In the tank
One of the good things about working for a large police department is that you can be somewhat insulated from politics. While policies and strategies that affect how you do your job are too often based on someone’s hopes for reelection, for the most part you tend not to be big enough of a player to worry about the ins and outs of local politics. Small town cops, who are likely to write the mayor’s daughter a speeding ticket, or live next door to a political player, have more to worry about.
Regardless of the size of the stage upon which you find yourself, if ambition propels you (or fate drags you) onto the stage, then you become a player, and will find yourself subject to new rules. At best, it won’t be pretty, and at worst it can be very ugly.
When I was a kid I got drafted to help one of my uncles hook his home up to the city’s sewer system. I was employed as the chief, and sole, digger of the ditch that went from the back of the house to the street. While I was slaving away with my shovel I was present when a crew came to clean out and remove the old holding tank that was part of the septic system. Being the curious sort, I took a few moments to observe as they removed the lid from the septic tank. The sight, and odor, was memorable in an unpleasant way. Some things are best left out of sight and out of mind – outside of plumbers, none of us wants to know the details of what happens after the flush handle is pressed. I guess we all want to look at that freshly washed clean porcelain and know only that the job is being accomplished and it looks good from this side of things. But, while we know there is some nastiness somewhere in the system, as long as we are not confronted with it we can ignore it.
That expresses my feelings about politics. I know there is some really foul stuff moving through the pipes, but if I don’t have to deal with it I can ignore it. And anyone who willingly immerses themselves in the filth has to be suspect. When someone screwed up and pushed me far enough up the ladder to the place where I was actually in charge of something at SCPD, I got a sudden and unwanted look at the inside of the political septic tank. It was ugly and nasty and full of underhanded people – and I wanted nothing to do with it. I started formulating an exit strategy.
The beginning of my career at SCPD coincided with those of two other men who went on to immerse themselves in the filth. We attended the academy together and two of us were never candidates for president of the other’s fan club. We will call him Person A. The third man (Person B) and I got along alright, but his incredibly close friendship with Person A was a barrier to our friendship. For the first several years of our careers we were the three out of our class that were promoted while most of the others elected to stay at the officer rank. My motivation for promotion was because I wanted to move into investigations (detective work) and getting promoted was also the only way to get a pay raise in those days. Persons A and B made it very clear that they wanted to be “in-charge”.
My colleagues changed course in mid-stream and went to law school and politics. “A” was elected to two high profile local offices and “B” received a political appointment. Each, in his own way, made spectacular errors in judgment that eventually ended their careers. The news media made hay of their respective screwups, and the general consensus of opinion mirrored my own – “A” was an amoral and arrogant idiot who thought he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it, and “B” was woefully unsuited for the position to which he had been appointed. The first man was outed by news media investigations into his abuse of privileges and power, and when he reacted poorly they went on to beat him up in a very public way. The feeding frenzy left the water frothy with blood and he lost his bid for reelection in a political massacre. His dog might think he got screwed over, but everyone else familiar with the man knows it was a good riddance.
Mr. B’s career ended in an even more fantastic explosion of abuse. Eventually appointed to a greater position of trust and responsibility by an equally inept politician, he was able to carry on a charade that made it appear as if everything was running well in his agency. Until the hidden flaws in the machine became apparent – and the wheels fell off and the train wreck was gory. Peoples’ lives were affected, careers ended, injustice had been done, and the resulting damage is still a huge gaping wound. The cascade of disasters made national news and the never ending story of the fallout is still frequently cited as a classic example of how not to do things. He also shuffled off the stage.
My relationship with Person C was different. In some ways we were similar, worker bees who moved up in position but stayed out of the limelight and away from politics. He was very good at what he did, although he occasionally made small errors in judgment that were noted briefly by the media. There were a few times the reporters took a small bite out of my ass as well, but not to the same extent. None of us are perfect and after reaching a certain degree of a public profile the sharks start circling when they smell the tiniest bit of blood. But we differed in that eventually he also faced the gaping maw of the political machine – and he jumped in. In his case it was more out of a desire to survive than a desire to be in charge. He correctly decided that if he did not make the move that his past loyalty to his elected official boss made him a target for the next boss who took over. It was a choice between being elected to his retired boss’s job or be shuffled to the side and out the door. It was not the choice I would have made, but I’m not him.
Mr. C soon found himself faced with some tough decisions that were just part of the job. He made choices that quickly brought him under attack. However, he was soon confronted with the volcanic eruption caused by Mr. B, and he did not perform well. In a position to, and somewhat responsible for, cleaning up much of Mr. B’s messes, he elected to try and muddle through without actually accomplishing anything. Not only did he bring a lot of discredit upon himself, but his failure to aggressively try and amelioriate what B had wrought aggravated the situation and made it endure well past the point of being tolerable.
Ultimately, in a decision that I still don’t comprehend, he brought forward allegations about something Mr. B had done that was a classic example of the horrible leader and arrogant ass that Mr. B had become. However, compared to all of the other things that B did, it was such a minuscule act that it compared to a pimple on an elephant’s behind. Mr. B found himself under indictment and removed from his position. He eventually was exonerated in a trial that was seen as a total defeat for Mr. C, but what was seen as a gratuitous kick while on the ground infuriated Mr. B.
Fast forward to today, and I am witnessing a very public attack on Mr. C that has been orchestrated by Messrs. A and B. All coincidentally taking place after Mr. B has announced that he will run for Mr. C’s position and just as the deadline for others to file for positions on the ballot closes. It involves a minor point of personal failing on the part of Mr. C that some might think reflects negatively on his suitability for office. However, it actually is more along the lines of Mr. C’s attack against B several years ago.
Politics, at its base, does not illustrate the clean water swirling on porcelain, but is all about what is inside the septic tank.
It was Mr. C’s attack on B several years ago that lead to me being shoved forward to the edge of the septic tank. I was a minor player in the scheme of things, but I was faced with the choice of doing the backstroke in a pool of feces, or backing away from the edge. As I watch three men, all covered in each others’ shit, act out an inverse morality play, I am pleased with my choice