The Downward Swing of the Pendulum of Public Scrutiny and Opinion
by S. Randall Weltman, Esq.
I have written before about the swinging of the “pendulum” in collective bargaining both in the public and private sectors.
During my many years of negotiating OPBA contracts there was a long period when the process clearly favored the workers in both the U.S. and Ohio. Unfortunately the pendulum swung down from such prosperity in 2008, the year marked by a financial crisis never witnessed by most Americans. The pendulum headed even lower in 2011 with the advent of Senate Bill 5 mentality and, ever since, this pendulum remains in a down position.
In the meantime the pendulum of another element of representing OPBA members has taken a drastic swing to the downside. Just within the last year the public’s scrutiny and the public’s opinion of police officer actions has swung from positive to negative.
The public’s heightened scrutiny of individual officers or their actions as a police force has never been worse during the past 25 years and I believe we will be stuck there for a long time to come. The excellence of U.S. technology ensures us that the ability to accurately review each and every detail of an officer’s on-duty performance will only improve. The same technological excellence suggests that the public’s ability to instantly communicate with each other via either print, voice, camera et. al. will also only be enhanced over time.
The combination of the ability to watch someone’s performance and to instantly communicate about that performance has been a characteristic of today’s sports scene and is now a constant part of police work. It is all made possible by a media that has not only rapidly and dramatically grown but changed.
The advent of cable television in the pre-2000’s created many more viewing options for T.V. viewers including news talk shows anchored by politically opinionated characters and reality shows directed to specific audiences. The channel expansion on television evolved into You Tube, and many, many social media outlets that I can not tell you much about, except that it is everywhere all day long.
The media in the U.S. is very competitive and the obvious way they compete is to appeal to their target audience, us Americans enjoying our heightened ability to learn and watch so many events from practically anywhere with so much detail. The combination of a competitive, provocative and essentially uncensored media that can reach so many people so quick and its ability to capture such detail puts practically every action taken by virtually every officer up for instant public review…and criticism.
Officers are, thus, no different than professional athletes or any other performer able to be so reported by the media and so scrutinized by the media’s audience. Oh, there is one difference and it’s huge – the pay!
At any rate, under the circumstances officers face today, it is more important than ever that each member fully utilize his right to legal representation whenever involved in a critical incident. After all, it is the critical incident that draws the media’s interest and the public’s scrutiny. So when involved in one, one must tread carefully.
All critical incidents that occur during the civilian Monday through Friday work week are easy for the OPBA’s Directors and representatives to deal with. A call to the OPBA’s office will result in immediate advice and counsel as there will either be an attorney in the office or one close by.
Any critical incident happening outside of normal business hours will also result in immediate advice and counsel, albeit not so instantly. Outside normal business hours, a call to the OPBA office will be picked up by the answering service who upon being informed of the critical incident will contact the OPBA’s designated attorney/official.
If the affected OPBA member knows their OPBA attorney’s cell phone number or other contact information it is perfectly acceptable to call the attorney directly. However, if that call is not picked up and you leave a voice mail, it is absolutely imperative that you call the OPBA office also, so that the answering service will learn of the incident and be able to take action as it can not be known when that attorney will hear the voice-mail.
Between the time that the critical incident occurs and the time that the attorney responds I believe that the Director’s first endeavor is assist the officer(s) involved in the critical incident. They should be kept away from others as much as possible so that they are not bothered by anyone not first screened by the Director.
Secluding those involved in the critical incident is a good goal because from the moment the officer involved is questioned by anyone with authority; they have the right to counsel before answering. It can be the Director that is around who can articulate and invoke this right.
In the midst of this, it is likely that the OPBA attorney will be responding. At which time the attorney will speak to those involved, assess the matter and determine the proper representation course from that point forward. From this point the attorney can then speak for the affected officer(s) and the OPBA, relieving the Director from having to make or articulate any decisions.
Of course there will be critical incidents where even upon the most intense scrutiny the officers’ actions were obviously justified. These situations are quickly apparent to the involved and to the Director and when they are obvious there is no need to initially hold back in outlining the incident to those that ask.
Again though, because one of the OPBA’s unique services includes prompt, dependable and professional responses to all critical incidents and because each involved officer has the right to counsel whenever questioned by a supervisor, it does not hurt to be sure in every case. So take advantage of the OPBA’s services so as to best minimize the disadvantages we face by the ease of the public to scrutinize and criticize.