Wednesday, June 29, 2011

You have the right to remain silent - or do you?

During the first 14 years of my law enforcement career (1967-1981) I always tried my best to avoid verbally criticizing another officer's actions, especially when they involved the use of deadly force. Yes, there were a few occasions when I quietly wondered (to myself) if the officer's actions were really necessary. Did the officer really need to do what he/she had done? But, I always tried to remember that I was not there when the incident actually transpired, and I did not experience the same things the officer had, so it wouldn't be right for me to second-guess them later. I didn't like people Monday-Morning Quarterbacking me when I was involved in a stressful situation, so I definitely didn't want to do this to someone else.

In 1981 I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and as a sergeant I no longer had the luxury of being able to remain silent when I had my doubts concerning an officer's actions. As a sergeant it was my responsibilty to accurately AND honestly evaluate the questionable actions of the officers I supervised. When you put on those stripes that's one of the things you know you will have to do. If you're not prepared to do this, then you have no business being a supervisor. Luckily, Fort Lauderdale P.D., where I worked, was a good department AND the overwhelming majority of the officers I supervised were dedicated and honest cops --- so, I never did have to make that choice; doing the right thing, or remaining silent.

Perhaps this is why it bothered me so much when I read the article about the New Orleans Police Department (N.O.P.D.) lieutenant who is now on trial in Federal Court. This lieutenant's decision-time, his own Waterloo if you will, occurred back on September 4, 2005, during the height of the post-Hurricane Katrina chaos. In what was reported to be an exchange of gunfire on the Danziger Bridge (U.S. Route 90), between the cops and the bad guys, two individuals were killed and several more were wounded. But, when the lieutenant arrived at the scene of the shooting he quickly observed that these supposed bad guys did not have any weapons. He wondered, if these where the individuals who shot at the police, then where were their guns?

The sad fact is that these individuals who were killed and wounded by the N.O.P.D. cops were all unarmed. Sadly, this apparently was not a case of officers just doing what they thought was right, and then having a tragedy occur instead. No, it appears that many of the officers involved just lost control of themselves and their emotions, and they committed murder. One of the two men that were killed was forty years old and mentally disabled. An officer in a moving police vehicle shot him in the back with a shotgun, as he ran away. His hands were in plain site and he held no weapon. Therefore, he posed no threat to the officers.

Did going through the turmoil, mayhem and devastation of Hurricane Katrina play a part in this? I don't know. I guess it could be a possibility, but it is still not an excuse. What the officers did was bad enough, but then the lieutenant didn't do his job and he apparently initiated a cover- up. This cover-up included encouraging and allowing the officers involved to provide false stories about what actually occurred during the shootings on the Danziger Bridge. He also apparently had knowledge and condoned a "throw down" weapon being planted at the scene.

On January 2, 2007, the police officers involved in the shootings were taken into custody. They were indicted for murder and attempted murder. However, on August 13, 2008, charges against all of the officers were dismissed by the District Judge. He said his reasons for doing this involved misconduct by the prosecution reference to the grand jury. I wonder what that really means. Did the prosecution try to help the officers involved, or did the prosecution just engage in stupid and/or unethical conduct? I suppose that's another story all by itself.

Although the federal government couldn't file their own murder charges against the officers, they could charge them with "Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law" --- after a lengthy and thorough investigation this is what they did. I was surprised to read that an individual convicted of this specific federal statute can be sentenced to death. Maybe this is why so many of the officers involved, including the lieutenant, made deals and/or pled guilty to lesser charges.

I began this post intending to talk about a supervisor's duties and responsibilities. But, the more I read about this terrible event, and the shocking way it happened, the more I realized that what happened there in New Orleans was not the norm. Most law enforcement officers in America would never behave as those few N.O.P.D. cops did. Most supervisors woud act in a totally different way too.

In fact, most of the men and women of the New Orleans P.D. acted honorably and bravely during the very trying times during and then after Hurricane Katrina. They endured looting, sniping and a host of other problems that most of us in law enforcement will never have to experience. Yes, some N.O.P.D. cops abandoned their duties and left the area, but most didn't. Some of those who stayed and served couldn't handled all the stress, and at least two N.O.P.D. officers committed suicide. I read what one N.O.P.D. Captain had to say about those two officers: "To me, they died in the line of duty. They died of injuries caused to their psychological being from the storm." Then he said, "...they were told you have to perform, you have to protect, and you have to serve, and they did."

I prefer not to remember those few N.O.P.D. cops, including the lieutenant, who disgraced the badges they wore, and the oath they swore. Instead, I want to remember what that one N.O.P.D. captain said to his wife when she asked him, "Why do you still do this? Why?"

