Redefining Public Service in America

I recently had the honor and privilege to volunteer my time, along with other members of our station's volunteer unit, to assist the traffic control detail for a local police officer's funeral being held in our city, The officer was brutally gunned down by a convicted drug dealer during a drug raid on the suspect's house. Using the words "honor" and "privilege" to describe working a funeral detail may, to some, sound like odd words. However, for anyone who has ever attended the funeral of a fallen member of law enforcement, they'll know exactly what I mean. Standing alongside over 2,000 members of law enforcement arriving in over 300 marked patrol cars and 200 motor units from throughout the State of California is truly an awesome sight. Unfortunately and sadly, this awesome display of respect was marred by the fact it was to pay our final tributes to this 29-year-old hero who left behind a wife and two young children, who he will never have the opportunity to see grow up, hug, kiss, tuck in at night or simply wave good bye to as they run off to school feeling safe, because their daddy is a policeman.

As a volunteer myself, this day brought a lot of reflection of what it meant to be a "public servant." While the funeral service was being held, the State of California was under siege from wildfires raging out of control as evidenced by the brown smoke that filled the sky and the air we breathed that day while working the traffic detail. At the same time that columns of police cars kept coming and coming into the overflowing parking lot, other members of "public service," both fire and law enforcement, were on the front lines attempting to save lives and property as the wildfires continued to spread throughout Southern California. In the end, the October 2007 Southern California wildfires destroyed over 2,000 homes and claimed several lives. As more and more patrol vehicles began to arrive, we would occasional hear a crackle on the radio that a high ranking member of law enforcement, such as a county sheriff and in one case, the attorney general for the State of California, Jerry Brown, was inbound. But nowhere to be seen was the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who it seemed at the time was too busy running around the fire-stricken areas telling everyone how "fantastic" things were and there was nothing to complain about.

The governor himself was close enough to fly in by helicopter to attend the funeral of this brave hero who gave his life to protect the citizens of California, yet he did not attend. The same was true of the members of Congress who sat safe and sound in Washington, D.C., well protected, representing the district this fallen officer worked and lived. What could have been more important that they couldn't take a few hours of their day to help honor our fallen hero, while paying their respects to his family, or at least to send a representative of their staff to do so?

It seemed like not too long ago, when someone was referred to as a "public servant" or was honored for their years of "public service," it meant just that--someone who served the public through their work in government or volunteer efforts, while sacrificing their own needs to do so. However, these days when we hear about "public servants" being honored, it seems more often than not to refer to folks where we ask, "Where was the sacrifice in their service." Case in point: remember the speech President Bush made when Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted by of a jury of his peers and sentenced to federal prison time for "outing" a covert CIA agent? President Bush described Scooter Libby as a tireless "public servant" who served his nation well and as he felt, did not deserve the 30-month prison sentence, or for that matter, any prison time. While Mr. Libby certainly did spend a great deal of his time in government, in between government roles he also spent time in a private law practice, earning as much as $585.00 an hour, equaling $93,800 per month. This was for defending fugitive from justice Mark Rich, who was later pardoned by President Clinton. During Mr. Libby's last position as a "tireless public servant" working as the Chief of Staff for the Vice President, Mr. Libby earned a salary of $161,000 a year, not to mention all the perks, and of course, the "get of out jail free" card. Compare that to U.S. Border Patrol agents Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos, who are now both serving ten-year plus prison sentences for shooting a convicted Mexican drug smuggler in the butt as he fled from them, while he was pointing what was believed to be a gun at them. Both agents, one nominated for Border Patrol Agent of the Year, sit in federal prison even after three jurors signed sworn affidavits saying that they were coerced into entering a guilty vote and the GAO inspector for DHS acknowledged the initial investigation into their "wrongdoing" was based on false and misleading testimony.

Now let's see: Scooter Libby, tireless public servant earning $161,000 a year with perks only common folks like me, and perhaps you, could only dream about, gets his sentence commuted by President Bush, yet two decorated Border Patrol agents, underpaid and overworked by most standards, sit in jail without the White House willing to acknowledge the case deserves a full review by the courts. Is there something wrong here, or is just me?

And don't even get me started on our toe-tapping, "I'm not gay and never have been gay" senator from Idaho, Larry Craig, recently inducted into Idaho's Hall of Fame. I viewed the Idaho Hall of Fame's web site and found it interesting that not a single member of public safety or for that matter, a deserving life-long volunteer, was being inducted this year along with the happy senator. What about the police officer from Moscow, Idaho, who was gunned down and killed earlier this year while protecting the public? Doesn't he deserve to be honored in some way by the state? While the Idaho Hall of Fame may not be the most appropriate place to honor a fallen police officer, given the choice, I think the giving of his life for others certainly outweighs the "sacrifices" made by a senator earning over $180,000 a year and treated like royalty by others.

It's time to redefine "public service" in America

The end effect of all of this high praise for folks in Washington and others in our state governments is that if we don't stop now and redefine what "public service" truly is and what it is to be a "public servant," we may wake up some day and have no public servants left to protect us. As I travel the nation working with hundreds of law enforcement agencies each year, I hear horror story after story of how short they are of qualified police officers and deputy sheriffs. Never in the history of our great nation has there been such a demand for new officers to backfill the slots of those who are leaving. While there has been no clear-cut study on the reasons why people don't want to be a police officer, you can't help but think that the messages our leaders in government are sending is affecting the decisions people make when looking at a career in law enforcement. A young officer is killed in the line of duty, yet aside from his mourning family, friends and members of law enforcement, the only person of significance from government to take time to attend his funeral is the state's attorney general, while the governor is already in the area. A friend and employee of the President of the United States is convicted by a jury of his peers, no arguments or allegations of a wrongful trial, etc., and he gets off free and will most likely be pardoned in 2008. Yet two decorated Border Patrol agents sit in jail for doing their job while the government admits to an improper trial and false evidence used against them. And let's not forget, the person they shot is alive and well, is a convicted drug dealer, and during the trial, was arrested again for drug dealing. But none of that evidence is allowed at trial.

So what does all of this have to do with volunteers in law enforcement?

The bottom line is that members of the community who volunteer their time to assist law enforcement, whether it be in an administrative role or as a fully sworn reserve officer, are not immune to what's happening in our nation. The reason why agencies are sending their personnel to workshops like mine, that deal with recruiting and retaining volunteers, is because just like the shortage and difficulty in getting qualified applicants for full time sworn positions exist, so does the need and challenge for qualified volunteers. It is incumbent upon all of us in the public safety profession to let our elected officials know enough is enough. We need to get back to basics and give sincere thanks to the people who truly serve the nation while putting the people they serve before themselves, versus the other way around. Perhaps, if every time a police officer was killed in the line of duty, an announcement was made on Capitol Hill and everyone in both the House of Representatives and the Senate buildings were required to stand at attention, with their hand over their heart and head bowed in honor of the fallen hero, it would start to kick in who the real public servants are in America.