Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Initial Perceptions Can Be Wrong

At the Tuesday evening meeting of the City Council, I was astonished to hear that the city attorney recommended paying out a $100,000 negotiated settlement for the issue surrounding an adult woman having sex with police officers while on duty. That suit was brought on behalf of the woman involved, and the initial request I understand was considerably higher than that amount, but I won’t get into that at this time.

The former police chief took immediate action which resulted in those officers losing their jobs or resigning in disgrace. However, the ensuing furor which was fed in part by a clandestine internet website and the constant barrage of negative media coverage would ultimately cost the chief his position when an interim city manager forced him to step down. 

The chief chose to file his paperwork and retired, but not before the community came forward in support of him, but to no avail. It would subsequently be revealed that the website in question was owned by a sitting councilman who had been at odds for several years with the department.

Before leaving the department, the former chief petitioned the Training and Standards Commission to de-certify both those officers, which they initially did, but rescinded that action on petition by one of those officers. The third officer has pursued a legal action to overturn the city’s termination of his employment.

As I’ve started to research the issue of lawsuits of this type I find the vast majority end with settlements prior to going to court. In fact, only about 1 in every 20 cases goes to court or to a jury trial, as approximately 90% of those are settled in the plaintiff’s favor.

Municipal, county and state law enforcement agencies seem to be an easy target today. The pendulum has appeared to have swung considerably into the plaintiffs’ side of the matters that we read about in the media today.

My initial displeasure with the city attorney was not substantiated by the actual facts surrounding the dispensation of cases similar to this. Through research, I found these cases are unfortunately settled in court based upon the “optics” of the issues brought before juries and not based upon common sense or the actual facts surrounding the cases.

Citizens have a right to question whether these cases are settled in an appropriate manner, but we also have a responsibility to ferret out the facts and not simply rely on the emotions being felt at the moment. 

Whether a case is frivolous or representative of a systemic issue within a department requires a thorough review. I think we all understand that we deal with what is referred to as a 5-10 % issue with any profession. We can never be 100% certain that all those we employ will be the right choice.

Law enforcement agencies across the nation, whether they be municipal, county, state or federal put potential candidates through a rigorous vetting process, which also includes psychiatric and personality testing in an attempt to detect those not fit for the job. This is in addition to rigorous physical, educational and background checks. Unfortunately, some will slip through and should never have the privilege of serving and would be best employed in another line of work.

Private websites collecting databases on lawsuits against departments and agency employees have begun to be created on a state by state basis. Law enforcement agencies and police unions have cautioned that some of these lawsuits were frivolous but could be used to undermine officers’ credibility if called to a courtroom, especially in larger metropolitan departments, allowing guilty parties to escape punishment for their crimes.

The publics’ exposure to the 24-hour news cycle and countless social media outlets is another issue. Their failure to get the facts straight, due to the rush to be published first on an event may, in fact, taint the opportunity to present a fair and balanced reporting of the realities that exist with a case. Therefore, leaving an officer or a department hanging in the wind and damaging his/her reputation beyond repair.

Social media websites may be more to blame as the paid media, who may not be intentionally attempting to paint an unfair or deliberately misleading story to the public. Social media, with their internet trolls lurking in darkened rooms with access to a computer can reach literally thousands of followers by a simple keystroke. Soon, a deliberately misleading story may take on a life of its own and the truth takes a backseat to salacious innuendos, rumors and plain outright mistruths that serve nefarious purposes.

In 2018, about two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) get news on social media sites, about the same as the portion that did so in 2017 (67%)—Pew Research Center. This in itself may raise a red flag for the future of how well our electorate and our citizens are informed about the issues of the day.

President Reagan many times referred to the old Russian Proverb, “Doveryal, no proveryai,” which simply means “Trust but verify.” This represented Reagan’s philosophy in dealing with the Soviet Union before its collapse. That may well be appropriate as we attempt to absorb the news we read, whether it be from standard media sources or across the internet as we move into the future of how we get our news.

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