Says agencies failing to protect abortion clinics
By Bridget Hall, Staff Writer, Ocala Star-Banner
OCALA — Dr. James Pendergraft filed suit Thursday against the city of Ocala and Marion County for refusing to provide off-duty, uniformed officers to stand guard at his abortion clinic.
The lawsuit also names Chief Morrey Deen of the Ocala Police Department, former Marion County Sheriff Ken Ergle, and Sheriff Ed Dean.
Both law enforcement agencies routinely provide off-duty officers to area businesses requesting security, and the businesses pay the officers for their overtime. But OPD and the Sheriff’s Office have denied requests for officers to be assigned to Ocala Women’s Center, depriving him and his patients of their due process and equal protection rights, Pendergraft said.
“The reason I’m doing this lawsuit is because we’re not getting any protection from the government bodies to protect a woman’s constitutional right to come and have a termination (of pregnancy) performed,” he said at a press conference in Orlando.
The presence of a uniformed officer with the power to arrest is crucial, Pendergraft said, because protesters gather daily at the clinic to harass staff and patients, sometimes obstructing the driveway to the clinic. Pendergraft said some of those protesters have copied license plate numbers of patients and staff, and videotaped and shouted at people entering the clinic.
“Private security (guards) cannot enforce any law. Their thing is they have to call the police,” he said. “By the time the police get there, whatever they’re doing is over with.”
Before Pendergraft opened the Ocala Women’s Center in July, he requested off- duty OPD officers for Tuesdays and Saturdays, when the clinic would be performing abortions. The clinic only offers pregnancy testing, pap smears and pelvic and breast exams during the other days of the week.
Deen denied the request, saying in a letter to Pendergraft that the department had no “legal obligation” to provide off-duty officers.
In an interview with the Star-Banner in July, Deputy Chief Andy Krietemeyer added that the department did not want to assign officers to the clinic because “a significant segment of the population believes that it’s the wrong thing to do.”
Deen said he could not comment on the case until the city attorney had received and reviewed the lawsuit.
Pendergraft also requested an off-duty deputy from the Sheriff’s Office, but Ergle said he could not provide deputies because of an arrangement with OPD that deputies would not work security details within the city limits. Dean has also refused Pendergraft’s requests.
Sheriff’s officials would not comment on the lawsuit.
Because local law enforcement has failed to provide security for the clinic, Pendergraft said, anti-abortion protesters have been free to harass doctors, staff and patients. His suit charges that Marion County Right to Life President Ed Martin, abortion protester Meredith T. Raney Jr., and 11other unnamed defendants have violated the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which prohibits protesters from intimidating or blocking people entering a clinic.
“You have five or 10 (protesters) on each side of the building — it’s like a fortress,” Pendergraft said. “No matter who comes and who goes, they know about it. That’s not the way it should be.”
Martin could not be reached for comment Thursday night and Raney declined
Abortion foe Jacki Robinson, who has protested outside the clinic, said she has never seen Martin or any other protester videotape patients, copy down license plate numbers or otherwise intimidate doctors, staff or patients.
“The protesters that I have stood with and seen and ministered to outside of the abortuary have been a loving and kind group,” she said. “They have not to my knowledge harassed anyone.”
In his suit, Pendergraft is asking for a “buffer zone” that would prevent Martin, Raney and the 11 unnamed defendants from copying identifying information, filming or photographing doctors, staff or patients, or gathering to protest within 1,500 feet of the clinic.
He is also asking that protesters be prohibited from displaying signs showing aborted fetuses or pushing carriages with ketchup-covered dolls. He is asking that protesters’ signs carry a disclaimer saying abortion is allowed under state and federal law and is sanctioned as safe by the American Medical Association.
Robinson, who carries a sign that reads “Abortion Kills Children,” said adding Pendergraft’s disclaimer would violate her free speech rights.
“Then I would have to carry another sign saying not all laws are moral,” she said.
The court case could take months or years before a judgment is made, so next week Pendergraft will file a motion for a temporary buffer zone, which could go into effect in as little as a month. If his petition for a permanent buffer is granted, he said, he will need off-duty police officers to enforce it. By suing OPD and the Sheriff’s Office in the same suit, he hopes to force them to do so.
Pendergraft said he filed the suit in the United States District Court in Orlando so it would not be tainted by local politics.
“We know the people up there are all in bed with each other, some way, somehow,” he said.
Pendergraft, who also owns two clinics in Orlando and one in Tampa, said he will file a similar suit next week asking for buffer zones around his Orlando clinics. That suit will not name the Orlando Police Department as a defendant because Pendergraft had no trouble hiring those officers for security details, he said.
He has not requested off-duty officers for his Tampa clinic, which just opened in October, but said he plans to do so.