July 08, 2011

The Plan

For the second installment of our Literature Corner, presented for your approval—as Rod Serling often said—is a tale that will be familiar to police officers everywhere. For most police officers, working with the public is a piece of cake. Even working with bad guys is no problem. The real difficulty comes from having to deal with their own, particularly administrators who seem to have no idea of the realities of police work. This true story—names changed to protect the innocent—illustrates the problem.

The Plan

We--fifteen very bored patrol cops--were sitting in one of our periodic training sessions: absolute death for people who are doers, not sitters. Unlike many police departments, ours actually had periodic in-house training, which was the good news. The bad news is that much of it was awful; 30 minutes of actual material stretched to cover eight hours. Cops hate having their time wasted. To keep from crippling our shifts, we repeated the same training over four or five days, pulling different cops off the street each day. I was stuck in the first day’s training session. The session was a bit different from the usual-- not that it was better.

The guy conducting the training was our Chief of Staff. What’s a “Chief of Staff?” Our Chief was absolutely power hungry. He knocked off--politically speaking--the previous chief and seized his job, and he was determined that no one would do the same to him, so he abolished the position of Assistant Chief and anointed a Chief of Staff. The difference was that the COS was a civilian--an academic--not a certified cop, so he couldn’t threaten the Chief. As he couldn’t, by law, assume any law enforcement duties, none of us really had any idea what he did, mostly studies, we assumed. But he sometimes did training, which usually consisted of explaining to us why the Chief’s latest initiative was the most magnificent idea ever conceived by God (that’s what the Chief called himself. I’m not kidding). He was new, seemed like a decent guy, and looked every bit the academic. No one would mistake him for a cop.

That’s when he introduced The Plan. The topic of the day was Fetal Alcohol Syndrome--FAS. FAS is an acronym for a group of nasty birth defects caused when a mother drinks during pregnancy. Particularly if mom is an alcoholic, baby can be severely affected. There are physical and mental manifestations of FAS, and most FAS babies eventually end up in the welfare and criminal justice systems because of their gullibility, inability to hold a job and lack of inhibitions. FAS was a genuine problem in our city which had a large Indian population. Because alcoholism was rampant in the Indian community, FAS was pretty common. To be sure, FAS affected whites too, but most FAS babies ended up being Indian. No question, FAS was expensive and nasty and we dealt with its consequences daily.

We called Indians Indians. I tried being what I thought was culturally sensitive when I first went to work there, but Indians kept giving me a hard time for calling them “Native Americans.” Each time I’d ask them what they wanted to be called, and they said--to a man (and a woman)--”I’m an Indian.” So Indians they were.

Anyway, the COS was really pleased with himself. Apparently part of his job was to come up with brilliant solutions to societal problems that could be solved only by police officers, which means patrol cops for the most part (that’s who the public most often sees).

FAS was certainly a problem, and a potentially public relations (PR) friendly, diverse, culturally sensitive, politically correct (PC) problem too.

The COS latched onto FAS and enlisted some Public Health nurses to provide video and Power Point background information for us. And then, at the moment of maximum tension, when every fiber of our beings was screaming in anticipation and anguish “please tell us what we may do to combat this scourge!”...well, actually at about the point I had to rap the head of the cop next to me to wake him up before he started snoring louder (we finished a midnight shift only two hours earlier), the COS laid it all out for us.

“As you’ve just seen, the only way to deal with FAS is through early identification and prevention, and no one is more likely to come into contact with women at risk for FAS than patrol officers, so we’ve developed this information card which has information about FAS on this side (he displayed it like a smiling, sequin-clad, TV game show model), and contact information for Public Health (the nurses dutifully smiled) on the other side.”

I could see the train wreck coming and was about to speak up, but he was so caught up in the beauty of it all, in the brilliance of the solution he birthed, that he wouldn’t have seen a charging elephant if they’d been in a tanning booth together.

“We’ll distribute these cards to you and whenever you come into contact with a woman at risk for FAS, you should approach her, speak with her, give her a card and encourage her to call Public Health.”

I couldn’t resist: “So what do you want us to say to them, exactly?”

The rest of the cops were perking up a bit, sensing a fight in the making. The COS was just delighted! He thought I was a convert to the one true way in the making, so he announced that he would be delighted to “model” the correct approach. “Model,” is, of course, academicese for “show you what to do.” He enlisted one of the nurses to play the role of the potential FAS mother, and he played the thoughtful, socially conscious, community spirited cop.

“Hello. I’m Officer Friendly Concerned, and I’d like to talk with you about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which is preventable...”

That’s when about half the cops in the room, me included, said in unison “You want me to do what?!” He launched into his “modeling” again until I interrupted him.

“No, no, you don’t understand; we can’t do that.”

“Of course you can...” he said, getting red in the face.

“No, we can’t. It will blow up in our faces.”

He was confused now, and getting a bit hot. He didn’t much like being contradicted by a mere street cop (you had to model for them, for Pete’s sake!), but wasn’t sure what I was saying. “What do you mean?”

