From the Michiana Point of View in the Wednesday, March 15, 2006 South Bend Tribune:
South Bend police haven't lost sight of their missionMICHIANA POINT OF VIEW
THOMAS H. FAUTZ
I want to personally apologize for the recent events that have tarnished the reputation of the South Bend Police Department. I also want to assure this community that we work hard to identify and intercede when an employee is in need of assistance.
Supervisors are trained to recognize signs of stress. Early warning programs and solid employee assistance intervention are available to our co-workers when they need it. We are concerned for these employees as individuals and friends as well as from an organizational perspective. Any error or incident of poor judgment can cause community concern that we have lost sight of our mission. We have not. Each day dedicated men and women of the South Bend Police Department continue to professionally serve this community with dignity and pride.
It has been well-publicized by books, television and the movies that the job of a law enforcement officer can be very stressful. Men and women who dedicate their lives to this profession are often pushed to their breaking point. During this era of unprecedented analysis of this profession, we must remember that the people who make up the law enforcement community are real human beings. Not figures on a TV screen or video game, but real people living in this community. Individuals dedicated to making a positive difference in the face of intense scrutiny and sometimes unwarranted ridicule.
Sadly, the men and women who make up the police profession suffer some of the highest rates of suicide, divorce and alcoholism in the American workplace. They have a much lower-than-average life expectancy. And sometimes, in the midst of personal crises, they can and do make mistakes.
Police work has become more transparent. The public and the media watch us as they never have before. Officers see themselves in a fishbowl, many times unable to make any sort of decision without incurring some form of criticism. We use audio and video equipment at calls and traffic stops to collect evidence and to document our actions. Although this audio and video evidence can refute false complaints, it still represents a significant stressor to young men or women who are simply trying to perform their jobs.
This stress is heightened by the perception that segments of the media are eagerly waiting for the next opportunity to slam or second-guess a police officer. Some of an officer's decisions are made in a split second under intense conditions. Any hesitation can have life and death consequences. We have had cases on our department where an officer has failed to act in his or her self-defense, later citing the fear of public criticism if the decision was not supported or understood by the media.
Our department willingly accepts its responsibility to help employees who we can identify as experiencing a personal crisis. However, personal responsibility is also a key factor. While the stress of the profession can play a role, so does family history, the environment or one's genetics. It takes a lot more than an employer to truly reach a troubled individual. In the case of alcoholism, it is particularly difficult to intercede as the disease's existence is routinely denied by its victim. As with society in general, the help of friends, family and an individual's entire support system, including co-workers, is needed to successfully resolve these issues.
The South Bend Police Department and the city administration will continue to offer employee assistance to anyone who is experiencing problems. We do this confidentially, with dignity and support for the individual. These tools are in place and we have used them. We stand ready to help our friends become healthy again.
Fraternal Order of Police No. 36 has also taken a leadership role in ensuring we have a drug-free workplace and are doing all we can to deal with alcohol problems. The current labor agreement requires that every member of the department be tested through our random drug testing program. The FOP is also working with the administration to find ways to lessen the likelihood that we have other alcohol-related driving events.
When I am asked by our partners outside of law enforcement "What can we do to help?" I have one request: Please continue to support the dedicated men and women of the South Bend Police Department. Former officers who have moved from the area but have continued in law enforcement report that our department remains one of the best compared to other agencies they have encountered. They are disappointed at the perceived lack of support for a progressive, well-equipped, professional organization. This is not the norm in their new locations. I tell them that we are supported; however sometimes it seems to be from the silent majority.
Recently there was a Tribune editorial cartoon depicting a SBPD car and officer inside a liquor bottle. I think this cartoon crosses the line. First it paints all the members of the department with the same brush, certainly not fair to those of us who did nothing wrong. Secondly, to me alcoholism is no laughing matter. This illness cuts across all segments of this country. Politicians, movie stars, sports heroes and, yes, even members of the media suffer from alcohol problems. We have all seen the impact on families and lives because of alcohol abuse.
On the other hand, the perceived isolation from the community that some officers feel is easily reduced when reporters such as Tribune columnist Bill Moor take the time to balance the bad with the good and when community members acknowledge our good work. We as a community must find a way to re-affirm our values, which include valuing peace and order through its police officers. Certainly we as a police department must also maintain your trust by exhibiting the highest ethics. We will do that.
You have my word that I, along with the outstanding men and women of this department, will continue to make South Bend and your police department better than before. We will meet adversity and criticism with hard work, compassion and dedication to community service. I ask that you please continue to support and have confidence in us. It is your law enforcement officers who are taking the leadership role in keeping South Bend safe.
Thomas H. Fautz is chief of the South Bend Police Department.