The manager of a lower Manhattan Shake Shack location is suing two police unions after officers falsely accused him of poisoning their milkshakes last summer, leading to him being arrested, interrogated, and "taunted" by police for several hours, he claims.
According to the defamation lawsuit, which was filed Monday in a New York federal court, store manager Marcus Gilliam says he "was falsely arrested, and suffered emotional and psychological damages and damage to his reputation" as a result of the June 2020 incident, which occurred at the height of the George Floyd protests.
Last June, three New York City police officers claimed they became ill after drinking milkshakes they'd purchased at Shake Shack. After learning of the alleged illnesses, the Detectives' Endowment Association (DEA), a union for NYPD detectives, tweeted an "urgent safety message" that "three of our brothers in blue were intentionally poisoned by one or more [Shake Shack] workers."
Those claims were then amplified by the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York (PBA), the city's largest police union, who alleged that the "toxic substance" found in the milkshakes was "believed to be bleach."
"Police in New York City and across the country are under attack by vicious criminals who dislike us simply because of the uniform we wear," DEA President Paul DiGiacomo said in a statement at the time. "Emboldened by pandering elected officials, these cowards will go to great lengths to harm any member of law enforcement."
Neither police union immediately responded to a request for comment on the federal lawsuit.
The poisoning allegations were completely false. The day after the incident, the NYPD said they'd investigated and determined the employees had done nothing wrong, and the substance that made the officers sick was a cleaning solution that had not been fully rinsed out of the milkshake machine. According to the lawsuit, none of the officers actually ever showed any symptoms of an illness, and it disputes that the officers ever got sick at all.
The defamation lawsuit does not name the officers but refers to them by the milkshake flavors they ordered. The officers had ordered their shakes on a mobile app, according to the lawsuit, and they were already packaged for pickup when they arrived — meaning employees had no way of knowing the order was for police officers.
"Nevertheless, Officers Strawberry Shake, Vanilla Shake and Cherry
Shake falsely informed their Sergeant that Mr. Gilliam had put a 'toxic
substance', possibly bleach, in their milkshakes," the suit states. Despite making these claims, the officers "did not preserve the shakes as evidence, but threw them
in the garbage."
A little after 9 p.m., about two hours after the incident, about 20 police officers showed up at the Shake Shack location and detained Gilliam, as well as the other store employees. Gilliam cooperated with the investigation, the lawsuit states, and allowed officers to search the store, review surveillance footage, interview the employees, and search their personal belongings.
During the investigation, an officer allegedly asked Gilliam "when did you add the bleach" to the milkshake. He also allegedly said to him “you put three of my cops in the hospital," the lawsuit states. However, according to the lawsuit, the accusing officers had been released from the hospital and had not exhibited any symptoms.
The NYPD Emergency Services Unit also tested the officers' discarded milkshakes as part of the investigation "and found no evidence of any bleach or other 'toxic' substances."
Still, an NYPD lieutenant emailed the DEA and PBA, saying the officers had “started throwing up after drinking beverages they got from shake shack on 200 Broadway.” The two unions then bolstered those claims on social media, tweeting that they'd been "intentionally poisoned" and that officers are "coming under attack."
Gilliam was also arrested and taken in a police car to the precinct for questioning, where he was "interrogated for approximately one to two hours" and "taunted ... about
putting bleach in the milkshakes" before being released around 1:30 a.m., the lawsuit states.
Just a couple hours later, around 4 a.m., NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison tweeted that the investigation had turned up no wrongdoing by Gilliam or any other Shake Shack employees.
Through this lawsuit, Gilliam is now accusing the police of having "falsely arrested and defamed" him, saying they "lacked probable cause" to arrest him. He has since been asked by numerous people — including customers — "if he 'poisoned'" the officers, and others have gone into the Shake Shack location and "taunted" him about the incident.
Gilliam is suing for monetary damages of an unspecified amount as well as attorneys' fees.