By Steve Pomper
We’ve been hearing disconcerting stories this past year about how poorly this pandemic has people treating one another in certain situations. This leads directly to another serious problem. Governments and private institutions setting up law enforcement officers as the bad guys.
I’ve long opposed governments passing unnecessary laws that put cops in the position of being petty tyrants toward the community with whom they’re supposed to be cultivating better relations. But this pandemic also has private businesses (including religious organizations) making cops the “bad guy.”
Several media outlets also recently covered another face mask fracas, this one in Galveston, Texas. Police arrested a 65-year-old woman, Terry White, at a Bank of America (BOA) branch. Bank officials called 911 because the woman was violating its corporate policy by not wearing a mask. This was despite Texas having lifted its statewide mask mandate. Still, generally, private entities can continue requiring masks.
But the officers did not arrest her for not wearing a mask. She refused to cooperate, even flailing her arms, so the officer arrested her for criminal trespass. It doesn’t matter why the bank manager wants her gone, if she won’t leave, the nasty job of removing her falls to the cops. The woman should have cooperated with the officer and then brought up her concerns with the BOA branch or corporate management, or even with the media—afterward.
I remember advising people, “Don’t turn a civil matter into a criminal matter by behaving badly with the cops.” I’ve had to remove people I sympathized with from stores many times. As long as civil rights weren’t violated, my duty was to get the trespasser out. Most took my advice—some did not.
Cop supporters, please, don’t fall for “the cops beat up and arrested a guy for jaywalking” type of fake news. Because later you’ll likely find out the jaywalker (litterer, trespasser, whatever) refused to cooperate with the officer and maybe even took a swing. That is why the police used force and arrested “the jaywalker, trespasser, etc.”
It was difficult for this retired cop to watch the video because, ultimately, the incident was “mask-related.” Such strict mandates confuse people, especially when they’re seen as political. People can see “rules” or “pseudo-laws” being applied in various states and cities but not in others with little apparent differences in health outcomes.
Another similar story occurred in Dallas, involving another “maskless” woman, Deirdre Hairston. Hairston is pregnant and was holding a one-year-old baby when police led her out of Mass. The media reported, “for not wearing a mask.” Again, with the hyperbole and misdirection. Police didn’t remove her for not wearing a mask. The police removed her, under the authority of church officials, for trespassing. But, as a cop, this one is trickier. It involves, at least tangentially, religious worship and, thus, steps toward the First Amendment but doesn’t, legally, breach it.
The association with religion makes it tougher, but there’s still a line that hasn’t been crossed. As a constitutional cop, my initial reaction was, this doesn’t seem right. But upon scrutiny, this was not a disgrace committed by the cops. The disgrace belongs to the police leadership allowing the response and to parish personnel who disgraced themselves and the Church by calling the police because the woman wasn’t wearing a mask.
This wasn’t a case of a mayor (government) ordering the police to enforce a mask mandate by arresting worshippers singing psalms in a church parking lot such as happened in 2020 in Idaho. One arrestee is now suing Moscow, Idaho for violating his First Amendment rights.
In that Idaho case, similar to if a city or department official had ordered me to confiscate guns from law-abiding Americans (Second Amendment), the answer would have been a hard, “no.” That was the line in the sand for me. I also would not have enforced a mask-mandate against religious worshippers (First Amendment) of any denomination if ordered by the government.
I am not here to defend the church officials whose actions I found dubious if not despicable. I’m here to defend the police officers who had little choice but to act. If the complainant had been another parishioner, no enforcement. They don’t have the authority to have police remove someone violating church policy. The priest does. You may not like that a church would be considered a business, but in this context it is. You also may not like the priest having the authority to remove someone from the church, but he does.
Again, in the church, the police were not enforcing a mask mandate. They were enforcing a criminal trespass law. The manager (priest) wanted her removed because she wasn’t following church rules and called the police. The representative of the Church wanted her gone, and that’s all the cops need.
According to the bishop, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas has not mandated masks, but the individual parishes may implement them. The bishop’s notice also acknowledged not everyone could wear a mask. Reportedly, the mask is not mandated but encouraged. The church said it expects “the faithful to wear masks out of charity and concern for others.”
To set the context, the church had chairs set up in pairs and socially distanced. The woman, her husband, and their baby were well away from any other person. Remember, the CDC advises masks when social distancing is not possible. Nevertheless, the priest ordered her to leave the church. After that, as a matter of law, she is trespassing, and police can be called to remove the person.
The woman explained she’d taken her mask off because of issues related to her pregnancy. She said she’d intended no disrespect. The last words I heard, watching the video, were from a man who appeared to be an usher who said, “We don’t want her back here.” The woman told media that when she was contacted by police, she was kneeling, had just received the sacraments, and still had the “eucharist [host, wafer] on her tongue.” I was raised Catholic, and I’m not overtly religious, but I just can’t imagine Jesus behaving toward Hairston like this priest and usher had. Although, to be understanding, they may also have been as confused as anyone else about the seemingly arbitrary and unequally implemented pandemic “rules.”
The cops tossed into in these social meatgrinders are unnecessary victims. In fact, in the video, the officer in the church incident explains the legal situation to Hairston perfectly. Politicians’ (and, apparently, some priests’) totalitarian edict enforcement puts police officers in bad positions. And, no matter how much I may disagree with BOA’s and the church’s policies, they have a right to call the police to remove anyone they don’t want on their premises for (with certain civil rights exceptions) any reason.
Some American cops are fortunate enough to work for a courageous police chiefs and sheriffs who refuse as a policy to enforce arbitrary pandemic mandates, including wearing masks, whether issued by government or complained about by private businesses or churches. They refuse to allow their officers and deputies to get into those situations in the first place. Bottomline, stop making cops the bad guys by implementing bad laws (rules) and then complaining about bad police-community relations.