Speaking your mind: What cops need to consider

The case of a Mass. cop on paid leave for comments penned in a police association newsletter is a reminder to think before you write

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While others are raging on social media, one police lieutenant in Massachusetts has been reminded that not all commentators are created equal.

Arlington Police Department Lt. Rick Pedrini, a member of the department since 1996, is under fire for comments in articles he penned for the Massachusetts Police Association newsletter in which he wrote, “It’s time we forget about ‘restraint,’ ‘measured responses,’ ‘procedural justice,’ ‘de-escalation,’ ‘stigma-reduction,’ and other feel-good BS that is getting our officers killed.”

Arlington’s town manager and chief of police both quickly condemned the sentiments expressed by Pedrini when placing him on paid administrative leave. Another opinion column penned by Pedrini referred to the killer of a police officer as an “animal... that can only be ‘rehabilitated’ when they are put down.” Referring to the emigrants approaching the U.S. border he wrote, “Back on December 7th, 1941, a caravan of Japanese planes tried this in Hawaii. We shot at them.”

In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, a Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. USA.
In this file photo dated Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, a Facebook start page is shown on a smartphone in Surfside, Fla. USA. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE)

Pedrini’s statements even reached the ears of IACP President Chief Paul M. Cell who praised the newsletter’s decision to purge the articles saying, “The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) agrees with the decision of the Massachusetts Police Association (MPA) to retract a series of articles that were published in “The Sentinel” and suspend their author from his duties with the MPA. The views expressed in these articles are indefensible and do not represent the values of the law enforcement profession. They should never have been published.”

No free speech for cops

The First Amendment protects citizens from Congressional suppression of freedom of expression but does not protect employees who speak as representatives of their workplace from the consequences of their statements.

Police officers are not free to make public statements that, as stated in many policies such as this one from LAPD, “may reflect directly upon the Department, officers must at all times conduct themselves in a manner which does not bring discredit to themselves, the Department, or the City.”

Facebook and other social media commentary by police officers have fueled critics who claim that law enforcement culture is prejudiced and violent. Even the comments on Police1 articles have been published in general media as evidence of police delinquency (before comments were closed to the public). Officers have faced discipline up to and including firing for statements that embarrassed their employing agency.

The daily news provides plenty of fuel to stoke the anger and frustration of police officers, and it is a maxim that holding on to anger is unhealthy for mind and body. Must members of the law enforcement profession remain muzzled while being assailed from all quarters?

Keeping your voice

I disagree with Chief Cell’s IACP position that the articles “should never have been published,” which smacks of prior restraint and political censorship; although I agree with holding Pedrini to account for his words – individuals must bear the consequences of their words.

Speaking your opinion doesn’t have to be a whisper. But if you are going to be loud, be wise. As Dr. George Thompson, president and founder of the Verbal Judo Institute, states, “If it feels good, it’s no good.” Before putting your name on an article, letter to the editor or even a publication you think will only be read by supporters of the thin blue line, re-read it through the lenses of the average citizen. First responders are notorious for developing their own language and cultural perspectives that can seem shocking or callous by our citizenry that we have protected from knowing the reality of working with humans at their worst. You may have the freedom to speak without a filter, but don’t be blind to how that affects others.

Before being accused of catering to snowflakes, police officers commenting in public forums must consider what their true goals are. If they are attempting to change opinions, offer a new perspective, or encourage others to do so in a constructive way, it is not likely that their commentary will fuel the kind of response that merely venting can. Expressions of anger and frustration in face to face relationships can be toned down by continued dialogue and even apologies all around. What happens in print doesn’t get resolved so easily.

Other advocates

There are times when those whose positions require discretion or even silence can rely on third parties to speak on their behalf. Retired officers, support groups, family members and even writing under a pseudonym can provide ways of expressing important ideas without risking job loss.

Peers can help during times of extraordinary stress such as the death or injury to a fellow officer or unjust accusations in the press and on social media to offer support and urge thoughtful restraint. Police leaders must be aware of the temptation of their officers to lash out, and provide peer support and guidance during those trying times.

Ethical boundaries

Most department policies that warn their employees to avoid bringing unwanted negative attention to their agency are listed under the ethics policy. Does this mean that it is unethical to speak one’s mind if it causes strife for your department? I think so. But ultimately it would be unethical to remain silent in cases of real injustice, and the brave course would be to speak out even if it means losing your job. Expressing anger at the world isn’t one of those cases.

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