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Column: ‘Smoke police’ have been around since 2005

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I thought I had heard all the reasons opponents of the city’s anti-smoking ordinance put forth a few weeks back during the drawn-out debate on expanding the law to cover bars and private clubs.

It’s an infringement on our rights, said some of the city’s smokers.

It’ll run some of us out of business, said a number of bar owners.

We’ll also have to shut our doors, added a representative or two of the private clubs.

It turns out those didn’t exhaust the arsenal of doomsday possibilities.

City Council member Aaron Hankins came up with a new one.

In a column he penned on The Republic’s Dec. 9 Opinion Page, Hankins wrote:

“The role of our local police department is to protect the citizens and our property of which our local department does a very fine job! But when this law takes effect, our local police officers will now become the smoke police.

“This is not their job. Now smokers become treated like criminals, and our police force will be spread thin.

“There are only so many officers who can only be in so many places at one time with only so many precious minutes each shift.

“See someone smoking in a private business? Call the police on them, the ordinance says. While officers are responding to smoking, there could be and will be a call that involves a real crime or accident that truly puts a citizen’s life in danger.

“We want our officers on the front lines of first response focusing their time and energy on protecting citizens, not chasing down smokers.

“At the end of their shift, we want our hard-working officers to be able to go home and relax with their families, not give them a bunch of paperwork related to smoking ‘incidents.’

“This law will put our lives, our homes and our property at needless risk as police will not be able to focus as effectively on stopping real threats.”

Reaction to Hankins’ column was mixed. We heard from a few people who applauded his words and reiterated the unconstitutional charge about the smoking ban.

And then we heard from a spokesman for the Columbus Police Department who expressed surprise that CPD officers might become smoke officers once the comprehensive ban goes into effect six months from now.

Matt Myers was surprised because Columbus police have been responsible for enforcing a city smoking ordinance since a partial measure was adopted in 2005. In that time, there haven’t been many calls for their expertise as “smoke officers.”

“I can’t find any record that we have ever written a citation against anyone accused of smoking where they’re not supposed to be smoking,” Myers said earlier this week. “Moreover, no one I’ve talked to can remember getting any citizen’s complaint about someone smoking in a restaurant or other area covered by the original ordinance. I checked with dispatchers, and there’s no record of any complaint being filed in the last year or two.”

That’s not to say that no smokers defied the original ban that covered most public places, save for bars or private clubs.

“If any officers were dispatched for a smoking violation, I’m sure the situation was resolved simply through conversation,” Myers said. “I also imagine there might have been instances when the owners of the business took care of the matter without involving the police.”

Myers and other police officers hope that awareness programs planned over the next six months will clear up any confusion about the new ordinance and that the current lack of a need for their services to enforce a ban will continue.

That’s not to say that no one will blow the whistle on a patron who smokes in an establishment. In that event, Myers suggests that responding officers will be guided by common sense.

“Let’s get real about this,” the veteran officer said. “Should an officer be called on something like this, they will still be able to respond immediately to other calls if they’re needed. They’re not going to wait to finish an investigation on a violation of a smoking ordinance when they’re needed elsewhere.”

Based on the demand for the “smoke police” to respond over the past seven years, it’s highly doubtful that any officers would be put in such a situation.

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