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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Part with those who go wrong

In response to my last column about “bad apples” in our organizations, I received a scathing e-mail from a reader who took issue with my reference to “the beloved Penn State coach”. He accused me of presenting skewed facts and misleading the public by referring to the coach in this way, saying, “Paterno didn’t molest anyone and you give this impression with your slanderous comments.”

To be clear, I was talking about Jerry Sandusky when I referenced the alleged sexual abuse against young boys. The reader took issue with my using “beloved” as an adjective before the word “coach”. I responded back and pointed out that Sandusky has been on the coaching staff since 1969 so he must have been “beloved” by someone to have been employed by Penn State for so long. The term “beloved” is subjective in my opinion. (I also pointed out that he should have been accusing me of libel and not slander since slander refers to the spoken word and libel the written word).

After I was done with my bratty and sarcastic response, I realized that he had a point. I concede to the fact that Joe Paterno is widely known as the “beloved” coach and my reference to Sandusky as such may have been misleading. However, the angry reader missed the point of the column entirely which was about cops being outraged by fellow officers who tarnish the badge. It also dealt with having the moral courage to stand up and acknowledge bad behavior within our own organizations rather than turning a blind eye or attempting to cover it up.

In the reader’s quest to preserve the reputation of the “beloved” coach, he failed to see that Coach Paterno bears some responsibility for the alleged molestation that occurred on the young boys after it was brought to his attention. While he did not molest anyone, he failed to follow up on information he received from an eye witness and the molestations continued. I give him credit for at least reporting it to university officials but once he came to the realization that nothing was being done about it, he should have taken it a step further and gone directly to law enforcement. Just ask Mr. Sandusky’s victims if they would have preferred that Paterno or any of the people who had knowledge of the abuse step up and make some noise until they were heard.

When someone has knowledge of something illegal or harmful that is occurring and they do nothing about it, they bear responsibility by allowing it to go on. Period. When they ignore objectionable behavior, they are condoning it. Is it a horrible position to find themselves in? Absolutely.

Don’t misunderstand and think that I’m idealistic enough to believe that we can all live on a moral high ground. I can assure you that I have been guilty of turning a blind eye to something at some point in my life because I was afraid. Most of us have been in situations where we know we should say something but choose not to. It’s easier to remain silent because we risk being ostracized by those who would have preferred that the information never be brought to light. It’s easier to hope that someone else comes forward so we don’t have to be the one. After all, there are people who will be loyal to the person committing the atrocity and turn their anger towards the whistle-blower.

My admiration goes out to those courageous enough to stand up and do what it right even when it’s uncomfortable. Abe Lincoln summarized it best when he said, “I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Policing Ourselves

In reference to my column where I talked about the Chicago Police Officer who tarnished our badge and our profession by falsifying an incident, a reader wondered if I get pushback from my fellow officers when I bring these topics to light because I’m supposedly breaking the “blue wall of silence” by illuminating these dark places.

The answer is no.

I sometimes feel like police officers get painted with a broad brush because the headlines report about corrupt officers leading people to believe that all police officers are dishonest. I can concede to the fact that there are police officers who should have never been allowed to assume the great responsibility that comes with the power they are afforded. I will admit that there are some police officers who use their position of authority in ways that serve themselves. There are police officers who take advantage of sick time and leave the officers who come to work every day to pick up their slack.

While they exist, it is in minuscule percentages when compared to those officers who come to work every day and do their jobs with a warrior spirit and a servant heart. The people that disrespect their office and abuse their power exist in every profession. They exist in religious institutions, the medical profession, political office, and most recently, in the locker rooms of prestigious colleges. Give me any profession and I will show you someone who has violated the core principles of humanity and the organization they represent because of their own character flaws.

The reason I don’t get any negative feedback on calling out the ones who don’t deserve to wear the badge is because the great majority of our officers are just as angry as the public at large about the lack of respect for the position they hold. In fact, the main reason institutions get into trouble in the first place is by failing to acknowledge when someone in their own organization does something devoid of ethics. Or worse, they cover up the wrong-doing in the hope that no one will find out about it.

I don’t think the general public is naive enough to believe that no one will ever abuse their position of influence or office. But we expect that it be dealt with swiftly should it occur. When the Catholic Church covered up the sexual abuse allegations against Priests, the public was outraged. When Penn State turned a blind eye to the heinous sex acts being committed on young boys by their beloved coach, we took issue.

The same goes for the “thin blue line” in policing. In the police departments of old, I can assure you there was cover-up and corruption. But I can tell you with great confidence that the times have changed. In our profession, if you commit an act that is a disgrace to the badge, you stand alone. The thin, blue line of loyalty has dissipated because there are systems and processes in place by which cover-up and deceit only serve to get an officer unemployed. Blind loyalty is no more.

Just like the public should be outraged when organizations attempt to cover up wrong-doing for the sake of avoiding a scandal, so should every person who is a part of the disgraced organization. The reason the police officers don’t get upset with my shining the light in dark places is because they don’t want those unworthy to wear the badge either.

It takes immense moral courage to stand against a colleague who you know to be engaging in behavior that is destructive or illegal. And it takes even greater mental fortitude as the leaders of organizations where it is occurring to acknowledge it. But it must be done.