to the complaint. 

“We were very appreciative with the way Sonic looked into it. They really bent over backward to make things whole,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Wilkie said he had yet to hear back from the Waffle House corporate office. However, one of the officers from the department posted on her social media account that Waffle House had been in contact with the officers and told them the incident was "founded and substantiated.” 

The Tribune & Georgian called Waffle House on Tuesday and spoke to second shift assistant manager Ashley Ivey about the incident. She said it was still under investigation “but it was a complete misunderstanding on what was said.” 

The waitress involved in the incident, she said, is no longer working there, but offered no details about the circumstances. 

Ivey said many first-responders and military have always been some of their best customers at Waffle House and they have a good relationships with the local agencies. Earlier this month, they were hired to cater an event for the K-9 unit. Ivey remembered they once catered a meal — paid for by a Waffle House employee — for one of the fire stations. 

“We have first-responders in here all the time,” she said.  

They also advertise an Adopt-A-Hero program where customers can sponsor free meals for those who work in public safety.  

Waffle House unit manager Shannon Bellisle also posted online that Waffle House would not tolerate any form of discrimination against protected classes of people and that everyone is welcome. 

“If anyone feels they are ever treated unfairly by any of the associates of Waffle House they can contact me directly or call the customer hotline at (877) 9WAFFLE. I can personally assure you that I will investigate and right any wrongs that may occur. I have in the past and will continue to do so in the future.” 

Gestures of support

At press time on Wednesday, the SMPD had not issued a public statement on the officer complaints. 

“We’re going to do something on social media to just make it clear,” Wilke said on Tuesday. 

As word spread through the community on social media about the two incidents, some citizens expressed anger while others responded with acts of kindness. 

Wilkie said a local dance studio brought some of their students to the police department for a quick performance in their honor. 

“We probably had about 10 to 12 people just anonymously drop off packages of treats and goodies,” he said. 

The current climate for police officers — from complaints about improper use of force and the resulting protests — has added a little extra stress to everyone, he said, but especially police officers. 

Wilkie said the extra gestures and tokens of appreciation are not necessary but they do appreciate those who have expressed their support. 

“Anybody I know in this profession roundly condemns what happened in Minneapolis,” he said. 

Wilke said the advantage in a place like Camden County is that you are not just a number and people on both sides can get to know one another a little better. 

As for his officers’ complaints against the restaurants, the department is not planning any further action.     

“We are just going to let it lay,” the police chief said.