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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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In Praise of the Unreasonable Cop

Expressing an opinion—even an educated one—can end your career. And that's a damn shame.

December 16, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

June 1979. My friend Harold is parking his VW in the parking lot of Mt. San Antonio College when "The Logical Song" comes on the car radio. He reaches to turn off the ignition and I ask him to hold up for a minute. It's not that I'm any less anxious than he is to declare our emancipation from public education, but the serendipity of the DJ's timing isn't lost on me.

I'd heard the song for the first time a few weeks before while lying in bed and listening to the AM/FM radio atop my nightstand. Supertramp's elegy to childhood innocence also serves as a caustic indictment of those who systematically kill that innocence. Now, sitting in Harold's Bug, its lyrics likewise sum up my educational experience, right down to its caveat:

Now watch what you say or they'll be calling you a radical,
liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won't you sign up your name, we'd like to feel you're
acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

I comfort myself that I will soon have my diploma in hand and William Workman High School in the rearview mirror - and that'll be the end of that shit. I turn off Harold's car radio then join him and the rest of my class as we shuffle zombie-like to the graduation podium.

Ah, sweet idealism of youth...

Flash forward three decades and now college and even the sheriff's department are in the rearview mirror and I realize that I was full of crap: It wasn't the end of that shit.

College professors taught me the academic hazards of indulging in any real novelty of thought and how to regurgitate their spoon-fed pabulum upon command. That same cagey couching of opinion served me well enough in the sheriff's academy, where my fellow cadets and I were brought into a degree of conformity and uniformity with one another.

Throughout, we were taught by word and example to adhere to the party line and only exhibit fearlessness of initiative in matters of life or death. Dissent may be fine, but only in the abstract for the Department is an organism that will expel foreign bodies to preserve its homeostasis. Those who deviated from script found themselves expelled from the academy, 86'ed out of custody, banned from patrol, barred from promotion, and persona non grata in the Land of Good Standing.

Not surprisingly, men that exhibited no trepidation at pulling over carloads of armed men proved reticent to speak candidly in offering in-house dissent.

In a half-assed concession to an inability to keep my mouth shut and a desire to make as few waves as possible, I muddled my way through my marginal career. Still, I was able to extricate myself from that lot. Unfortunately, many of my fellow wingmen have not.

Among them are some officers who are being penalized for speaking their mind on drug laws.

Joe Miller is one of them. Miller, a probation officer in Mohave County Arizona, was fired after signing his name to a letter from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) titled "Law Enforcers Say Control and Tax Cannabis to Protect Public Safety." Now, Miller wasn't the only one signing this document. Others included the District Attorney for the County of Humboldt, Calif., an Oakland City Attorney, a retired judge for the Superior Court of Orange County, and the former chief of the Seattle Police Department.

But Miller was the only one to get fired from his job for doing so.

That Miller was terminated despite disclaimers specifically distancing his posture from being construed as speaking on behalf of his agency is confounding. A review of the verbiage in his termination notice does little to rectify the confusion: "[ing] to maintain neutrality in action and appearance when [he] gave permission to the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organization" and for failing "to include [his] job title and department 'Deputy Probation Officer, Mohave County Probation Department' with [his] endorsement of a California ballot proposition posted on-line [sic] on September 13, 2010 . . .."

"I was terminated not because my service was inadequate," Miller said afterward. "But because my views on drug policy didn't align with those of Mohave County or my superiors in the Probation Department,"

I hope that the ACLU is successful in going to bat for the 54-year-old Miller.

But whether it is or isn't, the fact is that Miller isn't alone in facing an uncertain future for having exercised his first amendment rights.

Border Patrol Agent Bryan Gonzalez had pulled abreast of another agent when he ruminated about the effects legalizing marijuana would have on border-related enforcement. Among his speculations was that cartel-violence would drop substantially.

Perhaps the guy in the other green-and-white patrol vehicle recognized that Gonzalez's intelligence would make him a formidable rival in some future promotional process. Maybe he just saw an opportunity to make himself look good in the eyes of his superiors. In any event, he passed on Gonzalez's sentiments to supervisors and Gonzalez was eventually terminated for his statements. Not unlike Miller's termination letter, Gonzalez's termination notification leaves one wondering why the hell he was fired: "...personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps."

More detailed accounts of Miller's and Gonzalez's sad predicaments are online. 

Personally, I would have thought that Gonzalez's reflective comments embodied each of the attributes so coveted by the Border Patrol. He obviously thought seriously about the work he was doing, what other options might be entertained, and had the courage to express his edified opinion.

I also think the decriminalization of drug usage is a point of inevitability, if not in deference to common sense then to economic reality.

But whatever one's take on the war on drugs, it makes sense to hear both sides of the equation. And who better to hear from than the men and women who man those front lines? Who better to speak than people such as Miller and Gonzalez?

One would hope that such dialogues would be encouraged. That men and women who have their pulse on the situation would be in a position to analyze where it's at and where it may go. After all, we don't want a bunch of damn cookie-cutter types running around with guns and badges who are incapable of thinking for themselves.

Unfortunately, there's that little rule thing to contend with. It's unspoken, but it's there and we all know it. The first rule of Law Enforcement is: You do not talk about Law Enforcement. The second rule of Law Enforcement is: you DO NOT talk about Law Enforcement (and those that do will get a Fight Club beatdown).

Well, I think we should talk about law enforcement. I think we should discuss every damn thing that comes across our desk and on our radar. We should continually ask ourselves if what we're doing is the right thing or not. We should wonder if established practices are necessarily best practices.

Who should be asking these questions? Well, I'm glad you asked.

For years the "reasonable officer" standard has been the litmus test for many a judicial decision. But I can't help but think of George Bernard Shaw's postulation: That progress is dependent upon the unreasonable man. If that is the case-and I suspect it is-maybe we should give an audience to the unreasonable cop from time to time. Maybe Apple was onto something with that whole visionaries and dreamers ad campaign.

I look forward to the day when the law enforcement environment will foster an open exchange of ideas. That's an environment where sheriffs will know what the hell is happening in their jails and police chiefs will know what it's like working in the trenches, where superiors will pay more than lip service to wanting a free-flow exchange of ideas instead of being so hell-bent on shutting them up and shutting them down.

In the meantime I look at these "leaders" and am tempted to channel a Joseph Welch during the 1954 Army-McCarthy Hearings when he asked Sen. Joe McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency?" Except I think I'd also ask: "Have you no sense at all?"

As far as the possibility of fired Border Patrol Agent Bryan Gonzalez returning to a career in law enforcement? Don't count on it.

"I don't want to work at a place that says I can't think," he says.

I couldn't have said it any better.

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