Monday, July 02, 2007

The Secret Police

Okay, I’m back. Man, them chicks is loco.


It’s been brought to my attention that this blog has been lacking in substance in recent months. I admit that I have been trending towards the light and breezy, in part because of an increased inkling that my thoughtful commentary comes across as foolish blowhardedness. This explains my recent foray into blog theatre; if I'm going to be thought a fool I might as well enjoy acting as one. But I didn’t garner the most intelligent commentors in the blogosphere by dodging the serious issues of the day. So here’s a little red meat for some of you regulars (if you’re still out there) to chew on.

I’ve never worn a badge and I’m probably not fit to carry a gun. But I don’t believe that this disqualifies me from commenting on the Springfield Police Department and their festering image problem. In fact, as an average citizen with little experience dealing with the police in an official capacity, I think that I can see, maybe better than those with a more active stake, how and why a group that is comprised generally of well-meaning and hard-working individuals can be seen as manipulative, furtive, and bigoted by so many in our community.

I don’t mean to suggest that the SPD’s problems are simply a matter of image. There are clearly issues that need to be addressed. But if I wish to speak with any authority at all in hopes of having my words taken seriously, which will be increasingly more difficult after the hostage charade, then I must limit my commentary to an area on which I do have some expertise: public relations and in particular, how it is viewed through the media.

I don’t know if Don Kliment was a good chief. I have no reason to doubt that he was at the very least competent at administering to the inner workings of the department. But I do think a legitimate criticism can be made about how he dealt with the external goings-on. In short, we seldom saw or heard from the guy.

The chief needs to be a public figure. Ideally he or she would be a well-liked and trusted figure who cuts an impressive image, but at the very least this person should be recognizable, accessible, and exhibit all of the outward signs of proper hygiene.

Whenever there is an issue involving the department, the chief should be out in front of it, instead of tucked away in city hall. When reporters call, the chief should be answering the phone. When TV20 comes scooping around, it should be the chief’s mug on the nightly news.

The chief should be someone who will openly defend the officers when they’re wrongly accused, even if it means angering the accusers. But also someone who will acknowledge when mistakes are made and who will be as open and upfront as the law and the sensitivity of their work allows. In short, we need Frank Furillo, except he shouldn’t be carrying on with the DA, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

My initial impressions are that Ralph Caldwell will be better as the public face for the department, at least to the extent that he is allowed to be. He seems like he will be more comfortable in the public eye and in all other ways he seems qualified for the job. But even in handing him the reigns, the department, and probably to a larger extent the mayor’s office, bungled the public relations aspect.

First off, they need to relieve themselves of the 2,300 page albatross. Someone should do an assessment of the risk in releasing the infamous ISP report to determine if the potential harm is greater than the suspicion it continues to generate by remaining concealed. One of two things could happen if they release the report, either the public would see that their clamoring was for naught or the department would be forced to deal publicly with some problems that might look clearer once exposed to the sun. Of course a third possibility is a lawsuit, but that’s why we have Jennifer Johnson.

Secondly, a nationwide search for a new chief should have been conducted.

The argument against looking outside the department largely consists of pointing to former chief Harris as reason enough to hire from within. But were Harris’ problems the result of his not being a veteran of the SPD or were other shortcomings to blame?

Sports teams don’t automatically hire the long-time assistant when the head coaching job comes open, why is it assumed by those in the department that there isn’t a Belichick-type cop from some other burg who could come in and shape the troops into a championship force? If, after a good long look, Caldwell was still the best man for the job, then he’d have been given a leg up in the credibility department because it would have helped dispel the notion that he is the mayor’s boy and the rank and file’s crony.

There pervades in the SPD, an attitude of “we know what’s best and if everyone would just leave well enough alone then we can get on with our jobs.” I don’t dispute the fact that the police are the experts when it comes to policing and that much of the criticism leveled against them is unfounded or misguided. But theirs is clearly one of the most scrutinized and sensitive of occupations and since they’re compensated through taxpayers’ dollars, you can’t expect the public not to take an interest in their work.

