Friday, June 04, 2010

Respect, Authority, and Values

Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper is deserving of praise for his handling of the recent incident involving his officers destroying the property of homeless individuals at a riverfront camp about a month ago.

In his prepared statement, the Chief made a strong, values-based case for the termination of the three officers involved, and the discipline of two additional un-named officers who were apparently privy to these actions, yet did not report them.

Ralph D'Andrea, as well as other commentators on the local scene, have already weighed in with their impressions of the official GJPD action, as well as what could be called the official inaction of Mesa County's District Attorney. I agree with Pete Hautzinger that it would have been difficult if not impossible to prove who exactly did what.

Ralph thought that the GJPD's action was more of a slap on the wrist without criminal prosecutions, and that it will be "open season on the homeless" as a result. I respectfully disagree. I know how hard it is to get a civilian, "non-sworn" job at the GJPD, not to mention one that carries with it the power to arrest and use deadly force if necessary. Losing it involuntarily will be no picnic for these guys.

Also, events this week and last showed that there are a lot of people willing to stand up and help those homeless who want to be helped, as well as assuring that those who don't are not treated in the manner that Chief Camper was forced to deal with yesterday.

It will be interesting to see how quickly the fired officers bounce back into another law enforcement position, if that's the path they choose to go from here.

A few of the Chief's remarks stuck out for me:
"I’m angry because our department is truly concerned about the growing transient problem in this community, but now any steps I would take to try to address that issue cooperatively with other agencies would likely be viewed as either vindictive or pandering."
It's interesting how the Chief frames the problem, as well as the approach his department might be prevented from taking as a result of the incident.

Does the "transient problem" consist of people who have no permanent domicile (homeless), the actions those people engage in, or their visible presence in the community? We can all agree that homelessness is a problem; indeed, how does a law enforcement agency proactively address it without first dealing with the perception that all transients are criminals, or unworthy of the protections that all citizens are entitled to? Yesterday was a good first step toward that.

I also don't really understand how the GJPD could be perceived as "vindictive or pandering" by attempting to work cooperatively with other stakeholders. Chief Camper took a big step toward setting the tone for his agency with his actions yesterday, and it was good to see two respected members of the GJPD command staff at the "Beyond Charity" event last week.

Although I'm no expert, I think that this may have roots in something very basic within the law enforcement profession. Cops aren't necessarily accustomed to negotiating, and when they do it's usually from a real or perceived position of strength. The presence of a uniform, badge, and gun can have a strong controlling influence (some would say intimidating) on most people. That's how we've been conditioned, and there are positive aspects to that.

Cops depend on this to exercise a measure of their authority in a passive way, but without that respect on the part of citizens, their effectiveness is diminished. That's why what happened yesterday is so important, and why it's equally important for every police officer to approach their work with a solid value system in place.

I also agree with Chief Camper's statement that "the work of our finest officers is sullied and overshadowed when something like this occurs. The number of commendations our officers get each year far outweighs the few complaints that we receive". I'm proud to have worked for the GJPD, and have great respect for the vast majority of those within the department that I got to know during my time there.

While I have never personally met Chief Camper, I believe that he is a man of integrity and balanced leadership who is trying to set his ship upright, and insists on his officers upholding those values that he sets forth. With yesterday's action, the Chief took a big step toward assuring that this occurs on a consistent basis.

However, as the masthead of this blog has stated since I began it nearly 4 years ago, In God We Trust, all others we monitor. The people are watching.

Like any viable community, Grand Junction holds fast to values that represent both our respect for the rule of law, and the need to take care of those who cannot care for themselves. It's fitting to conclude with Chief Camper's words from yesterday:
"It is said that a society is judged by how it treats ‘the least among us’, and by that standard we failed miserably. When we act in a mean-spirited or retaliatory manner, we not only let down our citizens, but we let down ourselves as well."
To add a corollary of sorts, if it is true that the actions of our police reflect the attitudes of the citizenry, then we as a community still have a lot of work to do. If you need further evidence of that, just look over to our east, to one of the de facto meccas of American Christianity, Colorado Springs. Consider what the leading newspaper there, the Gazette, found out about some of the community it serves.

To the great work ahead..

Time to make my way. Have a great weekend.

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