By Bridget Hall, Staff Writer, Ocala Star-Banner
OCALA – A federal judge has ruled that the Ocala Police Department cannot refuse to assign special duty officers to the abortion clinic, saying the denial of such officers violates the clinic’s right to equal protection.
That ruling was a temporary injunction that will ensure police protection for the Ocala Women’s Center while it pursues its federal suit against OPD, the city, the county, Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the past and current sheriff, and a dozen protesters.
The suit, filed last December, for permanent police protection, damages from local government, and law enforcement, and restrictions on the activities of anti-abortion protesters.
“Getting the police protection is a really, important step. Having the police around there will make the (anti-abortion protesters) behave a lot better, said Roy Lucas, attorney for clinic owner Dr. James Pendergraft. “It’s also a nice, important precedent. It’s the first time this issue’s’ come up, so it’s good to have it on the books:”
Both the police and sheriff’s office allow officers to work special security assignments in addition to their regular hours. The officers are me uniformed, armed and have full arrest powers, but they are paid by the businesses that requested them.
OPD has had special duty officers work at rodeos, restaurants and church carnivals in the past year, but Chief Morrey Deen declined Pendergraft’s requests last year for an officer at the abortion clinic for the two days each week that procedures are performed.
City attorney Pat Gilligan defended Deen’s decision before U.S. District Court Judge William Terrell Hodges earlier this month, saying the chief relied on his own discretion in assigning officers. In the case of the abortion clinic, Gilligan said, the presence of a police officer could give the appearance that law enforcement was taking sides in the controversial abortion debate.
In a 19-page ruling dated April 26, Hodges rejected that reasoning saying the special duty program was not being administered in a “non-discriminatory, non-arbitrary manner if assignments were made according to the chief’s “completely undefined and subjective policy.”
Gilligan’s argument that police guarding the clinic might appear to be not neutral, Hodges added, is “wholly irrational.”
“One would suppose, in terms of sound law enforcement objectives, that the greater the likelihood of a public clash of adversaries, the greater the justification for a police presence to maintain peace and good order,” Hodges wrote. “To disapprove the presence of police officers in such a case merely because some members of the public – even a majority of the public – may not like it, is nothing less than a complete abandonment of, law enforcement responsibility.”
“After reviewing the court order, Gilligan said he wished the judge would have taken into account that the clinic receives police protection through other means, including periodic surveillance and security patrols.
“Chief Deen believes that the protection (the clinic) gets should be more low-key, but it has been ongoing and it has been continuous,” Gilligan said. They get more ongoing protection than any other business-in Ocala.
Gilligan said the city and OPD would fully comply with the Court’s order, but that it would be up Deen, Mayor E.L Foster and the city council as to whether they would appeal the judge’s ruling.
Lucas also asked the court to limit anti-abortion protesters’ activities around the clinic, prevent them from copying license plate information or videotaping within 1,500 feet of the clinic, as well as limiting the times, numbers of protesters and signs used in anti-abortion picketing.
The Rev. Ed Martin, an anti-abortion protester named in the suit, said none of the protesters have copied license plate information or harassed patients or staff, although he said he carries a video camera to document that clinic personnel were photographing the protesters.
The judge denied Lucas’ request saying the protesters have acted, within their First Amendment rights and that their words and presence do not constitute a threat of force.
“I’m tickled to death over the ruling,” Martin said. “ We’re just moms and dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, and young people who come out there because we feel abortion is wrong and we want to offer assistance to women going in.”
Lucas said he will appeal this part of the judge’s ruling in the hopes that a higher court will limit the protesters’ activities.
“We’re still very much concerned about the videotaping and photographing of patients and license plates,” Lucas said. “From the patient’s point of view that’s a pretty serious invasion of privacy.”