“OK, correct me if I’m wrong, but in order to prevent FAS, mom has to stop drinking very early in pregnancy, in fact, it’s best if she doesn’t drink at all when she’s pregnant, right?”

“That’s correct,” he said, and the nurses nodded too.

“So that means that we could be talking to potentially every woman of child bearing age we come across.”

“Of course not,” he intoned, shaking his head at the foolishness of the assertion. “You wouldn’t talk to every woman; you’d have to be discriminating.”

“OK then. So we talk to every woman who looks like she might be pregnant or who we think might become pregnant?”

“Well...” He knew I had him there, but he wasn’t giving up easily, “ have to use your good judgment. You’ll know who to talk with.”

“Of course. So what happens when a male cop approaches a woman who looks a little pregnant and it turns out she’s not pregnant, just overweight?”

“Well, uh...” the COS stammered. The nurses were nodding in horror at that one.

“And if we ignore women who look a little pregnant and only talk to those who look a bunch pregnant...”

The COS jumped in amid the chuckles of the cops who were having visions of outraged women delivering stinging slaps to their faces. “Absolutely not! In order to prevent FAS, you must stop the alcohol intake very early in pregnancy, even before pregnancy if possible. You must approach women who you reasonably believe to be at high risk for FAS.” By now, even the nurses were seeing the obvious flaws in this grand scheme.

“Right. I understand that. But you’ve just said that our target group is virtually every woman of childbearing age...”

“Well, again,” he broke in, “you have to be discriminating...”

“Exactly! That’s just what we’ll be accused of doing!”

“What do you mean?” He was really getting confused and frustrated.

“OK, let’s be honest here. If we do this, if we are discriminating as you suggest, we’re going to be singling out mostly Indian women, particularly Indian women who look like they might be pregnant--or maybe just overweight--often in bars. They’re going to yell racism so fast and loud hearing protectors won’t help us. It’ll probably make the national news. I can just see you now with some New York news anchor ambushing you on the front steps of the police building, sticking a microphone in your face demanding that you explain why you’re a pregnant woman-insulting, anti-Indian racist. They’ll probably put your name and the title ‘racist hick’ in big, glowing letters under your image.”

“But this is not racist!,” he insisted.

“Yeah, we know that. But they’re going to say it just the same, and no matter what we say, we’re not going to be able to defend ourselves.” All of the cops were playing scenarios in their minds and, seeing the impending disaster, were nodding furiously. “It’s going to be a PR disaster.” I sat back and watched the fireworks as the rest of the cops let the COS have it. He was getting redder and redder and more upset as he heard the cops pour more and more fire into the culturally sensitive target he erected.

“Now wait a minute!” He intoned. “Wouldn’t you rather be accused of doing something positive rather than doing nothing?”

I popped back into the exchange. “Sure we would, but it’s not that simple. This is not the sort of thing you want cops to do, trust me. This is an absolute loser for us, and it won’t do a thing to prevent FAS.”

Well I’d done it. I now officially had the COS ticked off at me, and I’d barely met the guy. He was ticked off at the others too, but because I inadvertently led the charge, he’d never forget it.

He wasn’t convinced, and was still determined to go ahead with his bold and well meaning PR disaster of a plan. Until, that is, he faced three more days of outraged cops explaining why they were the last people who should do that sort of thing, particularly in our community. They all immediately understood why it wouldn’t be a smart thing to do, yet the thought had never occurred to him. That’s the difference between real world experience and academic theory. They aren’t always at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in this case they sure were. The cops were right of course, and even if he didn’t accept that, he realized they’d give the appearance of obeying orders, but wouldn’t actually risk offending any possibly pregnant women. The Plan disappeared and was never mentioned again. No one ever found out what happened to all the cards he bought.

Posted by MikeM at July 8, 2011 11:16 PM

This phenomenon isn't confined to law enforcement. I've had to attend safety lectures concerning equipment our company didn't own, sexual harassment lectures designed for managers even though I was the only person in the department - I was department head and only employee there. More than once I've had to bite my tongue to keep from shooting off my mouth and telling the truth, we could improve productivity by not having so many worthless meetings.

Posted by: NevadaSteve at July 9, 2011 09:34 AM

I hope he gave the cards to the Public Health nurses and let them distribute them. Spreading this kind of information is a job for health professionals.

Posted by: MikeM_inMD at July 9, 2011 10:07 AM

Thank god I work in a law office where the people who run things are also the people who do things. HR still occasionally sprouts a wild hair, but we have a large labor section to smack them down. (one of those evil union-busting departments). (in Texas).

Posted by: Phelps at July 9, 2011 06:38 PM

Back when I was a dispatcher, at an in-service training school, we had to listen to the department psychiatrist talk about dealing with stress. Which was, at least, relevant. Until she got to ways to deal with it, one of which included "When it gets too bad, you can find a quiet place and meditate for 45 minutes or so." Absolutely sincere.

She finished up and left, and the first question to the head of Communications from one old guy was "Does she know what we do?"

Posted by: Firehand at July 11, 2011 12:53 PM