One of the surest places to find a police officer in downtown Brooklyn, other than the 84th Precinct station house, is the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant on Montague Street.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
A Chipotle restaurant in Brooklyn gives officers in uniform a 50 percent discount on their meals.
The crowd at lunch and dinner is peppered with officers: some at tables, more in line and some carrying to-go bags. They are drawn by burritos and tacos, the proximity to Brooklyn’s courthouses and an unadvertised special: a 50 percent discount given to officers in uniform.
Many of the police officers who eat there may not have been aware of the discount, the restaurant’s general manager, Gonzalo Romero, said. Some express surprise when their bill comes to half of the advertised price. “When they see it, they go, ‘Thank you very much,’ ” he said.
But Mr. Romero observed that other police customers knew about the discount and “eat here all the time — they know.”
As long as officers have walked a beat, they have been treated to free cups of coffee, or the occasional free or discounted meal from restaurant owners eager, perhaps, to show gratitude or mindful that an increased police presence could deter would-be robbers.
“I feel very safe here,” Mr. Romero said.
The Police Department’s lengthy Patrol Guide does not specifically refer to free, or steeply discounted, food. But officers are taught that food is covered under the Patrol Guide’s prohibition against accepting gratuities “or other compensation for any service performed as a result of or in conjunction with their duties as a public servant.”
“That policy covers the food issue,” one current commander said. “There should be no discount — heavy or light — whatsoever.”
The Police Department’s chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, wrote in an e-mail that the department periodically learned of vendors offering “discounts to police officers not available to others.”
Mr. Browne added, “When Internal Affairs documents as much, the vendor is notified that if the practice is not discontinued, the location will be included among those that police officers are barred from frequenting.”
Police lingo encompasses the options of payment and nonpayment. Free meals are known as “on the arm.” Paying the actual price is known as “full boat.” A merchant like Chipotle that offers the police a discount is said to “do the right thing.”
A spokesman for Chipotle, Chris Arnold, wrote in an e-mail that the company had a “national policy that allows our restaurants to offer a discount (at the discretion of the restaurant) to police in uniform, though it isn’t mandatory that we offer and isn’t mandatory that it is accepted.”
On one recent weekday, at least 10 uniformed police officers and traffic agents from different commands stopped by during a two-hour stretch. A chicken burrito bowl, tortilla chips and bottled water cost one sergeant $6, although the menu price for the burrito bowl alone was $7.45.
When another sergeant, from a precinct in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was asked why Chipotle was so popular among the police, he said that it was “one of my favorite restaurants,” adding that he knew nothing of any police discount.
“Half off? No,” he said.
Then he examined his receipt and declined to speak any more about the cost of the meal.
The department instructs its officers not to accept gratuities from the time they join the force. Chief Charles V. Campisi, the department’s chief of Internal Affairs, warns new classes of Police Academy recruits not to accept so much as a free cup of coffee.
Each precinct has an integrity control officer, whose responsibilities include tracking down any restaurants that may be offering officers special deals, and to declare them off-limits to officers in the precinct, according to several current and former commanders.
Chipotle is not the only national company to offer special deals to the police. For instance, Starbucks authorizes its stores to give first responders, like the police and firefighters, free cups of brewed coffee, said a company spokesman, Zack Hutson.
Even without any evidence that the merchant is receiving a quid pro quo, the mere “inference or appearance of preferential treatment” is one factor in deciding to include a business on an off-limits list, according to the Patrol Guide.
The reasons for the rule vary. Current and former Internal Affairs officers said feelings of entitlement tended to grow unless checked: If officers begin to take free food for granted, a few might be tempted to take more than just food.
The prohibition is also intended to discourage shopkeepers from asking for favors. A restaurant owner who has fed the precinct at a discount for years might someday feel bold enough to ask the police to make a speeding ticket disappear, or to run the license plate of an antagonist, several police commanders explained in interviews. A bodega owner who never charges the police for coffee might expect the local traffic enforcement officer to overlook customers who are double-parked.
In half a dozen interviews, veteran officers said the culture of freebies at small neighborhood restaurants seemed to be on the decline, perhaps because there were fewer officers assigned to neighborhood beat patrols. The apparent scarcity of discounted or free meals made the deal at Chipotle even more noteworthy among the police.
Last Friday, the lunch line of customers was again sprinkled with the dark blue uniforms of five police officers who dropped by in the span of an hour. When a reporter stopped by that night, two officers assigned to the subway system were slowly eating their meals in the dining area upstairs, while another ordered food to go.
When the two officers upstairs were asked whether they had paid a price less than other customers, the younger of the two officers said it was his first time at Chipotle. He said he did not know if the price had been knocked down for him.
The second officer denied receiving a discount.
“I know I don’t get a discount,” he said. “Maybe other people get a discount. But I don’t personally get a discount.”
As to why so many police officers ate at Chipotle, the second officer said, “I imagine they come here because the food is good.”
One female officer said that the police frequented this place because it was near the courts, and therefore drew officers from other precincts. Another police officer observed that the food at Chipotle was fresher, and had more vegetables, than the takeout food that police officers ate.
As for Mr. Romero, the Chipotle general manager, he preferred to view the 50 percent discount as a “courtesy” rather than a gratuity.
“They don’t ask for it,” he said. “We give it to them as a courtesy.”