Athens, GA — On the off chance further evidence was needed that Orwell’s dystopian portent has become reality, the stunning case of Officer Jay Park proves it, hands down.
In September, a University of Georgia student, concerned his underage friend had imbibed far too much alcohol and might need medical attention, contacted campus police for help. When Park arrived at the scene, his supervisor, Sgt. Gene Rankin, ordered the campus officer to arrest the drunken student.
Park balked, saying he could not arrest an “obviously unwell youth” who appeared to be suffering alcohol poisoning, because — as he rightly cited to his superiors — Georgia’s 2014 Medical Amnesty Law clearly states, “any person who, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for someone who is experiencing an alcohol-related overdose shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted” for a violation of law “if the evidence [for such an arrest, etc.] resulted from seeking such medical assistance.”
That amnesty applies to the person suffering the overdose, as well: “Any person who is experiencing an alcohol-related overdose and, in good faith, seeks medical assistance for himself or herself or is the subject of such a request shall not be arrested, charged, or prosecuted if the evidence [for such an arrest, etc.] resulted from seeking such medical assistance.”
Park’s refusal to arrest the underage drinker earned him an appointment with department captain, Wes Huff, the following day; but, before that scheduled meeting, Park was summoned to another emergency situation. This time, two people “in desperate need of urgent medical assistance due to a possible alcohol overdose” were the subject of the call. Again, Park felt the law prevented him from effecting the arrests, and contacted Huff to apprise him of the circumstances; but Rankin arrived at the scene and ordered Park to leave — and arrested the students anyway.
Huff told Park in the meeting later that day that he was “misinterpreting” the amnesty law and, in “direct contravention” of that law. He ordered Park to obtain search and arrest warrants for one of the individuals who had requested medical aid.
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Then, on the following Monday, as Park arrived for work, UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson terminated him on the spot for insubordination — with “no warnings, no instruction, no disciplining leading to his termination.” Even more absurdly, an infuriated Williamson told the law-abiding officer,
“I’m going to try to make sure you’re not a police officer anymore in the state of Georgia.”
Park, apparently, lost his job not for any gross failure of duty, but because his superiors didn’t find it necessary to follow a law they didn’t like — one established to protect the public’s health. In Williamson’s astonishing termination letter, he explained the officer was fired in order to avoid “potential embarrassment that the department would suffer as a result of Officer Park’s suggestion that the department was violating the law.”
Likely anticipating a nasty outcome, Park captured footage of his termination on video, which he proceeded to upload to YouTube and distribute to several local TV outlets. UGA students immediately jumped to the now-hero cop’s defense, and initiated a petition on change.org for his reinstatement.
Park twice lost appeals to return to his job but ultimately prevailed, at least in part — the UGA police department agreed to a settlement, and taxpayers were held accountable to the tune of $325,000.
What was lost, however, was the last of the public’s hope that good officers — those whose probity and moral integrity means more to them than membership in the Thin Blue Line — aren’t a dying breed.