Unfortunately, there may be a time when threats or acts of violence against you become a reality while sidewalk counseling. It is important to know how to handle such a situation, and, in particular, when and how to involve the police.
When I arrived at the facility there were already some sidewalk counseling volunteers there. I spoke with one volunteer who said that one of the abortion facility escorts, Roy, was acting particularly aggressive that day. He was physically pushing his way in between sidewalk counselors and abortion-minded people at the facility. A couple of hours later, I saw two sidewalk counselors persuade an abortion-minded couple outside the facility to come down to talk with them.
Roy saw the sidewalk counselors in conversation with the facility’s potential customers and started marching aggressively in their direction. I could see that Roy was going to try to break up their conversation, so I walked over to them to intercept Roy. I stood with my back to the couple and faced Roy. When he was about ten feet away from me, he stuck his arm out horizontally at about shoulder height and continued to walk until he ran into me with his forearm.
I readied myself for the blow and shifted my weight to the balls of my feet, held my hands open and to the sides of my body, and prepared myself to take a punch. When Roy ran into me I reacted by saying, “Whoa! That’s not appropriate. We don’t get physical here. You can’t run into people and push us around.” He tried to sidestep around me, but I stepped in front of him, again. He pushed me with his raised elbow and tried to step around me a third time. I stepped in front of him, again, and we danced like this for a short time. He tried to look over my shoulder and talk to the couple who had just left the facility.
Roy: You don’t have to talk to these people! They’re not with the clinic!
Jacob: Roy, they know that. They’re not stupid. Roy, you shouldn’t come down across the line. This is our side, and that’s your side. We can’t cross over to your side.
Roy: Y’all can’t come over here, but I can go wherever I want!
Jacob: That’s true, but we can’t get physical. That’s the line none of us can cross. Because you crossed that line, I have to call the police.
At this point the facility security guard came down, and I turned my attention to her.
Jacob: Your guy has gotten physical. That’s a line we can’t cross, so I have to call the police now.
I started dialing 911. The security guard, Cheryl, whom I have maintained a very good relationship with and is the only person at the facility who will talk with us, immediately objected.
Cheryl: That’s not necessary! He didn’t hurt you, so let’s not escalate this to the police.
Jacob: You’re right. He didn’t hurt me, however, he has been getting more aggressive with each passing week, and now he has become physical. Once that line is crossed, we’re calling the police every time. You need to understand that.
Cheryl: Clearly he needs more training, but you’re not innocent here, either. You’ve been blocking traffic today, and our cameras will show that.
Jacob: I think we have different definitions of what blocking traffic is, but we’ll see what the police think. I’m glad to hear your video surveillance is working, so the police can make a decision for themselves.
Cheryl: Please don’t call the police! Let’s just get him out of here peacefully.
911: What is your name?
Jacob: Jacob Nels.
911: What is the address of your emergency?
911: What is your emergency?
Jacob: I’m a sidewalk counselor here in front of the [Redacted] abortion facility, and one of the facility volunteers has become physical. I am concerned things will continue to escalate if this is not dealt with by the police.
911: Is anyone hurt?
911: Are there any weapons involved?
911: Officers will be there shortly.
Jacob: Thank you.
Roy backed down, and both he and the security guard went back towards the facility. About ten minutes later the police arrived. I spoke with the police and recounted my story. I said, “Nobody’s been hurt, but I don’t want to see anyone get injured because Roy has been getting increasingly aggressive. I’m concerned that he will continue to escalate in his aggression.”
The police asked if I wanted to press charges, but I declined. I just wanted the escalation to stop. The police then went to speak with Roy and the security guard. After they had a pretty short conversation, one of the police officers came down to me and explained that Roy said he did not touch me. The officer had pressed Roy by saying, “So, the other ten witnesses are all lying to me?” Roy refused to speak about the incident further, but he did say that we were blocking traffic. I had a short conversation with the officer about what defines “blocking traffic.” The officer seemed to think I was being reasonable and that we were not blocking traffic.
I told the officer, “I think I made a mistake when you asked me whether or not I wanted to press charges. I should have said it depends on if Roy will admit guilt and recognize that what he did was wrong, but that’s not what I said, so I’m not going to go back on my word now.”
At that time I felt like if I went back on my word I would be seen as unreliable, and I considered it more important to build a good working relationship with the police. I filed a report, shook hands, and parted with the officers on good terms.
Here are my takeaways from this incident:
#1: Don’t go to the facility alone. Always have witnesses, preferably ones who are ready to record video. Every time I go to the facility, I’m going to prepare everyone there by telling them, “If you see any kind of altercation, pull out your phone and start recording it!”
#2: Know the law in this situation. What is blocking the driveway? Where are you legally allowed to stand? What kind of aggression is against the law and something you can press charges against?
#3: Always work under the assumption that you are being videotaped. Be respectful, keeping in mind that whatever happens may be seen by a judge or jury.
#4: Don’t hesitate to call the cops. Abortion facilities hate it when cops show up. The anxiety for clients at the facility is already high, and if abortion-minded people see police, they often choose to just walk away from the facility. Furthermore, the abortion facility must understand that you will not tolerate physical violence or threats of violence in any form!
#5: Know that sometimes pressing charges is the best lesson. If I ever have to call the police again, and they ask me whether or not I want to press charges, my answer will be, “It depends. I need assurance that the aggressor admits that what they did was wrong. If they do not understand that and will not admit it, I will press charges.” The point of pressing charges isn’t to get a pound of flesh; it’s to discourage violent behavior. I’m only satisfied that it will sufficiently discourage violent behavior if the offender either apologizes or has to face some kind of consequences.
#6: Your attitude with the police is very important. I was completely calm and reasonable every time I talked with them. I wanted them to understand that I didn’t think this incident was a big deal, but I was concerned that it would continue to escalate into something that could be a big deal. Once a facility worker crosses the line of getting physical, I’m going to call the police, because I want peace and stability, not violence and intimidation.
#7: Have a short description ready stating why you are there and what you do as a sidewalk counselor. Something like: “I’m here with _______ . We are a non-violent group that believes people matter, and we want to help human beings out of this bad situation.” Don’t get on a soapbox. The police usually don’t want to hear it. Let them ask the questions they’re interested in.
#8: Never overstate your situation. If you dramatize the situation, you will lose the respect of the police and they won’t take you seriously. They deal with serious crime all the time, so don’t try to make a mountain out of a molehill. Simply explain your situation and give them the facts.
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The post “Why I Called the Police at the Abortion Facility Last Month” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”