Even after a hospital found no signs the three officers had been poisoned, police placed Gilliam in the back of a police car, transported him to a station and interrogated him for upward of two hours, the store manager claims in a new lawsuit.
“Throughout the interrogation, the Detectives taunted [Gilliam] about putting bleach in the milkshakes,” his lawsuit states.
Yet hours after police released Gilliam from custody at around 1:30 a.m., NYPD Chief of Department Rodney Harrison tweeted that a “thorough investigation” determined Gilliam and his employees were innocent. “There was no criminality by shake shack [sic] employees,” he tweeted.
Now Gilliam is demanding monetary damages and attorneys’ fees, and he is charging that the NYPD falsely arrested him and that the unions defamed him on social media. Police union representatives did not return requests for comment late on Monday. An NYPD spokesman said no higher-up was available to comment on the lawsuit Monday night.
Gilliam’s allegations underscore the paranoia felt last summer by some police officers, as protesters took to the streets in droves to demand systemic changes to policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and other killings of Black people by law enforcement personnel.
The same day as the Shake Shack allegations, a sheriff’s deputy in McIntosh County, Ga., cried into a Facebook live video, explaining she was nervous McDonald’s employees were tampering with her food because her order was taking too long, NBC reported. She later clarified she was speaking less out of fear and more out of frustration that “people don’t trust us.”
Gilliam’s troubles began on June 15, 2020, when three NYPD officers, who have yet to be named publicly, ordered milkshakes at around 7:30 p.m. from the Shake Shack he managed at the Fulton Center in downtown Manhattan. After sipping the shakes, the NYPD members — identified in the lawsuit as “Officer Cherry Shake,” “Officer Vanilla Shake” and “Officer Strawberry Shake” — told Gilliam the drinks did not taste right.
Although Gilliam apologized — offering vouchers for free food and milkshakes, which the officers accepted — they nonetheless told an NYPD sergeant that Gilliam had spiked their shakes with a “toxic substance,” possibly bleach, the lawsuit alleges.
The sergeant subsequently called the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit, which arrived around 9:30 p.m. to set up a crime scene at the restaurant. Police tested the shakes the officers said had been poisoned, but “found no evidence of any bleach or other ‘toxic’ substances,” the lawsuit alleges. The police also reviewed security footage and found neither Gilliam nor his employees had tampered with the milkshakes, the lawsuit says.
What’s more, Gilliam notes, the officers ordered their shakes through an online app, so the store workers couldn’t have known police officers ordered them ahead of time.
Still, Gilliam claims, the sergeant accused the manager of putting “three of my cops in the hospital.” But during a subsequent visit to the hospital, the officers were “examined and released without ever showing symptoms,” the lawsuit says.
This did not stop an NYPD lieutenant from notifying the New York City Police Benevolent Association and the Detectives’ Endowment Association — two unions that represent the NYPD — that the three officers had been sickened by the milkshakes.
In response, the detectives’ union tweeted out that the three officers had been intentionally poisoned by “one or more workers at the Shake Shack at 200 Broadway in Manhattan,” which was retweeted 11,000 times, according to the lawsuit. The Police Benevolent Association’s president, Patrick Lynch, said in a statement that officers discovered that “a toxic substance, believed to be bleach, had been placed in their beverages.” News outlets quickly picked up on the claim and ran stories online.
Gilliam, meanwhile, was transported to the 1st Precinct, interrogated and finally released after three hours, at around 1:30 a.m.
Not long afterward, the NYPD determined that neither Gilliam nor other Shake Shack workers had acted criminally. Rather, as New York Daily News reported at the time, the odd-tasting shakes may have been a case of a poorly cleaned milkshake machine. For its part, Shake Shack said in a statement last June that it hadn’t found any foreign substances had leaked into the machine.
The unions later recanted their assertions that Shake Shack workers tried to poison the officers, the New York Times reported. But Lynch still warned: “We urge you to remain vigilant at all times, both on and off duty.”
Gilliam no longer works at the Shake Shack, the Daily News reported, citing an anonymous Shake Shack worker.