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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Sarah Webb's Traffic Arrest: Losing One's Freedom On The Flip Of A Coin

     Being stopped for a traffic violation, for the otherwise law abiding citizen, is usually the only direct contact most people have with law enforcement. Most citizens, when caught speeding, realize they have broken the law and accept the fine with grace. While traffic offenders don't like being caught and fined, they don't hold it against the cop who stopped them. They know the police officer is just doing his or her job, and a dangerous job it can be.

     Citizens, however, do not appreciate unfair traffic enforcement such as speed traps. They also don't like it when an officer is rude, disrespectful, or abusive.

     To do their jobs effectively, police officers require the support of the law abiding community. That support is fragile, and can be destroyed if too many patrol officers do not act like professional public servants. A cop who abuses his or her power of arrest, even in minor cases, is unfit for law enforcement duty. There is no such thing as a minor abuse of power. In law enforcement zero-tolerance should be a two-way street.

     On April 7, 2018, 24-year-old Sarah Webb, en route to her job at a hair salon, was pulled over for speeding outside of Atlanta, Georgia by a pair of officers with the Roswell Police Department. Officer Courtney Brown approached the stopped vehicle and asked Sarah Webb if she knew how fast she had been driving. Webb apologized for driving too fast in the 45 MPH zone and explained that she was late for work.

     In addressing the speeding suspect, Officer Brown said, "The ground is wet and it's been raining. You're going over 80 miles per hour on this type of road. That's reckless driving."

     "I'm so sorry," replied the traffic violator.

     Officer Courtney Brown returned to the police cruiser and conferred with her fellow Roswell officer, Kristee Wilson. Officer Brown allowed that she had not recorded Webb's vehicle on a speed detection device and was speculating on how fast Webb had been driving. Officer Kristee Wilson informed her partner that she was not in possession of any speeding tickets. Regarding how fast Webb had been moving, Officer Wilson noted that Officer Brown's body camera would have recorded the police car's speed in catching up to the suspect.

     As Officer Brown accessed a coin-flip application on her cell phone, she said, "Hold on." Officer Brown said she would let the virtual coin decide whether or not they would release driver Webb or take her into custody. When to computer coin flip indicated arrest, Officer Brown approached Sarah Webb's car and informed her that she was under arrest.

      "Why am I being arrested," asked the stunned driver.

     Officer Brown told Webb, who was now sobbing, that she was being taken into custody for reckless driving and driving too fast for conditions. The officer handcuffed the traffic violator and placed her into the back of the patrol car.

     On Sunday, July 8, 2018, after a local television station aired Officer Brown's body camera video of the coin-flip and arrest, a local prosecutor dropped the charges against Sarah Webb. Up until this point, the arrestee had no idea she had been taken into custody on the strength of a coin toss.

     Not surprisingly, the airing of Officer Brown's body camera video created public outrage. This outlandish behavior on the part of a police officer also became a national news story.

    In response to the pubic's disgust regarding this police action, Roswell Chief of Police Rusty Grant told reporters that Officers Courtney Brown and Kristee Wilson had been placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal inquiry. "I have much higher expectations of our police officers," he said. "I am appalled that a law enforcement officer would trivialize the decision making process of something as the arrest of a person."

     Sarah Webb, who characterized the officers' administrative leave as a paid vacation, said this: "These [police officers] are people who are supposed to protect us. It's disgusting to think police officers do stuff like this. It was appalling."

     The authority to arrest, to restrain people and haul them to a police station constitutes enormous power over the lives and reputations of our fellow citizens. As a result, this authority should carry with it equally momentous responsibility. Any police officer who intentionally abuses the power of arrest, at any level of law enforcement, should be dealt with severely. A police officer without empathy is a danger to society. Officers Courtney Brown and Kristee Wilson are unfit for police work and should be fired.

     On July 26, 2018, Officers Brown and Wilson were fired. According to Chief Grant, they were terminated "For treating our freedom and our lives as games."

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