Lessons to learn from one photo

Posted 7/19/18

Now, at long last, I get to have my say about the photo. This may take a minute, but bear with me. It's been a long week. First of all, on a Wednesday morning, when Ron Harris was off and no one …

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Lessons to learn from one photo


Now, at long last, I get to have my say about the photo. This may take a minute, but bear with me. It's been a long week. 

First of all, on a Wednesday morning, when Ron Harris was off and no one was in the newsroom, I got a call from Mayor David O'Mary about this drug arrest. I went down to Frisco, and, for the first time in my career I can remember, the mayor on the scene asked that we take a photo of all the officers who participated. He was proud of them. Frankly, I was too a little. Maybe it was the tactical uniforms.

I guess I should say here that I do admire the police. I grew up watching "Dragnet" and "Adam-12" and I never got over that ideal of the by-the-book public servant. I've spent my career dealing with officers, and they do a thankless, dangerous job, and sometimes for the pay of a journalist — or less. You cooperate with these guys, and you help them as you can. Sometimes, they are human and do dumb things — Hamilton police had a few in the past that made headlines, and we all cringed, and we didn't enjoy it. (And there was an out-of-town TV reporter that loved to paint it in broad strokes. Trust me, I've seen what that is like.) 

But I had to admit, I didn't know what to think about lining the officers up, some of them with their faces covered. I thought they might not use the photo back at the office, as it had no action. But the mayor wanted to honor them, so I took the photo. I don't think many of us paid much attention to that one, as it was not an action photo.

And while journalists have all been burned by immature children who like to throw a finger, and make us scrutinize their actions (and retake photos, usually with the offenders exiled away from the camera), who would question a police tactical team being honored in the field? Especially if odds are against it being used in the print edition, which, to be honest with ourselves, in our mindset, still sometimes overshadows digital, which you see is rather dangerous.

It wasn't picked for the print edition, but I included it among a handful of photos. Under our new NewsroomQ system in the office, several photos can be posted. I'm told the order I posted them put the group photo for priority to be highlighted to the story. 

But that was OK. The mayor got to honor his officers. What could go wrong?

Thursday morning, James Phillips texted that four of the officers were making an OK hand signal and that someone had alerted him from the public that it was an "alt right symbol."  I know I would have never caught that and didn't know such a thing would even exist. 

And here was the thing. The public was telling us. The genie was out of the bottle, and the public was concerned. When it is spreading among the public, there is no time to sit on anything - it is out there like a wildfire. And I had no idea what we had, whether it was rumor or fact, but something was going to be passed along. And I knew who needed to know first. 

I quickly texted the mayor and police chief, as I had no idea of nothing, but felt they should know to handle anything. They are the police, after all, and their job is investigating. If it is their own people, they can determine if there is anything to it. At best, it wasn't very professional for a bunch of young men that the mayor wanted to honor. (I can tell you Poe and O'Mary agree with that.) 

First of all, it wasn't my department, not my personnel. It was theirs. I felt it might not rise to the level of reporting, but it certainly was something superiors needed to determine about. We all looked a little foolish publicly with this, as it would raise questions. And apparently those questions were turning serious for obvious reasons of community relations. 

In texting the mayor and chief, I related what James said and I added they might want to check it out. "I never noticed it and would not have understood it," I said. Poe said to send the photo. 

However, I also looked up a couple of stories, including the Newsweek story that said that the OK sign being an alt-right symbol was something of a hoax. There was also mention that it could be a tribute to President Trump. I texted the stories  with the message, "There is some mixed information on the symbol." I wanted them to know upfront it might be a hoax. 

Poe replied, "I will get with you after while." But I never heard from him the rest of the week. 

And that may have been the sad thing, is that I would have hoped they might have gotten ahead of this publicly. They didn't, possibly as they were still investigating it. It looked like it might die down. I was overwhelmed with the election to do (I wish I could be cloned, but at 55 I have to pace myself.) In the back of my mind, I did want to check about it again early in the week. 

Meanwhile, I saw comments over the weekend it was actually some circle game. That was the first I heard of that. Ever. People will think I am naive or non-social. Well, no, maybe my social life is pretty small. Most of my friends live away. I do one thing well, and that is to report the news, and then I go to my apartment. I wish it was different, but I was never much for games or silly stuff anyway. I'm dull and can't help it. (Why do you think I'm not married?) 

