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Police union letter puts pride before public safety

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Police union letter puts pride before public safety

Stephen H. Provost

You’re butthurt by something someone said, by a pair of socks, so now you’re going to put your own bruised dignity ahead of public safety? Seriously?

I understand why police officers are offended by Kaepernick’s socks (which depicted cartoon pigs wearing police hats). But that doesn’t give them the right to jeopardize public safety.

As a journalist, I could get offended by a lot of what’s said about people in my profession. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop covering newsworthy stories involving those who make those comments. That’s what I’m paid to do, and it’s what I’m expected to do, ethically speaking.

In simple terms, you do your job. Period. That’s professionalism.

Professional conduct is even more crucial when it comes to public safety. How will the officers in the Santa Clara police union feel if they refuse to show up work a 49ers game and someone gets assaulted on what should have been their watch?

I know how I’d feel. Pretty damned guilty.

Yet this is exactly what the Santa Clara police union is doing. In a letter to the 49ers, the union stated, “If the 49ers organization fails to take action to stop this type of inappropriate behavior it could result in police officers choosing not to work at your facilities. The board of directors of the Santa Clara Police Officer’s Association has a duty to protect its members and work to make all of their working environments free of harassing behavior.”

“Harassing behavior”? From one guy in uniform on the sidelines? If this isn't an overreaction, I don't know what is. Kaepernick's not trying to foment a riot here, and even if he were, does anyone really think that his comments will cause a mass public uprising against police working at Levi's Stadium? Get real. Fans are far more likely to vent their anger at the referees, and when's the last time an official was assaulted at an NFL game?

According to a report by NBCBayArea, about 70 officers volunteer to work these games as security personnel, but about half of them may not show up at the 49ers' next game, on Dec. 12 – despite having agreed to do so.

Regardless of how you view Kaepernick’s behavior, he didn’t issue any threats (of harassment or anything else) toward police officers. Nevertheless, the union responded by issuing a threat of its own toward the 49ers. Worse, when union president Frank Saunders was told officers from other police forces might be hired instead, his response was to warn that such an action might run afoul of his union's contract. 

In other words: If we don't want to do the job, we'll do our best not to let anyone else do it, either.

Imagine a doctor refusing to treat a cardiac patient because he works for a company that – for instance – discriminates against women. Even if the doctor were off-duty, he or she would certainly treat someone in severe distress. And there would be no question of trying to keep another doctor from intervening because (gasp) that doctor didn't belong to a union.

Or imagine a gay firefighter walking away from a burning warehouse because it belonged to company that employed a single homophobic worker. Just one. That’s unthinkable. Yet it’s akin to what the police union is doing here in threatening to punish the 49ers for the behavior of a single employee. But who’ll really be punished if they fail to show up for work and a crime is committed? It won’t be Kaepernick or even the 49ers, it will be the victim of that crime – some individual who may even have a ton of respect for the police.

But that shouldn’t matter. The police are sworn to protect everyone, not just people they happen to like – or even people who happen to like them. In a way, their reaction to Kaepernick bolsters his point: Wasn’t he saying that some officers are more concerned with their own prejudices than they are with doing their job properly?

Kaepernick’s behavior shouldn’t enter into the equation because, no matter how offensive you may find his speech, it’s not against the law. In fact, it’s protected, so the police should be protecting his right to express himself – even if they find that expression offensive – not potentially putting others at risk because they don’t like what he said.

To his credit, the Santa Clara police chief issued a statement saying exactly this: “As distasteful as his actions are, these actions are protected by the Constitution. Police officers are here to protect the rights of every person, even if we disagree with their position. Police officers have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.

The chief, Michael Sellers, emphasized that “the safety of our community is our highest priority.” As it should be.

Apparently some in the police union don’t agree – which supports the point Kaepernick's critics have been making: Don’t make blanket statements that all cops are jerks. Such statements are flat-out wrong. There are good cops, and there are bad cops. There are those who act with professionalism and integrity, and there are those who don’t. The decision on whether or not to show up for work at 49ers games will go a long way toward identifying who’s who.

Note: Paragraphs 9-12 of this entry have been updated with additional information since the initial post.