Detective Baylor’s reaction to the December 19th snowball fight on 14th and U Street in Washington, D.C. has become a heavily scrutinized and sensationalized national news story. Immediately following the incident, media accounts incorrectly reported the initial Metropolitan Police Department press release that inaccurately stated Baylor’s cell phone was mistaken for a gun. But thankfully numerous people in attendance, armed with cameras and picture phones, took the images they captured to the web and the story went viral. Eventually all of the Youtube videos and Flickr images, along with the damning tales from numerous eyewitness accounts posted online, helped to correct the MPD report as they revealed Baylor did, in fact, pull out his gun on the snowball revelers. Subsequently, Baylor was even publicly scolded by MPD Chief Cathy Lanier. Recently though, some people have boldly suggested that the rush to harshly judge Baylor’s action should be tempered, either through additional fact-checking or with a sustained critique of the snowball fight instigators. As a witness to this incident, I must insist: no way. There is a thin line between protection and enforcement and Baylor clearly stepped over it. The snow was not covering that line. Throwing snowballs at the snowball participants now will not blur the line either.
As an unannounced plain-clothes officer who “chooses” to get out of his vehicle and approach a crowd because you are angry that your Hummer was just “pelted” with snowballs, you should not pull out a gun. (And in no way could these snowballs be identified as ice balls or any other potentially dangerous projectile—anyone who knows the slightest bit about the type of snow that was being packed and thrown knows well what all the people who were present and throwing knew: the snowballs couldn’t have done damage to the Hummer, startle its driver, or hurt a person had the snowball hit them square in the face…in fact, Baylor can attest to this as he was later pelted between his angry eyes.) Baylor’s life was never in danger, at least not until he pulled out his pistol in public without identifying himself as an officer (I can only imagine what may have ensued if the responding gun-wielding officer had not recognized Baylor or, worse yet, if someone else in the crowd decided to respond to Baylor by pulling out their weapon).
Undoubtedly, police officers encounter difficult situations all of the time. But those situations are routinely handled with cooler heads than what Baylor displayed–even situations that are more intense, complex, and chaotic than the snowball fight. As he approached the intersection in his Hummer, headed westbound on U Street, he was stopped about 20 yards away from the action waiting for the light to turn green. He must have seen the snowball throwers well in advance of the westbound light turning green. As he began to pass through the intersection and his vehicle was splattered with snow, I imagine he quickly decided that he’d show the crowd who was toughest. There should not be a doubt: he did not attempt to transform the corner into an orderly gathering, he was not concerned about possible damage to his vehicle, and he was surely not fearful for his safety or life. He coolly drew his weapon and held it out for all to see. He did not intend on using it for anything other than show. Very clearly, he displayed his weapon for the surrounding crowd because he wanted to strike fear. That is all. He wanted to display force and puff out his chest. Simply put, in this situation Baylor acted like a bully, or a jerk.
This story simply isn’t about the “irresponsible” snowball throwers. People gather spontaneously on street corners all of the time to celebrate and reveal their happiness. Just over a year ago, that same 14th and U Street corner was transformed into a celebratory focal point following the 2008 Presidential Election.
Truth is, before the gun-toting Baylor arrived at the scene, many other peace officers had either passed through or briefly stopped by. Presumably they all left satisfied that the people playing in the snow were acting safely enough and, by all reasonable accounts, within the spirit of the law, if not the letter. However, when Baylor arrived, his actions proved that his instincts are to first, strike fear, second, assess the situation. A defense of this decision is untenable. He acted like a jerk and deserves jerk duty: sitting at a desk where he can assess how his gun-toting actions are unacceptable. Abusing authority and losing the public’s trust cannot be absolved because you have 25 years of service, as Baylor does. A badge used differently (for example, prominently displayed for all to see) could have been sufficient-enough display of force to alter the “errant” ways of everyone present and to end the snowball fight in the best possible way.
The public should continue to voice and demand exceptional behavior and integrity from those that carry the badge. The police are supposed to be the finest among us and we should demand that they act like it. If the integrity of all of us that through snowballs at one another are in need of greater scrutiny, then so be it. I feel confident that my actions will withstand the scrutiny, as well as those of the other snowball fight participants. Baylor’s, however, will not. Not even with additional facts and with the few skeptical voices that remain out there that are calling out for punishment to be dished out fairly.