When the new city skate park opened in November, a list of park rules was posted at the entry gate. High on that list is a rule requiring skaters to wear a helmet.
But at that time, there was no city ordinance requiring skaters to wear helmets. In fact, rule number one is, "Skate at your own risk."
Opening without any helmet laws in place wasn't the intention of the city, however. The Memphis City Council was already working on such an ordinance before the skate park opened, but since the park was completed ahead of schedule, the ordinance wasn't ready by opening day.
"Frankly, the skate park was done a lot sooner than we expected. The contract went through December," said Parks Services director Cindy Buchanan. "We moved forward with the helmet ordinance, and darn if the skate park didn't get ready before the ordinance was finished."
The Memphis City Council was expected to vote on Tuesday on the third and final reading of an ordinance requiring helmets for anyone using the skate park with a skateboard, bicycle, or inline skates. The results of that vote weren't available at press time, but the ordinance was expected to pass.
Skater William Faulhaber, 12, found out the hard way on November 18th that, despite the lack of a city helmet law at that time, at least one Memphis police officer was taking those posted park rules very seriously.
In a video posted on memphisflyer.com, Memphis police officer Otto Kiehl is shown walking William to his squad car in cuffs, as he says, "I will be arresting every time I come by. I will be arresting somebody, whoever is not wearing a helmet."
Although the officer said he'd be "arresting," William was not taken to jail. The officer put him in a squad car and drove him home, but he was given a juvenile summons and must appear in court for criminal trespassing.
According to the summons, Kiehl says he made an announcement on his PA system advising "that it is illegal to use this facility without a helmet." It doesn't say what time that announcement was made, but Kiehl does state that he came back 15 minutes later to make another announcement, and nearly all skaters not wearing helmets had stopped skating, except for William.
However, William's father said his son never heard an announcement. He believes William may have been dropped off at the park after the first warning was made.
"It didn't occur to me until later that William couldn't have been there for the warning," Hans Faulhaber said. "He didn't know anything about that."
Officer Kiehl was willing to share his side of the story, but the MPD's administration would not allow the officer to speak with the media.
William didn't have a helmet with him because he'd forgotten it at home, Hans said. And although his father agrees with the park's helmet rule, he thinks the officer went too far.
"I don't disagree that helmets should be worn. Helmets are a good thing. They protect you from skull fractures. But I disagree with the way this went down," Hans said. "I'm sure the cop carries a cell phone. Why didn't he just call me and have me come to the park?"
Even the proposed city ordinance doesn't go so far as to call for arresting violators. The language states that anyone caught not wearing a helmet at the skate park can be fined $50, but the court system may dismiss the charges for first-time offenders.
Aaron Shafer of Skatelife Memphis hopes skaters will take safety seriously. If they follow the rules, Shafer said the city will be encouraged to build more skate parks.
"Skaters need to see the big picture," Shafer said. "We've been given a half-million-dollar skate park. Wearing a helmet is a show of gratitude."
"We're very excited to have a skate park, but we also know that you have to take safety precautions because skateboarding is not a risk-free sport. People are always trying new things and taking risks," Buchanan said. "We just want [skaters] to have fun and be as safe as they possibly can."