It’s been a curious past week for police misconduct: a Houston Police Department “officer of the year” recipient was arrested by federal agents after being linked to the Zetas drug cartel, while El Paso police officers were reprimanded for using department equipment to make a music video. And it’s still getting weirder.
Last weekend, at the ChiliFest Country Music Festival in the Burleson County town of Snook, just outside College Station, an officer hired by the county from a neighboring police department saw a teenage girl suspected of underage drinking. Rather than immediately write her a ticket, however, he opted for a different approach to justice. In front of two other officers, he challenged her to a game of rock-paper-scissors. If he won, she’d be ticketed. If she won, she’d get off with a warning.
She threw rock, he threw scissors. (Good ol’ rock!) A friend, who captured the encounter on Vine, put a gif of the match on Reddit, and things quickly went viral. It’s obvious why—in six seconds, the girl’s face goes from palpable terror to stunned relief, which is dramatic to watch.
The Internet may have loved the officer’s exercise of discretion, but the Burleson County constable was less enthusiastic about his action and those of the other officers nearby:
Burleson County Precinct 2 Constable Dennis Gaas confirms to News 3 that three of the officers he hired to work security at the music festival last weekend in Snook gave an underage drinker the chance to get out of a ticket by winning a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. You can see from her reaction that she was both excited and relieved to have won.
Gaas says he found out about the incident last night. This morning he told all three officers that they will not be allowed to work security at future [Chilifests]. He also notified the two departments the officers work for so they can decide whether further action is warranted. Gaas declined to say what departments the three officers work for.
Giving the underage drinker a break is not what got the officers in trouble. Gaas says doing so is an officer’s discretion. But when they “play games to get someone out of a ticket, I have a problem with that,” Gaas said.
Gaas has the right to decline to hire the officers again, but let’s parse what happened here. Underage drinking is illegal, and rightly so, but it’s also as common a crime as exists. We don’t want every single teenager who ever snuck a beer at a concert to face fines/mandatory counseling/driver’s license suspension/court appearances/etc. Our system isn’t set up for every kid to be punished for drinking beer. Which means that the enforcement of the law, when it comes to underage drinking, is inherently arbitrary. Some kids are punished for it. Some kids aren’t.
So while rock-paper-scissors is admittedly as arbitrary a standard for law enforcement as you’re liable to find, it’s ultimately not any more random than any other approach to policing underage drinking. Rewarding a teenage girl for throwing rock (nothing beats that!) isn’t really more unfair than rewarding a teenager for successfully hiding a beer from an officer’s view or pouring it into a different container.
And watching the video, it seems that the officer managed to make the potential consequences of being cited for underage drinking very clear to the girl: the terror-to-relief transition on her face doesn’t look like the reaction of someone who considered what she was facing to be inconsequential. Which is much of the point of the juvenile justice system—not to punish kids as harshly as possible, but to instill in them a sense of consequences for their actions. The fact that in this instance, those consequences went unsuffered simply because of a lucky throw doesn’t invalidate that. It’s hard to imagine that the girl in the video expects that next time she gets caught drinking, she’s going to get a similar offer.
In other words, it’s reasonable to interpret the officer’s actions here as more effective than merely letting her off with a warning. We want our police to exercise discretion in enforcing the law—we don’t need a Robocop—but we also want them to drive home the seriousness of the law. Giving an alleged underage drinker a 50/50 chance of getting a citation or getting away with a warning does both. It may be creative policing, but it’s hard to understand why on earth that would be a bad thing.