Even if every officer were honest, upstanding, and vigorously tolerant of all races, colors and creeds, there still would be the impression that prejudice taints the enforcement of justice. Circling the wagons at every accusation of wrong doing only exasperates that notion, even if the accusation is bogus. The unfortunate truth, however, is that not every officer is Andy Taylor and not every cry of police misconduct is without merit.

I appreciate the work that police officers do. I understand that they must confront the dangers that we civilians can flee from. I also understand that much of the work they do is confidential. But from my perspective, the Thin Blue Line would be more formidable if it were more perceptible. I hope the new chief appreciates this and becomes a more active advocate for his officers and a more responsive servant to the citizenry.

3 comments:

A Concerned Citizen said...

Dan,

Nice to have you back.

You make some reasonable points, especially as it pertains to the Chief being visible and assessable. I too think that would go a long way in instilling public trust, but also, if played the right way, can be an inspiration to the police department.

In regard to your call for the Mayor to share the state police report I must disagree. Although there is much to be gained and lost politically by the Mayor and various aldermen this is not just a political issue. In the contract between the City and the police union there is language that states in regard to the release or use of internal investigations material: "shall not be used in any manner or any form adverse to the officer's interest. File materials are confidential, but if a bona fide reason arises for the removal of inactive files.....the officer will be notified."

While I will acknowledge that there is some ambiguity in the contract language I hang my hat on the word "confidential." The burning question is, does the press and alderman's curiosity equate to a "bona fide" reason? Based on past practice in how closely information contained in an IA file is guarded I totally agree with the Mayor's stance. This is still an on-going process. There is a criminal charge to be answered to and there is an arbitration proceeding underway. Until these two things are settled it certainly can open up problems for those who are accused yet are still winding their way through the legal system. Add to it the wide-spread belief that one or both of the officers in question stand a very good chance at winning their jobs back.

Now I ask you, is it worth jeopardizing the accused persons' rights to fair and impartial legal proceedings as well as risking taxpayer money from potential lawsuits to satisfy the SJ-R and the alderman's curiosity? I think it is prudent to wait until the legal aspect of the situation is resolved before such information is released. I also think it is foolish to release the information to alderman who's only goal seems to be political points for the next election, and to the media who's goal it is to sell newspapers.

While I appreciate the citizen's "right to know" there are limits. Do they have the right to know what supervisors were responsible for allowing this debacle? Certainly, and they already have that information. It is my belief that there is very little else to learn that is relevant and has not already been made public. So if they were to go ahead and release the information, the City gets sued for millions, and everybody says, "oh, that's all there is," is it still worth it?

I must laugh at the alderman's assertion that they need the information to tell to what degree Caldwell was involved. Whatever you think of Davlin do you really think he is stupid enough to make someone chief who could later be found knee deep in culpability in this mess? I must give him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

I also must comment on the SJ-R story on the topic in Sunday's paper. What a self-serving piece of crap that was. Anyone who relies on anything that that boob Don Craven has to say is either misguided or desperate which I think describes the SJ-R to a "T." I told the SJ-R to put their money where their mouth is. My plan is that they can sign a contract with the City in which the report is released to them and they will be responsible for any and all lawsuits that result from the release. This is perfect, they can contact the genius lawyers who would not give their names yet said that the union did not have a good case. It's easy for the SJ-R to sit back and take shots at people who are on stage for all to see, especially when they have nothing to lose.

nancy said...

Dan

I just want to stary by saying that I enjoy a can of Blog Free Lite as much as the next guy, but it's so great to have the fully leaded, fully loaded BFS back!!!!!

Unfortunately, I am in the un-fun position of not disagreeing with a single point you made today, especially in calling for a nation-wide search for chief. I simply do not understand the reasoning that because Harris was a bad chief, and because he came from outside the department, therefore all future chiefs should come from within. It makes no sense whatsoever.

A concerned and weary citizen said...

Dan & Nancy,

To say that someone is a bad chief is rather subjective but for the sake of my point lets assume he is.

The last "outsider" before Harris was Stanley Troyer. He could very well be the most despised man to ever walk the halls of the SPD

Now can you see why some may be a little gun-shy about going outside the PD?

For the record I am not pro or con going outside to search for a chief. I see the value in both and think it is more of a crap shoot than anything.

One thing is for sure. As long as there are people like Rev. Doss in the community the job of chief isn't going to be easy.