Thursday, November 30, 2006

Free Speech or Bad Reflection on Department?

I ran across this story in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a New Mexico State Police Officer who was allegedly posting inappropriate comments in a chat forum dedicated to the Denver Broncos. This was a double whammy to me since I am a Bronco Fan as well as the Sheriff. All kidding aside however this did bring up an interesting dilemma. Many employers would frown on this type of activity however they will not fire someone or discipline them for fear of a free speech type lawsuit. Officers are in the public eye and public servants. Those of us in management tell them this from the day they are hired. We have Standard Operating Procedures which outline acts which bring the department in a bad light as punishable offenses. Therefore chat rooms, blogs, letters to the editor and other forms of free speech need to be balanced against what the public expects from their men and women who wear badges.

What? Those who protect the rights of others must give up some of those rights to be an officer? Yes, and you sign on the dotted line to do so. The case referred to above is a perfect example of why. A state police officer was not only allegedly posting inappropriate comments but he was posting comments in which even though he has a Hispanic sur name he ripped into Hispanics and illegal Mexican nationals, threatened to frame people for drug possession and discussed the effectiveness of stun guns. Maybe he was just venting but the problem lies in that defense attorneys will use these comments against him on each and every case he is involved in. Remember Mark Furman in the O.J. Case? Any time he uses a Tazer in the line of duty it will be alleged it was excessive force and lawsuits will be filed. His effectiveness as an officer is shot and his credibility in court is zero. So when we have officers sign on the dotted line that their personal and professional life must remain unsullied it is really about their credibility in the courts and in the public eye, not about just whether or not we want the department to look good in the public.

On another note I was really miffed when he brought up the Tazer as a fun thing. The Tazer saves lives every day. When I first became sheriff, deputies had a firearm and a baton, the choices were hit them or shoot them if you could not talk them or wrestle them into complying. I brought in Pepper Spray and Tazers. This allowed options when dealing with uncooperative subjects. Tazers are in my opinion one of the greatest additions to law enforcement since bullet resistant vests. They not only save suspects lives every day they save officers lives and prevent untold numbers of injuries to both suspects and officers. They are not a toy and their use should always be serious and necessary. Tazers are still relatively new and I would hate to lose them as a tool because we allowed stupid comments to turn the publics opinion against them.

So, what do you think? Does the officers rights to free speech out weigh the responsibility to the public as a public official?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Long, Long Weekend

Its been a long weekend. Saturday night I was with some friends who had come over to my house for dinner. I received a phone call that we had a fatal motor vehicle accident on I-25. The first call made it seem as though one person had died. The call had just come in so we did not have many details at that point. Usually I get one call when we know we have a fatality or homicide and then I will get a follow up call from someone on the scene once things have calmed down and there is more details. The next call I got was within a minute or two and I was informed we now may have two dead. I got my hand held radio and turned it on and soon it looked like this was more than just your normal highway accident. I called one of the commanders on scene. I usually try not to call them on the scene in the first 20 or 30 minutes because they are so busy trying to take care of victims, direct traffic, and such that they don't need to be bothered. In this case I wanted to see just how bad this accident was. The commander was busy coordinating traffic control but advised me that we may have three dead. We had gone from 1 dead to three in a few minutes so I excused myself from our dinner guests and put on my uniform and headed to the scene.

When I got to the scene on I-25 the first deputy I approached told me the count was now five dead with a sixth flown to University of New Mexico Hospital with life threatening injures. I could not believe how the death count kept rising. As I approached the two vehicles I could see a white dodge pickup facing me with the front end completely obliterated. A van was in front of me with the drivers side facing me. The front end of that was completely gone also. I could see the first victim at the drivers side passenger door. The driver and front seat passengers were also pinned between the seat and the steering console and dash. As I continued to approach the van I knew this was no ordinary accident scene ( to a cop who has seen many of these I guess there is such a thing as an ordinary scene). I could see a small brown stuffed animal on the roadway at the rear of the van. Boxes of Peanut M&M's like you buy at Sams Club were on the ground near the drivers door. I walked around the rear of the mini van where I saw soccer shin guards and a soccer ball. Then came a young child lying in the rear seat still wearing her soccer clothing. She reminded me of my daughter who is age 14. The first victim I saw earlier was her older sister. The youngest girl was in an ambulance at the scene, she had not made it either.

I could not believe what I was seeing. I have been to too many accidents, homicides, and assaults to count but I could not ever recall feeling as I did just then. While I know we can never show the public what I saw that night I keep thinking that if the public did see what I saw, who would ever drink and drive again? The truth is that some probably still will continue to drink and drive.

I knew this was going to be a long night. I also knew this story would have legs as they say in the news business. I always try to let my people do their jobs, they are the best in the business and they know what they are doing. I usually handle the press, so we can keep them informed and out of the investigating deputies way. I also try to make sure they have every thing they need to do their jobs and take care of the little details that can bog them down. The press and their ability to learn of these things is amazing. In no time all major newspapers and TV stations were calling and arriving on the scene.

It was a long night that still has not ended. Yes, its now Tuesday night and It still seems like one really long day that has not ended. This story will continue to be a daily news story until the funerals are over and then probably through the weekend. The horror and publicity these stories provide are probably good in the sense that it brings a reminder and new light to the problems we still have with D.W.I. . The hard thing is for the news crews to keep coming up with new and different angles for the next days stories. As we go into the fourth day of three major TV stations, two major papers, several radio stations and the calls coming in from Colorado news crews and the Associated Press all calling for the latest details and looking for help with the latest angle on the story its getting to the point where I have no more information to give.

Some police agencies give very little information and therefore the news crews can drag out little tidbits at a time and dig for their own information which can drag the stories on much longer. I try to have a model Open Government and eliminate the need for any Freedom of Information requests by giving all information that we can without harming a case or releasing information that is not legal to release. This means a flood of information initially and then we have very little left afterwards, especially in this case where filing of criminal charges will not happen. Many news agencies are awaiting the completion and release of the official report. The truth is there will be very little if any information in that report that is not already available by reading any newspaper or watching any TV station that has covered this case.

The death of the alleged drunk driver in this case means we have no villain left to go after. Or do we? News media is frantically struggling to find someone to blame. Really I can not just pin this on just the media, the truth is the public wants someone to blame, someone to point their finger at and say "its your fault". It is not as easy to do that to a deceased person. So we look to who sold him the liquor? Is the airline at fault? Can we find some liquor establishment in New Mexico to blame? Can we reach the finger of blame out to Reno Nevada? Perhaps it's New Mexico's Laws and Courts, maybe they are to blame. Just months ago the state was touting that D.W.I. deaths are down in New Mexico. It made some feel warm and fuzzy and yes it gave politicians a chance to point at the stats and take credit. Then this happens, wow so much for our progress.

Once again we look to pass new laws, put up barricades on medians to prevent wrong way drivers and look to ways to prevent the next one. This is all good and with each new circumstance we learn of new problems we have to take care of to prevent the next tragedy. I don't think we will ever completely stop drunk driving but we can hope and keep working towards that goal. This is a sobering reminder of the fact that yes, we have made progress but we are not done yet. As a completion to today's blog I would like to ask for gods blessing on all the families involved. Both the Papst family and the Gonzales, and Collins family are suffering and will suffer for the rest of their lives. I only hope that with all our prayers we will ease their pain somewhat and allow them to go on.