Law enforcement has always been a discretionary activity. How many of us are the beneficiaries of a cop in a good mood who pulls us over for speeding but lets us off with a warning?
Conversely, how many innocent people — or violators of minor infractions — have been subjected to the cruel neglect or intentional actions of a rogue officer?
Sheriff Ronnie Fields knows of the discretion he and his deputies exercise every day. Yet in his latest cross-up with an order from Gov. Roy Cooper, discretion has not been the better part of valor for Fields.
As Moore County’s top enforcement officer, he is looked up to for guidance, for fairness, for justice. He blew it on all three counts last week when he declared he would not enforce Cooper’s latest order mandating the wearing of face coverings in public places where social distance is not possible.
In an email sent out Friday evening — while most folks would be paying attention elsewhere — Fields wrote, “To be direct and clear, neither I nor the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be enforcing this mandate from the governor.”
Where’s the Guidance?
Fields declared the governor’s latest order “unconstitutional.” Which constitution, Sheriff? The U.S. Constitution? The state’s? Or your own? Nothing is cited.
In an interview with The Pilot, Fields said he acted under guidance from the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. It issued a 13-page memo last Friday. In that memo, under the section titled “Enforcement of Face Covering Violations,” the memo goes on to say that, “Under current law, whether or not to charge a person with a criminal law violation of the Governor’s Order requiring the wearing of a face covering is within the discretion of law enforcement.”
Nowhere in the 13-page memo is the word “unconstitutional” used.
Fields also says in his email that “the order itself is unenforceable.” Again, the Sheriffs Association guidance doesn’t make that judgment. In fact, it clearly states, “Executive Order No. 147 authorizes law enforcement officers to charge a business that refuses to comply with the Executive Order’s requirement that employees and customers or patrons wear face coverings. Any business refusing to comply with the Executive Order could be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor.”
Now, “unenforceable” from a practical standpoint? Yeah, we can see that. But so is making sure a car comes to a complete stop at a stop sign, unless you post an officer or camera there.
Fields is not alone in his position. Aberdeen Police Chief Carl Colasacco also told his officers not to go out of their way to enforce the ordinance. But if they are called to a complaint from a business or individual, “we will respond,” he said.
Fields said the same thing in an interview, but the email he sent to the public was “direct and clear.”
Fields, who has had a road deputy test positive for COVID-19, is not insensitive to the public health concerns: “I encourage everyone to practice social distancing and we should all continue to keep our hands very clean.”
As we said at the start, law enforcement is discretionary. Fields could have adopted his position and instructed his deputies the same but not sent out a news release. In doing that, he politicized a police matter, confusing everyone thoroughly and alienating a significant number of people who voted for him two years ago.
“Take care of each other and be thoughtful,” Fields concluded in his email. “Together, we make a difference in Moore County.”
The good sheriff should heed his own advice. Take care of everyone — not just those who equate masks with “tyranny” — and be more thoughtful to the larger public health issue. And make a positive difference instead of a divisive one. Remember, Sheriff: Discretion is the better part of valor.