Sat, Aug. 17

Commentary: It’s hardly a walk in the park when a brawl erupts

This man (face blurred per Verde Independent policy) was taken to the hospital by ambulance following the fight at Riverfront Park March 6. The man’s face was covered in blood. Cottonwood police said there were no criminal charges filed in connection with the fight.  VVN/Vyto Starinskas

This man (face blurred per Verde Independent policy) was taken to the hospital by ambulance following the fight at Riverfront Park March 6. The man’s face was covered in blood. Cottonwood police said there were no criminal charges filed in connection with the fight. VVN/Vyto Starinskas

When it serves their purpose, Cottonwood city officials are quick to pat themselves on the back for standing up to the boogeyman otherwise known as the State of Arizona.

A good case in point was the recent adoption of a city ordinance to outlaw hand-held cellphone use while driving. Where the State of Arizona was negligent, the City of Cottonwood was proactive.

But when the City of Cottonwood is the one who is negligent, or simply fails to use common sense, the rallying cry from officials is that the city’s hands are tied because of state law.

That’s exactly what happened last Wednesday when two men decided to settle their differences by slugging it out at Cottonwood’s Riverfront Park.

This was no run-of-the-mill fistfight. One of the two men ended up a bloody mess and appeared to be in considerable distress while being loaded into an ambulance, based on a photograph taken at the scene by the Verde Independent.

When the dust settled, the Cottonwood Police Department decided no one would be arrested. There would be no consequences.

There are two reasons for this:

• Cottonwood PD Sgt. Monica Kuhlt said, “The gist of the event is they are (or were) friends. One of them believes the other was sleeping with his wife. Both sustained superficial injuries and neither wanted to aid in prosecution (mutual combat). One of them requested to go to the hospital to get looked at. No criminal charges filed on either party.”

• The second reason there are no criminal charges of any kind – not even disorderly conduct – is that Cottonwood does not have a city ordinance that prohibits fighting in a public park. It’s not in the city’s Parks & Recreation Code. The city’s Community Services General Manager Richard Faust said a prohibition against brawling in the park “would be covered under Arizona Revised Statues involving criminal activity. We do not adopt policies whereby there is already a criminal designation by the State of Arizona legal system as that would be a duplication within the process of setting standards or adopting standards that are already in place. That’s why in the Parks & Recreation Code, there is no information provided involving criminal activities as these are covered and subject to enforcement by the local police agency(s) within State Law.”

Guess what Mr. Faust? There is an obvious loophole in the law that allows for absolutely no consequences for two guys who choose to beat the crap out of each other in your city parks.

At least according to the Cottonwood Police Department.

See, these two guys might not have gotten off nearly so easy had they taken their brawl somewhere besides Cottonwood.

Had it taken place, for example, in the Clarkdale Town Park, they most assuredly would have faced some kind of criminal consequences, according to Clarkdale Police Chief Randy Taylor. “The level of charges will depend on the level of injury,” said Chief Taylor. “If there is permanent injury, they would be charged with aggravated assault. If there is minor injury then possible just assault. At the very minimum, they would be charged with disorderly conduct as they are disturbing the peace or being disorderly in public, regardless of whether one wishes to press charges or not.”

Up the hill in Jerome, Police Chief Allen Muma said his town has a zero-tolerance policy toward fighting. “We do not tolerate violence in Jerome,” said Chief Muma. “If you choose to fight or brawl in Jerome, and we have probable cause, we arrest. That goes whether it is in public or not. We do not accept the old ‘mutual combat’ excuse where neither party wants to press charges. We as ‘the state’ press the charges, with one or both parties being charged with assault, disorderly conduct, or both depending on the circumstances. Violence is inexcusable, except in cases of self-defense. In my 20 years here, since we took the zero-tolerance stand, our fights, brawls and disorderly incidents have become a rarity.”

Ditto for Yavapai County. According to Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dwight D’Evelyn, whether in a public park or not, “Deputies will try and determine fault/aggressor and depending on the circumstances, an arrest would be likely regardless of cooperation. Many times, victim intimidation can cause someone to decline charges out of fear/revenge at the time of the incident. Deputies are not judge/jury at this stage. The county attorney has the final call … A disorderly conduct charge based on deputy info could always result in an arrest, and of course victim cooperation could be a factor but that determination usually comes later after a review of the case.”

As for how Cottonwood will deal with a similar situation in the future -- short of the kind of aggressive policing practiced in Jerome, Clarkdale and Yavapai County -- the Cottonwood City Council needs to take a page out of its own playbook when it comes to things such as using a cellphone while driving. If there is indeed this loophole in state law – and that seems debatable based on the approach used in Clarkdale, Jerome and Yavapai County -- Cottonwood needs to take a step above and beyond state law and adopt a city ordinance clearly stating that fighting is not allowed in its city parks, and outline the penalties for those who choose to violate this municipal ordinance.

Such action would be similar to what we see in our public schools when it comes to fighting. Schools, as well as public parks, need to be sanctuaries and safe zones from violence.

At Mingus Union High School for example, students caught fighting can be subject to criminal charges if their parents want to press charges, explained Acting Superintendent Genie Gee. But at the very least, there will be consequences of school suspensions of anywhere from 3 to 10 days. That’s not because of a mandate from the State of Arizona, Gee explained, but, rather, it is a Mingus Union policy adopted by the locally elected school board.

It’s much the same as the zero-tolerance policy Chief Muma said is the standard in Jerome.

Does this kind of political will exist in Cottonwood? Who knows? With the exception of first-year Council Member Michael Mathews, there seems to be a bunch of shrinking violets on the Cottonwood City Council in regards to last week’s brawl at Riverfront Park.

Said Mathews: “I have asked the city manager to look at our local ordinances to see if we can update them in a way that will eliminate this particular issue. I will work with our city attorney and police chief on any solution they might suggest. The City of Cottonwood does not condone violence in our city parks.”

Good for Mathews. Thank you for stepping up, sir, when no one else seems willing.

As for the City of Cottonwood not condoning violence in its city parks, the city needs to take it one step further.

Refuse to tolerate it.