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State your case: Should the officer have arrested the mom in the playground?

The arrestee belongs to a group urging resistance to government COVID-19 restrictions

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This month’s “State your Case” topic analyzes the incident involving the Idaho mother who was arrested after refusing a police officer’s request to vacate a public park’s playground that had been closed by the city in response to COVID-19.

Our debaters: James Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

The issue being debated: This issue merits discussion because as has been reported on Police1, agencies are struggling with the issue of enforcing shelter-in-place and social distancing orders related to stopping the spread of the coronavirus. This incident was videotaped and posted on social media, although some parts were removed. After watching a portion of the incident below, check out our columnist’s viewpoints.

Joel Shults: Once we know the whole story of this event, it seems apparent that the arrestee was looking for a booking. She’s a member of a group urging resistance to government COVID-19 restrictions such as the playground closing. While everyone expects to be videoed these days, another compatriot of Brady was handy with a cell phone to record the arrest with the most dramatic moment replayed on news outlets and social media platforms. The officer attempted lesser methods, including explaining the playground closure and the city’s authority over public property and resorted to arresting only after his requests failed.

Jim Dudley: Joel, it appears that you are right, that this was staged. But it got exactly what the arrestee and her apparent band of provocateurs wanted: a custodial arrest for violating the shelter-in-place order.

We’ve seen it all too often, when officers are goaded into action they do not want to make. Of course, they can’t walk away, but they can explain the situation and give a verbal warning and advise they’ll circle back. The suspect or offender shouldn’t dictate terms when the officer has discretion to act – or not.

Joel Shults: Jim, it may be that the officer was played, but the decision to arrest should be based on the violation, not the motive of the offender, as you intimated. The law isn’t always black and white, but sometimes it is. I learned early in my career that making threats is useless unless there’s a win available. One of my responses to a subject doubting my resolve was, “I don’t make threats, I make promises.” The officer was responding to complaints, not looking for violations on his own, which means that a citizen following up only to find out no enforcement action was taken could lead to “word on the street” that health mandates can be violated without repercussions – an ultimate win for the resistance group.

Jim Dudley: I hear you, Joel, but in these times of “no bail” and early release for prisoners in custody for serious convictions, I think it is a waste of time for officers to identify the shelter-in-place violator, run for warrants, transport, cite and release, and then file a report.

I doubt that any district attorney would follow up with charges filed, and with the off chance they did, I don’t see a magistrate holding the violator accountable. I’d stand by a stern warning, followed up with an issued citation at the scene at most, should the violator persist. The “contempt of cop” arrests aren’t worthy of a professional law enforcement officer’s time or energy.

Finally, there may be some support in taking action against scofflaws, but ultimately these actions will put police in a negative light. Community policing efforts will be thwarted, and public confidence will be eroded.

As I said in a column early on, before the shelter-in-place order was issued, I warned that the messaging should come from public health officers first, then elected officials and community leaders. Police should have a low profile in the message and enforcement operations.

Here’s what our readers thought of the issue in a recent poll:

What do you think? Email

NEXT: Read more “State your case” debates here.

James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a Master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.