Police stories needed to be told

Published 9:00 pm Thursday, September 25, 2008

First, let’s get the cliché out of the way: Some of my best friends are cops.

Indeed, one of our closest family

friends was police chief in a Hampton Roads city for many years. A straighter arrow was never nocked, and a more loyal friend couldn’t be found.

Also, during the nearly two years I’ve spent back at The Tidewater News, the relationships I’ve built with people in the law enforcement community have been among some of the closest in my professional life.

That said, I believe that the public has a right to hold police officers to higher standards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my law enforcement friends feel the same way. One even went so far recently as to send me a copy of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. It states, in part: “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not discredit me, or my agency.”

It’s a credo that makes sense to most people. And, while it may seem unfair that law enforcement officers are subjected to greater scrutiny than the average person, the idea behind that scrutiny is really no different than what we are all used to in relationship to presidents, congressmen, senators, mayors and other public servants. We certainly don’t expect them to be perfect, but we judge their character and fitness for public service by what we learn of their personal histories.

Recent articles I’ve written for this newspaper have brought this whole issue into sharp relief. A Virginia State Trooper guilty of having sex with a minor loses his job and is then hired as Boykins’ only police officer. A Franklin police officer resigns after being charged with driving under the influence.

I suspect that both of these men are good people, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are extenuating circumstances in each case. Good people make mistakes, and other good people forgive them. Forgiveness, however, doesn’t imply a freedom from consequences, and other good people in our community, including journalists, have a right and a responsibility to examine whether consequences fit crimes.

Some folks in the area, especially close friends and family of both police officers, would have us believe that these stories should never have found their way into print. One even accused me of being a cop-basher.

In fact, both stories were important to me because of my high regard for police officers, the vast majority of whom are upstanding citizens and who believe firmly in the idea of living unsullied lives as an example to all. I tip my hat to them and to the families who support and love them through long hours, dangerous situations and thankless assignments.

And I congratulate them for a level of maturity regarding the scrutiny they come under. Some of the angrier members of our community lately could take a lesson.