As I See It: Personal wisdom and official power

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Published: 6/24/2022 3:51:26 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 3:51:06 PM

All institutions, from the federal government to the local police department, represent power. (Government instructions rarely say “please.” They just order you). As such, they also represent the inevitability of corruption that is inherent in all power-holders. Even the benevolent-looking bishop of a Catholic diocese or a lowly street cop wields enormous power that is naturally susceptible to corruption. Can their personal wisdom (or integrity as we more commonly call it) be good enough to keep them from corruption with their power?

On the personal level, our record is mixed: In driving, we are trusted enough to drive the killer-machine with only minimal license-processing. In gun ownership, dramatically-tragic consequences follow when personal wisdom cannot handle the awesome power that guns give to the owners, making them judge, jury and — executioner.

On the institutional level of reality, where power is greater and consequences farther-reaching, however, their personal wisdom is rarely good enough to match the power they receive from their institutional-official positions. All is well if personal wisdom minimally matches official power in the bishop or the policeman. In the majority of cases, mismatches are either unnoticed or tolerated and generally it takes a lot of misconduct for the power-holders to be punished. If it so happens (in rare cases) that your wisdom does match your official power, you are likely to be punished by the institution, as in the case of officer Frank Serpico of NYPD for this rare opposite mismatch. It’s unlikely that Jesus would have had a good career as a high priest in the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish government, for which the rabbi from Nazareth was just too honest.

Just now, we have a case going on in our small city of Greenfield that represents this classic dilemma of personal wisdom being no match for the official powers their positions give the power-holders.

It began when Patrick Buchanan, the then-only Black officer in the 34-man Greenfield Police Department, issued a warning to a speeding violator instead of using his official power and ticketing the violator. He chose wisdom over much-easier official power of issuing a traffic ticket. Why was it wiser that he issue a warning instead of a ticket? Simply because the ticket would have served no function other than creating a very unhappy citizen. The speeding ticket would have merely been an official “vendetta” for something that had caused no harm. (No harm, no foul).

In the best tradition of “police service,” the wise Black officer gave the frightened teenage driver friendly advice and went on. Apparently, the wise officer used this wisdom four or five times. But this pattern offended his superiors and he was punished by the department hierarchy, led by the police chief, with demotion from the rank of sergeant. (All this is from the Recorder’s reports). Officer Buchanan eventually accused the Police Department and the city (its civilian overseers) of unjust punishment. As rarely happens in such cases, the jury agreed with the officer and ruled against the PD and city for their “racial animus” and ordered a monetary restitution for the injustice done to the Black officer.

The more common tragedy of personal wisdom falling short of their official powers is now demonstrated by the mayor and the police chief. The mayor, upon the verdict, preemptively sided with the Police Department, declaring that the PD would be “exonerated.” She did not fire the police chief for bringing shame and dishonor to the city, nor did the police chief resign to redeem himself. Instead, the mayor promptly placed Police Lt. Todd Dodge — a white officer who testified for the pariah Black officer, an act of great courage and wisdom that put truth before his job security — on what amounts to a “house arrest” (again, a term used in the Recorder to describe the mayor’s strict orders).

The mayor and the police chief have been under enormous pressure from the citizens of Greenfield to act wisely on what amounts to a small-town police scandal that we normally expect from a Deep South county, not from an enlightened liberal town in Massachusetts. Why are these two officials resisting citizen pressure to do what is right and just? Simply because neither the mayor nor the chief possesses the personal wisdom that can reasonably match their official duties and powers.

In the meantime, when these human agents are caught in this dilemma between official power and their lack of personal wisdom or courage, the most common self-defense they adopt is deception: They start lying, either by themselves or through their company spokespersons. In our case, the mayor immediately said that Dodge’s leave was “unrelated” to his punishment for testifying against the PD and city, and then that it was not “house arrest” although she plainly ordered the officer to stay home during his duty hours.

Most of our working lives in institutional capacities we wonder why there are so few “good” superiors we can truly respect and whose personal examples we can gladly emulate. In my quarter of a century of working for the military as a contractor-professor, I so seldom heard rank-and-file soldiers praising their superiors, whose personal wisdom they almost uniformly distrusted. Fortunately, as parents in the smallest unit of government — the family — people carry out the job of raising their children successfully in spite of the enormous power their job gives them over their children. It’s providential that, in their parenting duty, people in the majority are helped by their love for their children and their sense of “duty.”

Complemented neither by wisdom, nor by love, nor by devotion to duty, but obviously driven by self-defense, however, the mayor and the police chief choose to hide behind the shield of their official badge. It’s so tragic but also so banal.

Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and retired professor of criminology, lives in Greenfield.


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