Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pressure and Arrogance

Geology is the study of pressure and time.

As the week closes, some news items are reminding me about the nature of how we function as a society and interact with our fellow man, particularly in roles that imply a commitment to serve others.

As a flawed human being with the type of skill set and personality that attracts and endears me to complex and fast-paced working environments, I have had my share of run-ins with the concepts of civility, humility, understanding, and grace. I believe that this is true of the bulk of the men and women that serve our communities, whether in government, health care, the emergency services, or even high-volume retail establishments. I'm familiar with all of these, but given the pain in my legs I am currently most familiar with the latter.

Some of us are most excellent in keeping outward emotion and frustration at bay; to others we appear calm and controlled, even though our insides may resemble something akin to that volcano in Iceland. If we're not careful, we eventually conduct ourselves in a way that casts a dark pall over ourselves and those closest to us, and disrupts or prevents others from connecting with us, whether to help, to empathize, or try to direct to a clearer path.

If there's any truth to the recent allegations of misconduct against the Grand Junction Police regarding the destruction of property at a homeless camp, the alleged actions by the officers involved are lamentable, unacceptable, and
at the same time understandable. The opportunity to unleash whatever pent-up frustrations that were present may have gotten the best of them, and perhaps the fear of repercussions was lost in the midst of the power they were exercising.

Given the penchant for some in positions of authority or notoriety in our community to play the priest or the Levite when it comes to those less fortunate or who choose a different pursuit of happiness, it's understandable that some of our public servants, and those who lead them, feel it necessary to pay particularly special attention to the petty transgressions of this social sub-set.

Granted that the police have a job to do, and in the larger sense they do it rather well. However, many in our community are asserting that they are being unfairly targeted, and many others in the community feel that they have a point.

Others in stressful positions have a more socially acceptable manner of dealing with the daily stresses they encounter. They deal with things, then blow off steam in some fashion that the majority of us can usually find acceptable or be sympathetic to. These people are like Old Faithful; consistent, mostly balanced or controlled, and rarely an embarrassment to themselves or their employers.

Moderation is a tricky thing; it's like the young adults who hang out with my son at our house on occasion. How much raiding of my refrigerator is acceptable? How many pens can one accidentally take home from work before it becomes a budget problem? What is considered a civilized way of expressing oneself in a way that addresses the need to vent, but at the same time maintains the honor and commitment to service associated with the profession?

That last question might very well be addressed to Jim Alderden, the Sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado. Larimer is an expansive county north of Denver that includes the growing Fort Collins-Loveland metropolitan area. A story in Thursday's Fort Collins Coloradoan brought to the public forefront the nature of Sheriff Alderden's unique management of Internet resources, and how he allows his staff to report on the activities of his office.

Eloise Campanella, the Sheriff's Public Information Officer, publishes a weekly blog on the activities of the LCSO's various divisions. This blog, titled The Bull Sheet, offers many anecdotes about the nature of crime reporting, jail operations, and queries received from citizens. According to Sheriff Alderden in a recent post:
The Bull Sheet is our effort to communicate with the public what really goes on in a law enforcement agency. Most citizens have a very distorted view of law enforcement from television and the media. We share both the good and the bad and try to bring the readers behind the scenes. Part of our culture is that we do make light of some situations and highlight some bizarre behavior.
The candor, frankness, and humor present in this blog is something that you definitely don't see everyday in something official from a law enforcement agency. Here's one example:
How do we find these people? A 20-year-old got into a verbal altercation with his intimate 17-year-old girlfriend at 2025 North College. It turned physical. He pushed his girlfriend as he was upset that she was talking on the phone to another guy. Then to get her attention (you're gonna love this) he hit himself five times in the head with a hammer and attempted to stab himself. He was arrested and I hope she learned something. Oh, I do hope so.
These little vignettes keep the participants anonymous; well, at least the vast majority of them. When Larimer County residents Richard and Mayumi Heene (of the infamous balloon boy incident) showed up at the Sheriff's office to retrieve their balloon from evidence storage, Ms. Campanella was there as well to photograph the proceedings at the Sheriff's request. She commented on the proceedings in a humorous manner in the May 12 Bull Sheet, but this time identifying Mr. and Mrs. Heene by name:
Here comes the good part. Are you ready? It's a doozie. Sheriff's Office personnel had to help him lay out the balloon. He said he wanted to measure it to make sure it was HIS balloon…as opposed to all the other silver flying saucer-type devices we have in evidence.
According to the Coloradoan and reporter Nate Taylor, some are accusing the Sheriff and his staff of using the Bull Sheet to poke fun at the Heenes. Sheriff Alderden was decidedly unapologetic, accusing the Coloradoan of paying too much attention to the balloon boy fiasco.

Having been well steeped in the same crucible that many public safety personnel find themselves in every day, I can understand and even appreciate this kind of narrative as a way to more constructively and creatively express one's frustrations with some of the less attractive aspects of the job. I've engaged in lots of it. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, and also accept that some people out there will never understand.

However, the sustained and written nature of this running commentary in Larimer County smacks of a little too much pride and prejudice, especially when compared to Sheriff Alderden's own blog, which aside from a few exceptions is a well-written, measured platform for his views. Sheriff Alderden is no stranger to controversy, and has had his share of the media spotlight of late. His writing is persuasive and intelligent, whether you agree with him or not.

It's almost a shame that he's term limited, because his eventual departure from office will likely mean the end of both the Sheriff's blog and the Bull Sheet. I'll miss the former, but probably not the latter.

Speaking of term limits, some public servants don't have them. They are given oversight of tasks or are thrust into roles that afford them too much power or autonomy in their own area. What can follow is a lack of accountability, and perhaps a loss of direction and decorum that belies the lack of a moral compass. These pressures gradually build, and have no place to go. Eventually some cataclysmic occurrence brings a self-destructive upheaval that can end careers, marriages, and sometimes lives. Think along the lines of Mount St. Helens.

We saw a little glimpse of that this week with the arrest of Bob Edmiston, Director of Mesa County's Waste Management Division. Seems that Mr. Edmiston is accused of stalking, following, harassing, and threatening his former mistress and her husband, who is also a county employee. He allegedly did this with a county-owned GPS tracking device, computer, e-mail account, and cell phone.

Someone in Mr. Edmiston's position of responsibility should know better, but it seems like arrogance got the best of him. He appears incredulous beyond recognizing either the consequences of his actions or the ease with which his activities could be monitored. I've seen this sort of thing before, in both myself and others. I hope that Mr. Edmiston will come out of this ordeal a truly changed individual, but not one devoid of hope for the future. Heck, if that can work for the likes of Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, who knows?

Aside from the references to geological phenomena, there is another common thread through all of these survival (or destruction) mechanisms; the fact that from an emotional, physical, or spiritual standpoint, we are not alone. We as a people have to remember how to reach out, and how to respond to being reached out to.

Whether driven by ego, intolerance, lust, or greed, humans tend to behave at their worst when they feel they have nowhere else to turn, and that only they alone can turn the tide for themselves. This breeds not only bad behavior, but the kind of bitterness, selfishness, and intellectual myopia that we've been seeing in our public discourse of late.

I believe that if left unchecked by common sense and understanding, this can lead our nation into an abyss not unlike that great big
meteor Arizona.

Have a good weekend.

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