OP-ED: Unmasked Northern Regional officer abused authority, broke public trust

Clare Sweeney

Like most people, over the past year I’ve made a lot of changes in an effort to keep myself, my family, loved ones, and even complete strangers safe.

I have said “no” to nearly everything that I have been invited to do and have kept my world small with a “bubble” that has almost exclusively included my wife, my mother-in-law, my immuno-compromised mother and my father, who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer.

Within our bubble we have continued to take precautions with each other, but we all have minimized our exposure to the outside world as much as possible because keeping each other safe during this time is the most important thing for all of us. Shopping through online orders or curbside pick-up has helped to minimize my exposure to others and when I must go into a store, I have often turned around and left if people are unmasked.

More:Now it's an order: Masks required when leaving home in Pa.

More:More is better, CDC says in new guidance on anti-COVID mask wearing

More:Mask wearing in Pennsylvania high school sports becomes a hot-button issue for PIAA

I have viewed my contribution to the health and safety of the members of my bubble as a product of the choices that I make every day during this pandemic. I did not anticipate that inadvertently making a left turn at a stop sign where only right turns are allowed would strip me of that autonomy and control.

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, I was pulled over by an officer from Northern York County Regional Police Department. As he approached my car unmasked, I asked him to put on a mask. He refused, stating that he did not have one with him. I was shocked that he was not wearing a mask from the very beginning of the encounter and then I was furious when he refused to wear a mask at my request.

When he returned to my car after issuing me a ticket, I had my window open only about an inch so that he could hand me the paperwork and it would minimize my exposure. He crouched down and had his mouth inches from my open window. I asked him to please step back and keep a safe distance while talking to me. That request was completely ignored.

Unlike a store that I could choose to leave when people are being unsafe, citizens do not have a choice to disengage with a police encounter. When police refuse to wear masks or follow safety protocols with the public, this is a willful abuse of their power and a breach of public trust.

I concede that I broke a traffic law when I made an illegal turn and that I deserve the ticket that was issued. However, the officer broke an order from the Department of Health by refusing to wear a mask. I would argue that his actions are a greater threat to public safety than my own.

For people in positions of public trust, such as police officers, teachers, and members of clergy, the poor behavior of one member of the profession can color the public’s view of the entire field. Clearly relations between communities and police departments have been strained. If police departments would like for that dynamic to change, the ground-floor expectation should be that officers show basic respect for citizens and comply with state laws and mandates.

I am concerned that the young officer who pulled me over, who has been on the force for less than a year, is comfortable approaching a citizen during a routine traffic stop in a way that left me feeling dehumanized and appeared much more concerned with exerting his authority than protecting public safety. Just as I cannot choose to make that illegal left turn because it feels safe to me, the officer should not be able to choose to work unmasked in a pandemic in violation of a state health order because he does not personally view it as dangerous.

My mother-in-law expressed the violation and anger that I was feeling well when she said, “It’s like he put a hole in our bubble.” I deserved the ticket, but making a wrong turn should not strip me of my autonomy and ability to protect my health and the health of my loved ones.

I am angry for myself, the people in my bubble, all the other citizens who have had similar encounters with unmasked police officers, and for all of the officers who do put public safety first and whose profession is marred by the actions of officers who act as though their position allows them to operate above the law. 

I have filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Northern York County Regional Police Department, and I urge others who have had similar encounters to do the same.