THE EMAIL about the 2015 incident at Spring Valley High School arrived a propos of nothing — no recent news or commentary on the topic that I was aware of. I appreciated the question because it gave me a chance to put into writing a lot of thoughts, not just about that incident but about policing in general, that had been swirling around in my head for a good while.
Since those ideas had been looking for an outlet, I thought I’d share the message and my response.
“Why,” my correspondent asked, “did Leon Lott ask the FBI to investigate the Spring Valley High School incident and then he fired his deputy sheriff before the FBI could honor his request. When they completed their investigation didn’t they determine the deputy sheriff acted properly? Has Leon apologized and reinstated the deputy sheriff?”
Here’s my answer, slightly condensed to for space:
Every day, people get fired for not showing up for work, or goofing off on the job, or making mistakes that cost the company money, or doing something that makes their employer look bad.
Some people also get fired for committing crimes — usually just for getting charged, in fact; employers don’t tend to wait for a conviction — but the things that get most people fired are not against the law. They’re just things that make an employer say, “I don’t want this person working for me anymore.”
After the Spring Valley incident, the sheriff had two decisions to make: What should he do as sheriff? And what should he do as an employer? And these are two very different decisions. Or at least they should be.
For some reason, most police agencies seem to have developed the assumption that the only justifiable reason to fire a police officer is if he commits a crime. And is indicted. And convicted. And his conviction is upheld on appeal. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have bought into this idea. That is, we have set a much lower standard for police officers than we have for just about everybody else.
As an employer, Sheriff Lott refused to set the bar lower for police than we set for just about everybody else. He decided he did not want this deputy working for him anymore, so he fired him. Maybe that was just because his deputy made him look bad, which is a perfectly legitimate reason to fire someone. Maybe he thought the deputy displayed bad judgment, which is another perfectly legitimate reason to fire someone. Maybe he thought the deputy’s behavior indicated that he did not have the appropriate temperament to be a deputy, which is not only a legitimate reason to fire someone but a reason that I believe demands that a sheriff or police chief fire someone. Whatever his reason, he was acting as just about any employer has every right to act when he doesn’t want someone working for him any more.
Now, as a sheriff, he had to make a very different kind of decision. He had to decide whether he believed his deputy’s behavior might have violated the law and, if so, what to do about it.
I never thought the behavior constituted a crime, but I respect the idea that we ought to err on the side of an investigation when it comes to police actions, since we give police such tremendous power over our very lives. And I am delighted that, for a change, the sheriff recognized that he should not be the one deciding whether his deputy would be charged with a crime.
Suggesting that his decision about what to do as an employer should have been contingent on whether criminal charges were brought is no different than suggesting that a restaurant owner or a contractor or a bank or any other business should only be allowed to fire people who break the law. I’m sure any employer you talk to would take issue with that idea — as would pretty much anybody else. Well, except those people who don’t show up for work, or make mistakes that cost the company money, or do things that make their employer look bad. They’d probably think that’s a great idea.
Now, did the sheriff make a fair decision? I think that depends on what sort of expectations he had created for his deputies.
If (as his public comments suggest) he ran the department in such a way that his deputies should have known better than letting things go that far, that they should have recognized at some point that you don’t treat sassy students the same way you treat someone who just held up a convenience store, then his decision was fair.
If his deputies could not have been expected to know that behavior was out of line, then it wouldn’t have been fair to fire the deputy. Instead, the sheriff should have said: “What my deputy did was not acceptable, but he didn’t realize that, because I had not thought enough about what could happen when classroom disciplinary matters get treated like criminal matters. I can’t blame him for crossing a line I hadn’t drawn. But now I’m drawing a line: We will no longer intervene in classroom discipline matters; that is the business of teachers and administrators. We are there to keep the schools safe.”
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.