And so, we reported nothing. Nothing. But I didn't dare take down the photo, as it would be accused of covering up for the police. Many were critical it was put up in the first place, and if we had noticed the hand symbols we would have retaken the photo later, probably at a council meeting. But it was so subtle it just wasn't on the radar. And when the photo becomes the story, it is too late to do anything - it is there. 

Meanwhile, on Monday, Facebook had a resurgence of the whole thing, and ABC 33/40's Stephen Quinn came to report on it. He was nice enough to come by and ask for permission of the photo, and I told him what I knew, for background. If one sees his report online, one sees the title of the page is "Jasper police officers suspended for hand gesture linked to circle game." He is seen interviewing people on the street who say it is the game, countering the initial concern raised that it was racist. You couldn't be more fair than that. 

Why the station reported that police were already suspended when they were not, and who made the mistake, I wasn't there. That is unfortunate, because that is now sweeping over many media reports. The police chief only said there may have been a miscommunication. I wish we could have all sat down on Monday and reviewed all this. As it was, I was told to wait until Tuesday, and by then the damage was done.

It turned out the tactical team was suspended in operations and training for two weeks for more investigation, and that the individual officers will be going through a civil service process first to see if they face any punishment. The officers, except for one who is sick, have been coming to work and being paid. 

And for the first time I wrote a story about the controversy for Wednesday, except for some postings on Facebook to try to give some clarity. 

Those on Facebook have been very quick to blame us for notifying the mayor and chief to begin with. However, these are mostly young officers. In addition to not knowing about the nature of the symbols, it was clear that they were acting inappropriate to the moment, as it was not the moment for a police tactical team to be doing ANY hand signals, especially when they could be confused with something else that could possibly infuriate the community you are making the arrest in. We may not know all the signals, but if we keep our hands to ourselves, we don't have to worry about them. You learn this type of thing as a child supposedly, but young adults can still do dumb things, and they won't know unless a superior points it out. Would you rather they not learn? And as far as branding them, as I said, I pointed out with evidence they might need branding, from the first moment the accusation came in to me. 

And why would I do this? Because I want the police to improve. I have faith in them to protect me. I have had co-workers over the years I would not give a Christmas card to, but I trusted them at their work. I certainly trust what the police do and want to help them as much as possible. In fact, after the killings at the Maryland newspaper, Jasper police have been helping the Daily Mountain Eagle to come up with a new security plan that we will soon implement, and we can't thank them enough for it. 

But we can't develop professionals if we don't point out their mistakes in a professional manner. I never at one time tried to condemn these officers or get them fired. And the city's leadership, in their maturity, have not ruined their lives either. They are going through a deliberate process, not over what the symbols meant, but because they did them at all, causing confusion. Personally, I would argue publicly that they get a suspension and not be fired (which is something I was not afforded when I went through a different type  situation a few years ago myself, so trust me, I know). I trust the leadership when they say they determined it was not racial, that it was just a stupid, stupid game.

Meanwhile, I have to say this: There is still a  reason to be concerned about the racist tendencies in Alabama. We should not hide these concerns, because alt-right, white supremacy efforts are on the rise nationwide. And our past is not wiped away; I talked to someone days ago who said awful things that I had to bite my tongue over. We should be vigilant, and I think Jasper police are just as concerned about that as anyone. Any concerns should be investigated, so we can make sure this attitude is addressed, wiped out and never happens again in Alabama.

I am sorry that this has spiraled out of control in reaction, and I hate we are in the middle of it. We want to report news, not make it. But I tried to adhere to requests the city made of me, and then I tried to act as responsibly as I could, as quickly as I could, to let city leaders decide what, if anything, needed to be done when something went wrong. I would never do anything to try to jeopardize the relationship between this community and the newspaper. I'm sure the officers didn't meant to hurt their relationship with the community, either. 

Hopefully, we will all learn lessons from this, and I think the diversity and sensitivity training  that has been proposed for police and city workers, as well as the National Kids Night Out event that has been proposed to gain the trust of children in the area, are  excellent ideas. It wouldn't hurt a number of us to go through such training, as we face evil ideas that threaten us. 

We should not tear each other down. We should build each other up. Perhaps some silly gestures and a photo iare making all of us reassess those values, and our support for other races and cultures, and for those who in law enforcement who support us. In that respect, I think that will have been worth taking the unexpected path we all took this week. 

Ed Howell is the Daily Mountain Eagle's news editor.