On November 1, 2013, a gunman opened fire in Terminal 3 at Los Angeles International Airport. He was soon confronted and shot by airport police officers, but not before killing a TSA agent and wounding two others and a traveler.
I was still with the LAPD at the time and was among the hundreds of police officers and federal agents who responded to the shooting’s chaotic aftermath. I wrote about the incident two days later, offering my perspective on why the chaos was far worse than it need have been. In short, decisions were made based on inaccurate and speculative reports, this despite the fact that reliable information was readily at hand. These poorly informed decisions led to an unnecessarily prolonged shutdown of the airport, bringing undue misery to thousands of travelers and causing disruptions to air traffic that were felt all over the country and beyond.
I have been reminded of that day while watching the global upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. I will grant that the current situation is not entirely analogous to an isolated incident like the one at LAX, but certain comparisons are nonetheless instructive. Police officers everywhere know that when an incident achieves a certain level of public interest, higher-ranking personnel emerge from their offices to put their imprint on the course of events, most often with deleterious results. Such was the case at LAX that day, as command staff from the LAPD, Airport Police, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, FBI, ATF, and a host of other agencies descended on the airport and began issuing nonsensical instructions, many of them conflicting with others issued moments earlier.
Police officers also know, through bitter experience, that when an incident attains sufficient notoriety to attract input from political figures, the operation is all but certain to end in failure and disgrace. Even those high-ranking police officers who are adept and nimble decision-makers in a crisis (such people are rare) find themselves swept aside by their more numerous peers looking to please this or that political patron.
Apply these principles across the country (and the world), and you have an idea of why the response to the coronavirus has been so inconsistent and, in many cases, nonsensical. It has been the sad duty of America’s police officers to be the primary enforcers of this nonsense.
In my previous column, posted on April 6, I lamented that the actions of some police officers, ordered to carry out some of the sillier or more onerous restrictions attendant to the pandemic, will further erode the already strained relationships their departments have within their communities. As one might have predicted, things have only gotten worse. Since that column was posted, we have seen police officers issuing $500 citations for the crime of attending a drive-in church service, and others arresting an Idaho woman who dared take her kids to a closed playground. Indeed, social media is awash with similar tales, which are all the more insulting to the average citizen when accompanied by stories of criminals released from jail only to re-offend within hours.
With the accumulation of these stories, the populace grows ever more restive at the restraints placed upon them. If the law and civil authority are to be respected, the laws must be respectable, at least to a majority of those on whom they are imposed.
Which brings us back to the police officers in the field and caught between their feckless superiors and a fractious public. There comes a time in every cop’s career when he receives instructions he knows will waste his time and may even be antithetical to his mission to reduce the fear of crime in his community. Often these instructions are relayed by a sergeant who himself is equally dubious about them, but who is obeying orders to disseminate them. When this happens, it is the wise officer who can say, “Yes, sir,” and then go out and do the right thing, modifying the instructions or ignoring them altogether with the sergeant’s tacit blessing. Every good cop, and every good sergeant, is familiar and comfortable with this arrangement.
Chasing people away from churches, beaches, hiking trails, and parks, and arresting those who do not meekly comply, is not enforcing the “law,” it is enforcing the whimsical edicts of people unqualified to craft and issue them. When all of this is over, can the damage be undone?