Taking a Stand on Principle: Choosing Which Law to Enforce is Not the Way

Several police unions—FOP lodges in North Providence and Warwick—have published a letter to their members saying they should not comply with enforcing the Governor’s edict on wearing masks in public.

Their argument—that such a directive by the Governor puts the police in the adversarial position of enforcing an unpopular and controversial policy—is persuasive but sets a dangerous precedent. When officers sworn to uphold the law willfully abandon this obligation because of public sentiment or beliefs, it poses a dilemma.

The police are often put in untenable positions. The unions serve a critically vital role in protecting their members from the intrusion of politics within agencies. But unions are not the best forum for determining what policies to follow, what laws to enforce, or what constitutes constitutionally or medically sound emergency policy.

If the circumstances were reversed, and a police agency faced opposition to enforcing existing laws by a segment of the public who disagreed with the law, they would abide by their oath of office and take whatever appropriate means necessary under the law to enforce it.

While police officers should not be expected to follow orders blindly—an equally dangerous situation—expecting them to fairly enforce the law is a societal necessity. We grant them discretion in most matters under such expectations. Yet decisions on the constitutionality of laws need be decided in the appropriate forum, the courts.

If the police union sought a stay from the courts, seeking guidelines for enforcing the policy of compelling people to wear masks in public, that would be entirely appropriate.

If the police union, in the confines of their internal meetings, encouraged officers to exercise great discretion in enforcing such policies absent any such guidelines from the court, that would be entirely appropriate.

But issuing public statements which encourages officers to defy the edicts of the Governor is a slippery slope. Pitting the refusal of one agency to enforce the law against another which chooses to enforce it is fraught with danger.

Where do we draw the line?

The legislature enacts laws, the Rhode Island Constitution grants certain emergency powers to the Governor to act in the best interest of the public during times of emergency— one might argue thousands of dead Americans qualifies as such an emergency— and police officers are empowered to enforce the law with a modicum of discretion.  But it falls on the courts to determine the constitutionality of such actions.

Unions should zealously protect their members. They should speak up when circumstances warrant. Yet they should refrain from encouraging officers to shirk their responsibilities or insert themselves into matters best left handled by the courts and elected officials.

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