"Well, you get up every day, and you go to work with heroes. Not everyone can say that."

God bless the dedicated men and women of the New Orleans Police Department!

Gary P. Jones
Law Enforcement Ambassador
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

author of: Badge 149 - ''Shots Fired!''

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who was that beautiful woman?

Most people know that Tallahassee is the capitol of Florida. It is a beautiful city, although at times it does get a little bit crowded. It has two major colleges, Florida State University and F.A.M.U., and thousands of students attend these two fine schools every semester. Usually in February or March Florida’s legislative session begins and Tallahassee really becomes crowded and congested when lawmakers from around the state flock to the city. Tallahassee natives complain about the excessive traffic and the congested roadways, but I still think it’s a whole lot better than having to travel on busy I-95 in south Florida during rush hour. You literally take your life in your hands when you do that.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the State of Florida, like almost every other state I imagine, decided to beef up its security at future legislative sessions. Uniformed officers of the Capitol Police usually handles security at the Capitol and its buildings but now, in our post-9/11 world, that would all change. The decision was made that all other state law enforcement agencies would be asked to volunteer manpower to help augment the Capitol Police.

Even though I was a Captain with the Department of Insurance (Division of Insurance Fraud), rank didn’t matter and they were really just looking for warm bodies to fill all of the vacant posts they wanted to cover. When the session finally rolled around I worked it for four full days (February 26th thru March 1st). Although these were all 10-hour days and the work at times was demanding and stressful I liked doing it. It afforded me an opportunity to get away from my normal routine at Insurance Fraud and I also enjoyed watching the state senators and representatives, the lobbyists and the private citizens who came to the Capitol to watch their government in action. It was all very interesting.

Unless I was rotated to another position I usually was located at the front entrance to the Senate Office Building. I mostly worked with two other officers, a uniformed officer with the Capitol Police and an officer who worked at Fish and Game. Although they were in uniform I was not and I was in a business suit with a jacket and tie. The work was pretty much what you would expect to see as you went through security at an airport prior to boarding a plane. We x-rayed the contents of people’s briefcases, women’s purses and they also had to go through a walk-thru metal detector. Things usually went along smoothly but every so often the line might get a little long. For the most part though people were patient and they seemed to understand that what we were doing was important and it was for their own good. The painful memories of 9/11 were still fresh and had not yet faded away.

One day near the end of my shift I saw two women standing in line and waiting for their turn to go through the metal detector. When the first women walked through nothing at all happened. When the second young lady walked through the detector it suddenly buzzed and beeped to let me know that something was amiss. I looked at the young woman and suddenly realized what a true beauty she was. She was beautiful! Her hair was perfectly in place, her make up looked like it had been professionally done, her clothes were stylish and elegant and she wore some pretty expensive-looking jewelry. This woman looked like she had just stepped off of the cover of a fashion magazine. When the metal detector alarm went off she looked at me and smiled. It was an “I’m sorry” kind of an innocent smile and it almost made me melt. I told her to go through the detector again. When she did, the same thing happened. The alarm went off again.

I motioned for her to come forward towards me and I picked up the portable hand wand detector that was used when we wanted to be more thorough and certain. In my own mind I was convinced no one this lovely could be a terrorist or a threat to anyone in the Senate Office Building but rules were rules and I would have to use the hand wand. I slowly ran the wand up and down her body, front and back, and both sides too. The wand and my hand never actually touched her, but I still felt like I was invading her space and I was a little embarrassed. She didn’t seem to mind though and she patiently waited for me to finish. As I did, I looked over at the other two officers I worked with to see what they were doing. They were busy with other people at the x-ray machine.

I told the woman that I suspected her jewelry may have set the walk-thru detector off. As I was telling her this I looked over to the right of the detector and saw two men standing there. They were both dressed in business suits and they were smiling. They seemed to be very interested in me AND the young lady. From my many years of law enforcement experience I immediately formed the opinion that these two guys were cops. They were. They showed me their identification and it indicated they were with the Tallahassee Police Department. The beautiful woman walked away from me and then rejoined the two plainclothes officers and the other woman. They entered the Senate Office Building and I never saw them again.

Who was this beautiful woman? I eventually learned that she was Katie Harman and she hailed from Gresham, Oregon. But, she’s better known as Miss America 2002. She had been crowned on September 22, 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Now, she was touring the nation and meeting the people. At Florida’s Capitol she met Governor Jeb Bush, AND me!