The Thick Blue Wall - Leadership -

The Thick Blue Wall

When ‘us vs. them’ exists in the ranks



Valerie Van Brocklin | Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On March 8, 2011, Carlos Boles fired on officers who went to serve him with a felony warrant at his home in St. Louis. Boles shot Deputy U.S. Marshal John Perry, another U.S. Marshal and a St. Louis police officer. Boles was killed when officers returned fire. John Perry later died from his wounds.

A photo of Boles’ dead body began circulating the city. The St. Louis Police Department launched an internal affairs investigation into who took the photo and how it was disseminated. Ultimately, the Department sought a court order for identified officers’ cell phone photo records, claiming the officers were not cooperating with the investigation and providing the relevant information voluntarily.

Last month, in Cops Lose Personal Cell Phone Privacy, we examined the officers’ Fourth Amendment privacy rights to their personal cell phone records

But something else in the media blitz drew my attention -- how quickly department brass and the officers became strident adversaries.

A Break Between Ranks
In an early public statement announcing an immediate investigation, the St. Louis PD declared, "This photo is incredibly distasteful. …Actions like this threaten the professionalism and integrity of ALL law enforcement. There is an ongoing Internal Affairs investigation to determine if a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department employee took the photo and if so, the offending employee will absolutely be disciplined by this Department." [Click here for reported story.]

The local Police Officers Association (POA) was quick to respond to the subsequent request for cell phone records. A spokesman told the media, “We have a witch hunt. It’s awful for morale. To come into work and to know that your administrator doesn’t have your back, doesn’t think that you have the same [Fourth Amendment] rights as every criminal out there has.” [Click here for reported story.]

When a judge ruled the identified officers had to turn over a limited set of their cell phone records, the POA spokesman said the association would immediately recommend that officers stop using personal cell phones on official business, a practice on which the department had come to depend. [Click here for reported story.]

The reports of the investigation at the time of this writing indicate:

  • An officer took a picture of Boles’ body at the scene
  • The photo was circulated amongst an undetermined number of officers
  • Its leak outside the department was inadvertent.

Could This Have Been Handled Differently by Both Sides?
John Perry died in the line of duty and two other officers were wounded. What disturbed me was how their sacrifices were being overshadowed by the public sniping within the ranks.

I consulted my friend and colleague, Patricia Robinson. Pat has two master degrees and a Ph.D.  At 43, she decided there was more to life than academia and she became a cop. She took her street experience into the academy as a training officer and then director of the Wisconsin Training and Standards Bureau. She’s now a college dean of criminal justice.  Add to this background, her intelligence and sense of irony, and I often seek Pat’s perspective.

I asked Pat, “What if, instead of immediately going to the press and denouncing the officers’ conduct as threatening to the integrity and professionalism of all law enforcement, the brass had gone to the officers first and said, ‘Look, we’re all hurting. Emotions are understandably intense. Intense emotions can cloud judgment and I think that’s what happened here. But even in times of pain and sorrow, we are held to a higher standard.

We’ve got to face the community on this and work together to make sure it doesn’t happen again -- so we can get back to the work that John Perry gave his life to. I want us to continue to help each other through our grief and I want us to resolve this photo issue together. I’ll do my best to help you through both. I’m not saying there won’t be consequences -- there will, there must. I respect you enough to know you understand that. But I’ll be there for you through the grief and the consequences and I’m confident we can meet on the other side of both and continue to build John’s legacy.’”

And maybe the brass and the officers could have stood together at a press conference where they all said:

  • What happened was an error in judgment based on intense emotions at the loss of a fellow officer;
  • We are not offering excuses or justification;
  • The entire department accepts they should be held to the highest standards;
  • The offending officers have come forward and fully cooperated;
  • They never intended the photo to go outside the department but understand even that circulation was wrong;
  • They are ready to be disciplined; and
  • We intend to strive to deserve all the public support shown Marshal Perry and the two wounded officers.

That’s when Pat gave me the perspective I so treasure her for. She said, “Your scenario would only work if the officers trusted the brass.”


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Valerie Van BrocklinValerie Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and author who combines a dynamic presentation style with years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor.


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