Island police exemplify public service

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To the Editor:

The Martha’s Vineyard Times of June 18 included two stories featuring the actions of local police officers (Police say Island war on drugs is a daily battle; Pregnant woman, young son mauled in Tisbury dog attack), and I want to acknowledge these instances of truly excellent police conduct. These days, it seems there is no end to the reports of armed and unarmed (disproportionately black) men being shot and killed by officers of the law around the country, police departments gearing up with tanks and other military equipment, and routine SWAT raids in only moderately hazardous situations. The choices made by our police and dog officers responding to the dog attack in Tisbury, and the attitudes and practices of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force in dealing with the horrific toll of addiction on the Island, show that we do not have to follow the rest of the country down that path.

The members of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force interviewed by The MV Times exemplify policing as a broad-spectrum, public-service-oriented activity, characterized by insight, compassion, and common sense. “I like to think of myself as a problem solver, not just a law enforcement officer. I’m more interested in seeing him get well than me charging him with possession of heroin,” said Oak Bluffs Lieut. Tim Williamson.

Law enforcement is only a small part of public service. And what these guys are trying to do here is public service.

In responding to the terrible attack of the three dogs in Tisbury, Officer Rogers would have faced little to no public censure had he simply shot the dogs outright in this egregious and potentially dangerous situation. Instead, he chose to be respectful and responsive to the pleas of the owner not to shoot, and fulfilled his responsibility to stick with the job until the dogs were safely contained.

This is in marked contrast to what goes on daily on the streets or in no-knock warrants around the country. Bust down the door and shoot the dog seems to be standard procedure. Such practices brutalize the police officers involved, and further entrench a combat mentality. No longer “protect and serve,” but “combat and occupation” seems to be the order of the day in too many U.S. communities. Young (or not-so-young) black men are seen as enemy combatants by the police, and white people are like enemy civilians (i.e., you don’t trust or respect them, but you try to avoid killing them). This is something we don’t ever want to see here, and I commend our Island departments, that demonstrate that we’ve still got a fighting chance of bucking this trend.

One critically important factor that sets the moral tone of an emergency service, which I observed working as a paramedic both on-Island and in larger urban/suburban services off-Island, is leadership, plain and simple. In some services, medics freely and continuously trash-talked their patients, competing to show who had more contempt and disregard for them, implicitly demonstrating, I guess, that they were cynical and tough because they had seen it all, and could not be taken in or taken advantage of by patients. When I worked in Oak Bluffs, there was zero tolerance for trash-talking patients on the Oak Bluffs Ambulance. There was no distinction made between on-Island or off-Island patients, male or female, age, race, or national origin: A patient is a patient.

Where the leadership tolerates hostility and contempt toward members of the public, a culture is established that allows a service to isolate itself from the community it is supposed to serve. Maintaining healthy, respectful, and ethical public service is something that requires constant vigilance. Bonding is absolutely essential between members of a service, where people face so many difficult, dangerous, or heartbreaking events. Bonding involves supporting each other and commiserating with each other. Humor is a coping mechanism, and indignation over unjust treatment is a bonding mechanism. But callousness, brutality, and cynicism should not be.

Marina Lent

Vineyard Haven