An ugly job, but it’s a living

In the tank

septictank.jpgOne 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

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5 responses

  1. This is exactly why TF decided to stay at the “officers” rank and NOT move up the chain of command. There is an unblievable amount of politics in the department and he wanted no part of it. It’s another reason he retired 20 years and five days after his service date. I’m glad you didn’t fall into the cess pool.

    2 January, 2008 at 18:31

  2. Thanks Lucy. I always intended to leave at the first opportunity, but I got lured into staying 4 more years by pay raises, promotions and a better pension. The money was great, and I got some opportunities to do some good things that needed doing, but those 4 years took a toll on my spirit. I can’t say that I regret those last 4 years, but I paid a heavier price for what I got out of them and they aren’t my favorite years to look back on.

    2 January, 2008 at 20:37

  3. Liz

    I think you hit the nail on the head in describing the absolute most wrong reason to want to be promoted, and that is to “be in charge.” Along those lines are those who want to promote because they are very concerned with their image and in their eyes promotion equates success. I haven’t been around long enough to even be near the edge of the septic tank, but occassionally I will be in the right position downwind where I catch a brief whiff, and it’s not something I ever want to be a part of. It’s sad how few people actually want to reach the top to “make a difference.” I have no desire to ever promote past 1st line and mostly I think because I learned a huge lesson by commissioning in the military. Before commissioning, serving was fun. After commissioning, it was just one headache after another coming from both the top and the bottom. I’m glad you were able to stay out of the mess!

    2 January, 2008 at 23:03

  4. Some folks saw the PD as a career; I saw it as an employment opportunity, just one step above a job. It could have been more enjoyable had it not been for all the power playing that went on; but that’s to be expected in any corporate set up. I was so glad to have my own nitch (locksmith business) which was not tied to the PD in order to pay my bills or they would have had a nose ring in my ability to make things happen; although their inability to pull my chain in that area was a source of some resentment at times. I wouldn’t work “roster jobs” since I didn’t need that money, depending instead on my own resources and that made retirement from the PD possible.

    We all must pick the road we travel; I never had a desire to go up the chain, never wanted to be other than a patrol officer and found it worked out. I made mistakes, we all do; but nothing that would make my ancestors ashamed to have me in the family. The ones I regret are the times I spoke quickley without taking a moment to shut off my anger, those times made for long and painful relations that could have been avoided. Being a cop requires a certain amount of hard headedness; problem is when two hard heads see things differntly and one has rank.

    3 January, 2008 at 19:49

  5. Liz, being a first line supervisor was a great experience for me. I still got to do police work and was close enough to the troops that most of the time I was included as a member of their group rather than a boss. I only promoted beyond that rank for the retirement opportunities. And while I had some better opportunities there to do some real good for the people I worked with, I almost never got to go on the street and have fun and spent way too much face time with the higher ups than I ever wanted to.

    TF – I only realized I had a career rather than a job when it was already fact. But I seldom ever thought of it as just a means of employment – mostly because I enjoyed the work so much. I’ve met a lot of ranch hands over the years who could make more money doing something else, but they love the work and the lifestyle of being a cowboy too much to ever want to leave.

    As for dealing with hardheaded supervisors, I’ve done my share. It was frustrating at first, but I figured out a way around it that worked for me. The key was to know the rules better than them, don’t ever get caught breaking them, and stay away from supervisors as much as possible. Most of the time I got away with it, and every now and then when they discovered something I had done they would try and catch me short but I had already covered my bases with the rule book. Once I promoted high enough I found out that the rule book doesn’t really matter at that rank. It’s all about what keeps your boss happy, and all he or she is worried about is what keeps the politicians happy and the news media quiet. It was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle where somebody keeps stealing pieces – I wasn’t cut out for that job.

    6 January, 2008 at 21:52

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