The Thick Blue Wall

Does your department have a thick blue wall between brass and officer?(iStock Photo)

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.”

I don’t presume to know this department -- its brass or its officers -- or the full story. I’m limited to news accounts. But neither group’s public statements communicate trust in the other. As reported, both sides took an adversarial stance from the beginning. The brass laid down the gauntlet with no indication they tried or even considered a trusting, cooperative approach with the officers first.

Nor did the POA take the high road and state that the officers wanted to help determine how this happened and help the department develop policies for the use of personal cell phones on duty -- a practice that benefits the department and community. Instead, the POA amped up the rhetoric and lowered the level of public discussion with inflammatory and misleading comments. Just how was the administration supposed to have the officers’ backs -- by not investigating public dissemination of crime scene evidence?

The POA spokesman’s suggestion that criminals get more rights than the officers is as inane as it’s incendiary. All parties agree this is an internal affairs investigation, which officers are required to cooperate with. If the officers want the same rights as criminals, let them ask for a criminal investigation of their misconduct.

Moreover, if the officers want to maintain the privacy of their cell phone records, let them provide the Boles photo and who they sent it to and received it from. They have no privacy right to a crime scene photo. Such sound bites may play well in the press but they maddeningly perpetuate ignorance in the public.

The Thick Blue Wall
We all know about the thin blue line of silence behind which police purportedly hunker in a protective us-vs.-them mentality of cops v. everybody else. But what about the thick blue wall of us vs. them between the brass and officers? The Boles case isn’t unique in this regard.

A couple of years ago I was doing an ethics training for a police department and, as a homework assignment, I gave the attending officers an Ethics Needs Survey to complete. Some of the questions bore on inter-departmental workings. Example: “Have you faced any particular ethical issues in dealing with any of the groups described below? If so, what kinds? Give specific examples.”

I listed prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys or investigators, suspects, citizens and CIs. I also listed supervisors, fellow officers and support staff.

Another question asked, “Which is the stronger message from your agency?”
    a.    Do the right thing.
    b.    Don’t embarrass the agency

    Give examples.

Stupid me. After class several officers told me they wouldn’t be completing the survey. They didn’t trust the information wouldn’t be used against them by the department. When I reminded them they could complete the survey anonymously, they expressed concerns the department might somehow get a copy and do handwriting analyses.

That’s when it began to hit me. How can a department address the extremely challenging ethical dilemmas of police work or any issues between management and the front line when basic trust is lacking? It can’t.

Stay Tuned
Next month, in Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at how to tear down the thick blue wall between a department’s brass and its officers and replace it with trust.


Social Media: Friend & Foe

The connection to our device has become so powerful that we have a difficult time unplugging.

Leadership From the Line

What is it that officers need from their supervisors? What do they expect?  

Lessons By the Decades: Virginia Tech Massacre

Law enforcement lessons learned from the 2007 shooting on the campus of Virginia Tech continue to inform our response to tactical incidents today. 

North Charleston – Patience Under Fire

The video released this weekend showing a North Charleston (S.C.) Officer shooting an un-armed Walter Scott looks bad. That was the first thought I had, and ...

End of Watch, March 2015

Longest streak without an LODD due to gunfire comes to an end

Madison Police Shooting Response Contrasts with Ferguson

Actions taken have been done so to avoid Ferguson problems.