It ought to irk Americans of all political persuasions when police chiefs take the law into their own hands. That’s what happened in Boulder, Colorado on Halloween, according to this Wall Street Journal report:
BOULDER, Colo. — This city has always taken pride in its liberal-to-the-point-of-loony reputation. But this Halloween, one of its wackiest traditions is under siege: the Naked Pumpkin Run.
The event is exactly what its name implies. Scores of men and women pour into downtown streets for a late-night jog, wearing not a stitch between the jack-o’-lanterns on their heads and the sneakers on their feet.
For nearly a decade, naked pumpkin runners did their thing unmolested, stampeding through the frigid dark past crowds of admirers who hooted, hollered and tossed candy. But last year the run attracted more than 150 participants, and Police Chief Mark Beckner fears things are getting out of hand. “It’s a free-for-all,” he says.
So he intends to stop it.
He will station more than 40 officers on the traditional four-block route tonight, with two SWAT teams patrolling nearby. All have orders to arrest gourd-topped streakers as sex offenders.
In fact, the effort did stop the pumpkin run. Would be revelers didn’t want to risk a lifetime on the sex offender registry. It’s absurd that streakers are made to register alongside child molesters at all. But the biggest outrage in this news item is the reasoning of the police chief. He didn’t say, “This is against the law and my community wants it stopped.” He said, “It’s a free for all.” Put another way, it offends his personal preferences about community norms. So he sent out the SWAT team.
It’s worth noting a few more excerpts from the article:
At a recent forum for city council candidates, all 10 participants said they disapproved of the threatened crackdown.
Even Mayor Matt Appelbaum, who supports the police, admits to a tinge of worry that arresting Halloween streakers will tarnish Boulder’s reputation as, well, Boulder.
“I’m a little old for it, but it could be pretty cool to be running around with a pumpkin on your head and not much else,” says the 57-year-old mayor.
So the folks who represent the people of Boulder don’t want a crackdown.
What about the people themselves?
Police acknowledge they have not been flooded with pumpkin-run-related complaints, but say that’s beside the point. A throng of naked people with jack-o-lanterns on their heads is, by definition, an alarming sight, Chief Beckner says. Therefore, it’s illegal.
I guarantee you that the polity of Boulder encompasses a lot more folks who’d be alarmed by the site of SWAT police lining their streets. By the chief’s reasoning, their presence is therefore illegal.
One more excerpt:
“We’re a police department,” Chief Beckner says. “We enforce the law.”
Whether the law applies to naked pumpkin runners is a matter of some dispute.
It’s not illegal to be naked in downtown Boulder. In fact, the city has had a long, proud history of nudity.
Hundreds of University of Colorado students dashed across campus in the buff in 1974, in a vain attempt to set a Guinness World Record.
More recently, Boulder has played host to an annual Naked Bike Ride to protest dependence on fossil fuels. And the Boulder Daily Camera, the local newspaper, serves up a steady stream of stories about clothes-free joggers and nudist gardeners.
Casting about for a law to apply, since nudity per se is not illegal, police hit upon the state’s indecent exposure statute, which makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor for anyone to knowingly expose his or her genitals in circumstances “likely to cause affront or alarm.”
Given that the Naked Pumpkin Run starts at 11 p.m., long after young trick-or-treaters have retired, and given that the route is packed with fans who come out specifically to see the event, runners argue that it’s absurd to think their prank is causing either affront or alarm.
Even if the run does catch a few people by surprise, “the joy it brings overall far outweighs the one or two people who could be offended,” says Callie Webster, who is 22 and a veteran pumpkinhead.
A police chief should serve at the pleasure of the community and its elected representatives — and the latter should relieve this police chief of his job.