Two short-tempered men run into each other in a bar in Enid, Oklahoma. The combustible mixture of alcohol and ego produces the predictable reaction – a brief, stupid, and inconclusive fight in which neither side is seriously injured. When police officers arrive on the scene, onlookers expect that both parties to the altercation will be hauled away in handcuffs.
However, after one of them produces a police credential, he is allowed to handcuff the other and place him under arrest for a felonious assault on an off-duty law enforcement officer. It doesn’t matter that the individual making the arrest might have been the same one who started the fight.
This scenario is made entirely plausible by a newly enacted Oklahoma statute that makes any “assault” on an off-duty law enforcement officer a felony — and it is standard practice to treat nearly any physical contact with an officer as an “assault.” The law, which passed the legislature unanimously (always a bad sign), went into effect on November 1. In effect, this measure extends the cloak of “qualified immunity” to cover every aspect of a law enforcement officer’s life.
“I had several law enforcement officers in my district come to me this past year and explain to me that current law says that if I’m in uniform and I’m assaulted, then it is a felony,” recalls Republican State Representative Mike Sanders, the primary sponsor of the bill. Two of them, Sanders insists, were assaulted off-duty, although no useful details were provided to validate those claims.
“This is just one more tool to protect our law enforcement agents and officers,” Sanders continues. “Even though you make take off the uniform, you are always a law enforcement officer.”
This makes perfect sense – if we assume that the expression “law enforcement officer” refers to an identity, rather than an occupation.
State Senator Kyle Loveless, who co-sponsored the senate version of the measure, claimed that “there are people who stalk, threaten and assault officers when they’re off the clock simply out of revenge.” Stalking, menacing, and assault are criminal offenses in Oklahoma. Persistent and exceptionally violent offenders can be prosecuted for felonies, whether or not the victim is an off-duty police officer. The new legislation is, therefore, redundant at best.
However, it wasn’t designed to address an actual problem. It was intended to create a new entitlement for members of the state’s punitive caste, and to “educate” the public about our constant duty to serve and protect the police.
“We must do all we can to protect our law enforcement officers,” Loveless piously intoned. Sanders expressed identical sentiments in a way that unwittingly subverted one of the key tenets of the cop-worship cult: “We should make sure they’re just as safe out of uniform.”
Did Sanders mean to say that on-duty cops are actually safer than the general public, which is only protected by laws of general application? In an interview last April, Sanders sketched out a scenario in which “a criminal could pursue a law enforcement officer in their private lives and face a lower penalty” – a situation that he described as an “incentive” for attacks on off-duty officers. This would only be the case if the existing laws somehow reduced the penalties for violent crimes committed against off-duty police officers.
What neither Sanders nor other supporters of the measure will admit is that one purpose of the bill is to lower the threshold for “assault.” Any incidental contact between a mundane citizen and the sanctified personage of a police officer can be construed as an “assault on any officer.” In some circumstances, the act of a citizen is withdrawing from contact with an officer has been charged as “assault,” as well.
In predictable fashion, Sanders described his bill as an appropriate response to what he calls “the continued assault on our law enforcement officers nationally.” Given that violent crimes against on-duty police officers have been fewer in 2015 than last year, Sanders – like most people who recite the fact-deprived “war on cops” refrain – must be treating “anti-police” rhetoric as a form of “assault.” At least one Oklahoma resident has been punished, albeit through indirect means, for expressing a negative opinion of the police that was inspired by specific abuse suffered by her family.
In May 2013, Ashley Warden lost her job as a waitress at an Oklahoma City Chili’s restaurant for publishing an anti-police Facebook post. Under a photo of sheriff’s deputies, Warden declared: “Stupid cops better hope I’m not their server….” The restaurant fired Warden following a social media pressure campaign mounted by police unions.
“This is what she posts and what she chooses to post during Law Enforcement Week when we are honoring those who have died in service to our citizens – I think that’s pathetic,” pouted Sheriff John Whetsel, who claimed that Warden had “threatened” his officers. According to the sheriff, Warden “doesn’t have a clue about who they are or what they do or the service they provide.”
As it happens, Warden’s view of law enforcement was informed by the “service” provided by Piedmont Police Officer Ken Qualls, who wrote her a $2,500 ticket for “public urination” after her 3-year-old son tried to relieve himself in the family’s front yard.
The Warden family resides on a two-and-a-half acre plot in a small, rural town. When Dillan, the toddler, pulled down his pants, Qualls – who had been lurking nearby – screamed up to the home in his cruiser and announced to that he was issuing a citation, despite the fact that the child hadn’t actually completed the act.
Outraged, the Wardens contacted his employer, who blithely dismissed their complaint. After the family informed the media of what had happened, the ticket was withdrawn. A few days later, Qualls was fired by the town council – not for what he had done to the Warden family, but because of negative press coverage his behavior had attracted to the city government.
Qualls had spent 18 years as a police officer – and already qualified for a pension — which means that he most likely has never had an honest job and wasn’t facing destitution. Nonetheless, Qualls displayed the bottomless self-preoccupation that typifies his profession by filing a lawsuit against Police Chief Alex Oblein and the City of Piedmont. In doing so, he acted on the assumption that he had a property right in a well-compensated and stress-free job as a practitioner of state-licensed violence – a view apparently shared by the sponsors of Oklahoma’s new “Blue Privilege 24/7” law.
Intriguingly, the same Oklahoma Legislature that wants to extend special protections for off-duty police officers has made it a felony for citizens to take measures intended to protect their own homes from the police. In November 2009, a measure went into effect in Oklahoma making it a felony, punishable by a five-year prison term and a $10,000 fine, to “fortify” a home “for the purpose of preventing or delaying entry or access by a law enforcement officer.”
The statute, written by Republican (natch) State Representative Sue Tibbs, forbids Oklahoma residents to “construct, install, position, use or hold any material or device designed … to strengthen, defend, restrict or obstruct any door, window, or other opening into a dwelling, structure, building or other place to any extent beyond the security provided by a commercial alarm system, lock or deadbolt, or a combination of alarm, lock, or deadbolt.”
So it is that in Oklahoma, if you fight back when an off-duty cop shoves you in a bar, you can be charged with a felony. If, on the other hand, a SWAT team attacks your home in a no-knock raid, and its effort to breach your dwelling is thwarted because you installed “burglar bars,” you can also be charged with a felony. And if you protest that measures of this kind are the product of lunacy and political opportunism, you’re obviously among the proto-terrorist radicals waging a “war on the police.”