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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Police Can Sometimes Lack Tact

Published in the Sun Times Beacon News on April 26, 2009
by Columnist Kristen Ziman

A much-viewed You Tube video, which shows an off-duty, obviously intoxicated, Pennsylvania police officer inside of a bar mocking the scene of a murder at which he was the responding officer, has spurred public outrage. The obscenity-laden tape shows the officer laughing at the plight of a murder victim who was shot between the eyes as other tavern patrons listen and cackle in response. He is obviously enjoying the spotlight, and even makes fun of the mother’s reaction when she identifies her son.

Among those publicly calling for the police officer’s termination is the NAACP. In the video, the police officer suggests that the victim, a black man, is a drug dealer. The police officer, who is white, seemed to find the entire incident humorous in a way that is disturbing to anyone on the outside looking in. While I understand that some may see the video as a racial issue, I’m believe that this is more about blind ignorance and disrespect than it is about race.

I’ve read some interesting blog posts in response to the video and I’m amazed at the polarized viewpoints. One blogger suggested that police officers handle things differently than most people and that humor and alcohol are common methods for dealing with traumatic incidents. I would be a blatant liar if I didn’t admit to exercising a warped sense of humor about some of the tragedies I’ve seen in my career. I have told myself on more than one occasion that if I didn’t laugh, I would cry. The desensitization that occurs in police officers is necessary so we can function in our lives. If we were not desensitized from tragedy, we would surely not be able to cope--- and sometimes--- we don’t do very well at coping despite the protective measures. As the blogger suggested, some officers may turn to alcohol as another layer of protection (which may explain the Pennsylvania police officer’s obvious intoxicated state).

I must also confess there are some incidents for which we police officers lack emotion because they involve career criminals that knew the high stakes of playing the “game”. When investigating a crime, it is not uncommon for us to shake our heads when we learn the victim was caught up in criminal activity that obviously had the high propensity for danger. The Pennsylvania officer’s declaration, “We’re looking at it like, one less drug dealer to deal with--- cool,” makes me wonder if this was one of those instances. Even for police officers, it is much more difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible) to conceptualize when innocent victims lose their lives to random acts of violence in contrast to those who knew the risk and still chose the lifestyle. (I have heard many who are not in police work suggest the same). As disappointing and astounding as it may seem to some, I understand the psyche of that Pennsylvania officer because it is a glimpse into the dark side of police culture.

However, that is where my empathy ends because understanding it is not the same as condoning and I cannot defend the indefensible. Some of the other bloggers suggest that the police officer on the video is an evil human being and deserves to be fired. I know far more stories of police officers who stay and comfort families after a tragedy or those who attend court on their off time because they are emotionally vested in a case. The officer in that video is not a representative of all police officers.

As much as I disagree with vilifying him, I believe he should be held accountable for the exhibitionist style of disrespect. Even if the shooting victim was a career criminal or a drug dealer, he is still someone’s child. The police officer’s lack of respect violates a human being’s right to dignity. While some of us may be able to understand it, there is no excusing it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

True Acts of Charity

Appeared in the Beacon News on April 12, 2009

Although I rarely ride Metra, I recently decided the train was the best way to go to a training class in Chicago. I arrived at the transportation center about 15 minutes early and stood in line to purchase my ticket. Once I got to the window, I was stunned to learn Metra didn't take credit cards. Those who know me well know I rarely carry cash. I go through life swiping my credit card for nearly everything because I find it less cumbersome than writing checks or fumbling with loose change.

The cashier directed me to an ATM so I again waited in line to get cash. When it was my turn, I fed in my credit card and typed in my PIN number and waited. Denied. The transaction could not be completed because my PIN number was incorrect. After trying twice more with the same results, I looked at the people waiting behind me and offered with nervous laughter that I was having technical difficulties.

I then panicked because my train was about to leave. Recognizing my angst, a man behind me offered to give me some cash. I was taken aback by his offer and my initial (and silent) reaction was "no way." I am not very good at taking charity as my pride tends to be an inhibitor, but I had no other choice. I could either accept the man's offer or I could politely decline and miss both the train and my class. Without hesitation, he handed me a $20 bill.

I scribbled down his address and promised I would pay him back. He gave me a knowing smile and said, "It would make a great letter to the editor if you didn't because I read your columns in the Beacon." I was absolutely flabbergasted (but secretly giddy) at being "recognized."

After I recovered and took my seat on the train, I thought about a previous column I had written about Good Samaritans and instantly knew I had crossed paths with one. Some might argue the man wasn't really a Good Samaritan because he knew where to find me if I was delinquent on my payment. Nevertheless, he most certainly did not have to bail me out of my predicament. My ride on the "cash-only" Metra train gave me an hour to contemplate human nature and what makes a person trusting enough to hand over $20 and risk not getting paid back.

If I'm honest with myself, I don't think I would have given money to a total stranger if the tables were turned. Being a police officer for 15 years has made me rather suspicious of the motivations of others. Mind you, this isn't something I'm particularly proud of, but it comes from years of investigating the intricate scams that some criminals successfully pull off by tugging at the heart strings of others.

I have seen seemingly gentle mothers use their children as props to scam money from charitable victims. Then there are unsuspecting people who handed over money to the nice couple that knocked on their door with an empty gas can and a "stalled" vehicle -- the same thing they pulled in several neighborhoods and made a handsome earning. There are hundreds of similar scams that I have seen over the years that have made me into the skeptic I am today.

And then a man in a train station gives me a moment to pause and reflect on humankind. I immediately settled my debt by sending him payment, but I wondered what he would have done if I hadn't. Some people just give to others without expecting anything in return. No scams. No motives. No need for recognition. Whether it be a kind act or a charitable donation, those who selflessly go out of their way for others are reminders of everything that is right in the world.

If you have any topics or questions that you would like Aurora police Lt. Kristen Ziman to address, e-mail them to Kristen