In talking about actions taken to address the COVID-19 outbreak, including a statewide stay-at-home order recently extended to April 26, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has repeatedly said that the virus isn't political. But the atmosphere around enforcement remains highly charged, as witnessed by how quickly the story about the brief arrest of a Brighton dad, Matt Mooney, for allegedly playing T-ball with his daughter in an open public park became national and even international news.
The tale was first told on the evening of Monday, April 6, by Fox31 reporter Rob Low, who opened his piece with this statement: "Matt Mooney feels Brighton police owe him a huge apology. The 33-year-old says he was handcuffed at Donelson Park in front of his six-year-old daughter Sunday afternoon after police told him he violated the state’s social-distancing guidelines."
"She's like, ‘Daddy, I don't want you to get arrested,'" Mooney told Low. "At this point I'm thinking, 'There's no way they're going to arrest me, this is insane.' I'm telling her, ‘Don't worry, Daddy's not going to get arrested. I've done nothing wrong. Don't worry about it,’ and then they arrest me."
Granted, Mooney only spent about ten minutes in the back of a patrol car before being set loose. But the damage was already done, since the bust had been captured on video by a prominent Brighton figure: Kirby Wallin, a member of the town's city council.
At first, the Brighton Police Department attempted to buy some time in dealing with a possible public-relations disaster with this Facebook post: "The Brighton Police Department is conducting an investigation into a situation that occurred late this afternoon at Donelson Park. This is an active investigation and so we are unable to provide additional information until the investigation is complete."
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It didn't work. The incident had something for almost everyone: a sympathetic protagonist, apparent tone-deafness by overzealous authorities, and a tangential sports tie-in perfect for specialty news services desperately searching for material when no games are being played. Plus, it came complete with the following clip:
In short order, Mooney's experiences had been recounted in both the Washington Post, one of President Donald Trump's least-liked newspapers, and the Washington Times, among his personal favorites. Also jumping on board was Sporting News, as well as Britain's Daily Mail, a reliable barometer when it comes to whether a report is big enough to cross continents.
By yesterday, April 7, Brighton had blinked. According to a Brighton Police Department news release, city manager Marv Falconberg apologized to Mooney by telephone and offered to meet with him in the company of BPD Commander Frank Acosta. Mooney declined the latter invitation.
Along the way, the BPD presented an account of what went down that was clearly intended to make the cops' behavior seem more reasonable.
"On Sunday, at about 4:30 p.m., officers were dispatched to respond to a complaint from a concerned citizen about a large group of people gathering at Donelson Park," the release contends. "Upon arrival, officers encountered a group of about twelve-to-fifteen people who appeared to be playing softball. Although the officers asked them to disperse due to the park being closed, which was incorrect, dispersement was needed due to the state’s public health order regarding group gathering." Get-togethers involving ten people or more are currently off-limits.
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Wallin's video shows no such collection of folks, and the Brighton police deliver no explanation for why the officers on the scene determined that Mooney was among these supposed scofflaws. But while the department release notes that an internal investigation is under way, it also says that "it is evident there was an overreach by our police officers."
Why? The BPD alludes to the constantly shifting rules and regulations put in place to fight the novel coronavirus, and the confusion that can result for the folks charged with enforcing them: "As officers are required to interpret several layers of state public health orders and local closures as they change, there may have been a misunderstanding about the park closure. It is imperative that we improve communication with our front-line first responders so they are up to date on the latest rules in place regarding COVID-19 for addressing public safety."
The release concludes: "This is an opportunity for us to come together and do better for the community. We are deeply sorry for the events that took place on Sunday and the impact on Mr. Mooney, his family and the community."
Meanwhile, Brighton proved that even a small matter can grow large during the age of COVID-19.