What about Officer Safety?
The Atlanta police have claimed that they searched and detained everyone at the Eagle in the interest of officer safety. Numerous police officials from Chief Richard Pennington to GLBT Liaison Dani Lee Harris have publicly defended the conduct of the police on the grounds of officer safety.
The safety of police officers is of utmost concern to everyone, and no-one ever wants to hear of a police officer injured in the line of duty. But the conduct of the police at the Atlanta Eagle cannot be justified on the grounds of officer safety.
Within five to ten minutes after the police stormed into the bar, every single person at the Eagle was flat on the floor, had been frisked for weapons, and was found to be unarmed. At that point, any legitimate concern about officer safety disappeared. The patrons laying on the floor were unarmed and posed no threat to the police, and at that point, at the very least, the patrons should have been immediately released. Nothing from that point on can be justified on the grounds of officer safety, but instead of releasing the unarmed patrons, police kept them flat on the floor for an additional 30 to 90 minutes, and in a few cases, even longer.
And in fact, under the law, the police were not authorized to force these patrons onto the ground in the first place.
What is the law about Officer Safety?
Keeping police officers safe in the line of duty is a top concern not only of citizens, but also of the courts, and the Supreme Court has discussed the issue of officer safety many times. And the law is clear: When a police officer has a reasonable belief that a person suspected of criminal activity is armed and dangerous, the officer has every right to frisk that individual for weapons. That is both the law, and it’s also common sense. But the Supreme Court has also ruled again and again that to frisk an individual for weapons, the officer must first have the right to stop the person in the first place, and the officer must also have a reasonable belief that the person is armed and dangerous. And that, too, is both the law and common sense; otherwise police officers would be allowed to frisk anyone they encountered.
The courts have also ruled that when police do have the right to frisk an individual for weapons, that frisk is limited to a patdown for weapons only. When the officers at the Eagle put their hands into the pockets of the patrons, and removed driver licenses, wallets, keys, cash, cigarettes, and other items, they went far beyond a frisk for officer safety, and the search was clearly illegal under numerous Supreme Court precedents.
The issue of officer safety came up in the case of Ybarra v. Illinois, which is discussed in greater length on the Legal Issues page of this website. The police in the Ybarra case entered a bar called the Aurora Tap Tavern with a warrant to search the bar and the bartender. While at the bar, however, the police frisked all the patrons as well, and tried to defend their action on the ground of officer safety. The Supreme Court ruled that the frisk was illegal, because the police had no reason to suspect that any of the patrons were armed and dangerous: Since the only thing the police knew about the patrons was that they were present in the bar, the Supreme Court ruled that the officers had no right to frisk the patrons at all. And the same analysis applies at the Eagle.
No decent person would limit the ability of police officers to protect themselves from harm when they have a reasonable belief that they are in danger. But if the police could automatically frisk everyone present at a public place whenever a crime is committed — without any specific reason to believe that they were in danger — we would no longer have a free society. Imagine if police officers could frisk all the customers in a department store simply because they observed someone shoplifting? Or if police could frisk everyone at a health club because they observed two people having illegal sex in the shower? Or if police could frisk every passenger on a bus because the driver lacked the proper permit?
The bottom line is this: The police officers at the Atlanta Eagle forced patrons who were not suspected of any crime to lay face-down on a floor covered in spilled beer and broken glass, even long after they had been frisked and found to be unarmed. That simply cannot be justified on the basis of officer safety.