Friday, May 2, 2008

the Person vs. the Policy

I received a response to a recent piece I wrote about the Madison Police Department's planned response to the Mifflin Street Block Party, and even if it's not legit, with all the ragging I've been doing on the PD lately, I have some 'splainin' to do.

In the aforementioned post, I called Police Lt. Joe Balles "Buzzkill Balles." He (or someone writing under his name, but there are a few clues in context that convinced me this is legit) responded, at God's-Ass-O'clock this morning, with this note.

"Hi Dustin, Just an FYI... if you really knew me you would know I'm not a total "buzz kill"... and I enjoy a beer w/ friends just as much as anyone... stop by the Echo Tap sometime and I'll buy you one. I also do not enjoy seeing "force" (handcuffs and whatever else) used to control an unsponsored college drinking party. If you ever want to do a ride a long on the MPD side of the fence...let me know... I think the experience will change your perspective a bit... it has changed many others'...Lt Joe"

I had two distinct reactions on reading this. The first was, "Holy crap, someone reads my blog!" After recovering from the near stroke I had, the second one set in, and it's that second feeling I hope to explain in this piece.

It's an easy mistake to make, in any line of work, when you make assumptions about a person based on contact you have in a professional capacity. There have been plenty of times in my line of work where I've had to place a phone call to someone in a difficult or tragic spot and ask questions that are hard or painful to answer. It's not because I like to make people suffer, and then show it to the world. It's what the job...and my supervisors...demand.

In our conversation about the cameras on Mifflin Street, Balles presented himself in a very hardline manner. That may or may not be how he feels personally about the block party, but it IS the stance the Police Department's administration has taken, and as such, it's a line he's expected to toe. When you think your boss is being a douche-rocket, you may vent about it to friends or family, but you don't advertise it to strangers on the phone.

I do think the feelings of malaise he expressed with regards to the unsponsored nature of the block party are sincere. He shares that with the department's administration, I know. But let's face it, even though it would lose some of its mystique, the block party would do well with a sponsor to put forward a definite timetable and action plan for emergencies.

But I have had the pleasure to get to know a number of law enforcement officers beyond just the Blue and the Badge. Portage police officer Gary Peterson, Portage Assistant Police Chief Kevin O'Neill, Columbia County Deputy Scott Oelke and Columbia County Sheriff Dennis Richards are just a few of the people I've gotten to know as more than just "cops." They're good guys with a job to do, and they do it to the best of their abilities.

Knowing them certainly hasn't kept me from disagreeing with a position they take. In Sheriff Richards's case, I was pretty frank that his department was way out of line in its handling of the 2006 Sheriff's race open records request the paper filed. They were wrong to surpress the information the way they did, and the State Supreme Court eventually agreed with us.

But my issue was with the Policy, not the Person. And while that disagreement took a good deal of time to overcome, we still managed to see eye-to-eye eventually.

In Lt. Balles's case, he doesn't even set the policy, and I was mistaken to "shoot the messenger," as it were. I have a lot of respect for the fact that he approached it directly as he did, because it took... well... Balles... And he subtley called ME out for being a jerk, which, let's face it, I can be sometimes . What's more, someone seems to have told him that my mortal weakness is an offer of beer and an open bar stool. I accept your invitation to the Echo Tap, sir, and the second round is on me. Email me,, and let's set it up.

What's more, if it's not clear, most of the issue I've taken to date with the police department has been with the administration. I do think that in the lead up to the block party, they have presented too unbending a front on the Mifflin Street issue. How that works out in practice...we'll find out tomorrow. And I certainly think that the veil the administration has wrapped around the ongoing murder investigations is far more opaque than it needs to be. In the most recent case, I understand that making mistakes is acceptable and human. Covering them up, if that's indeed what this is, is neither. I certainly don't want to know every gory detail of the crimes, but a little transparency would go a long way toward dispelling the appearance of a cover up, at least.

Guys like Joe Balles are out there, doing their part to get the job done. It's at the higher levels where my buzz is getting killed.

We'll see you on the block tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

When you are working at a paper factory, its perfectly fine to sit back and play the "oh, my boss made me!" card. When you are a public service officer, or a soldier, at some point the burden has to shift to your own morality.

I dont care if your boss did say that, you are still a dick for selectively enforcing a law two days of the year. When my neighbor is re-doing his roof, you can expect me to call you up. waiting for you to give him a $300 fine for having a beer out on the sidewalk next to his toolbox.

You should enforce the law the SAME as you do every other day. period.

Dustin Christopher said...

A very well-made point about the beer on the sidewalk.