Photo: Santa Fe County (N.M.) Sheriff's Department.
Three times a week my office phone rings late in the afternoon. It's PoliceMag.com's editor Paul Clinton calling to conduct our budget meeting.
In editorial terms a "budget" meeting has nothing to do with money. It's a term from newspaper days and the "budget" in question is the amount of space available. In a newspaper budget meeting, editors meet and debate what stories should be on the front page.
For Paul and me, our budget meetings are about what story will lead our electronic newsletter. We go over the stories available and we try to find the one that you will most want to read when our e-letter lands in your inbox.
Often the news is bad. An officer has been killed in a gun battle or an officer has been seriously injured in a vehicle crash. These are painful stories. But they are news, so we post them on our Website.
Then there's another type of painful story, the type that I call "Cops Behaving Badly." These stories range from cops committing crimes to cops doing things that just don't look good, things that damage and diminish all law enforcement officers in the eyes of the public they serve. I hate these stories. I hate them almost as much as the ones where cops are killed. And lately there's been way too much of both.
Many police trainers have written numerous articles in this magazine and for PoliceMag.com about the physical dangers of complacency. Officers on the job for a few years or more tend to forget basic precautions and adopt faulty but expedient tactics and techniques. Such complacency results in more than a few police funerals.
I think complacency is also the reason why so many veteran cops tend to get in serious trouble. You let down your guard and you end up doing things you would have never dreamed of doing as a rookie, things that are extremely damaging to your career and your livelihood. You let down your guard against anger, so you cross the line in handling a suspect. You let down your guard against greed, so you falsify overtime or do something even worse. Or you let down your guard against lust and you end up on the Internet caught in flagrante delicto with a young woman on the hood of a car.
That's not a good place to be. If you don't believe me ask Officer Bert Lopez, formerly of the New Mexico State Police.
Officer Lopez was videotaped having sex with a young woman somewhere on the outskirts of Santa Fe. It was a remote area, out in the desert, and he probably thought it was safe. But a surveillance camera from a nearby ranch caught him and the young lady in living color, and he was in uniform.
On Aug. 30 a still image from that incident was posted on the Drudge Report and that's when it came to the attention of our Web editor Paul Clinton. Who called me.
And so Paul and I spent the next 30 minutes trying to determine what to do with this thing. Like I said, I hate this kind of story. But it was already news. So we ran with it. And so did a lot of other news outlets.
Officer Lopez has been fired by the New Mexico Department of Public Safety. At presstime, he still had the option to appeal that termination.
Now it's not my intent here to heap dirt on the still warm corpse of former officer Lopez' career. It's to offer up this incident as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you act before you think. There are so many ways Officer Lopez, who was two years ago Officer of the Year in his division, could have prevented this. He could have taken his paramour to a private place. He could have indulged his lust later when he was out of uniform. He could have been smart.
Instead former Officer Lopez did the most head-slapping stupid thing he could have done. He had sex in uniform in public. And he got caught. Note: You are always on camera. Memorize that statement. It may save your career.
Some of you may remember the roll call scene from the great '80s TV series "Hill Street Blues." On that show Sgt. Phil Esterhaus would send his cops out on the street with the thoughtful admonition, "Let's be careful out there."
Esterhaus' advice applies to both your physical safety and professional safety. You have to take care to protect your career. Otherwise, a moment of stupidity could cost you everything you've worked so hard to achieve. And that's no way to make the headlines.