Steve Rogers: The Vicksburg 4: Anatomy of a witch hunt

May 23, 2009

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Fifteen days is too long. That’s right, the Columbus City Council went to far when it suspended the Vicksburg 4 — the four Columbus police officers at the center of a misunderstanding at the Vicksburg National Military Park — for 15 days. 

 

No one, including the four officers, disputes that in hindsight, the situation should have been handled differently. But their sense of injustice is well founded. 

 

Since the incident became public, officers Wade Beard, Heath Beard, Rick Walker and Cpl. Spence Wallingford have been the victims of a veritable lynch mob fueled by half-truths, rumor and innuendo. 

 

The witch hunt culminated with Tuesday night’s City Council decision. Although reduced from the 30 days recommended by Chief Joe St. John, it’s still too much, especially in light of penalties meted out to other city workers in recent months. 

 

Here are the facts, as related by Park Ranger Patricia Montague in her complaint to the Columbus Police Department. 

 

At about 4:20 p.m. on May 5, park visitors reported police officers in a police car “acting like ‘assholes, idiots, unprofessionally, like college kids.’” The officers “were riding in the trunk of the car, all doors were open, and they were using the siren, hanging out the car and alike.” 

 

At least one of the visitors apparently is the same one who called the media anonymously in Vicksburg and Columbus to complain. 

 

 

 

Between New York and Rhode Island 

 

The ranger writes that she responded and “between the New York and Rhode Island monuments, I observed a marked police cruiser driving on the road with all doors open and the trunk up. I took my seat belt off preparing to stop and exit my patrol vehicle. Facing the opposite direction, I slowed to their vehicle driver side door and observed six to eight adults in the vehicle. Two were in the front seat, at least two were in the back seat and at least two were sitting in the trunk. The trunk was held open by a fire extinguisher placed in the hinge of the trunk. I made a general statement asking what they were doing and explained why I was there. They would not acknowledge their actions and acted is if it were commonplace. I stated to them that visitors had reported them driving with persons hanging out of the trunk of their vehicle, doors open, siren on, etc. There was smiling and grinning as I spoke. I was unhappy with their attitude and explained the establishment of the park. I told them there is expectation of solemnity from all visitors, including law enforcement. I further explained our expectations of all visitors and they were to put their seat belts on, get out of the trunk and drive on. I remarked what they would think if they saw the same activity in their jurisdiction. What piqued my interest was the lack of concern, humbleness or apology. They kept smiling and laughing, the driver continued to be arrogant questioning why they had to put a seatbelt on and I did not and questioning me. I told them what I did is not up for questioning they were to put their seatbelts on and drive. The driver and another officer continued to be mouthy and they moved on...” 

 

She goes on to say she turned around and met the officers again a short distance away at another monument, where a “large-framed officer holding a camera stopped me as I passed and said they did not have a picture of a park ranger and would I get out so he could take one. I said, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ Once again there was the air of arrogance from the officers.” 

 

In closing, Montague says she notified staff at the next monument of the officers’ alleged behavior. “At 1715 hours the Ranger at the Cairo called to say they were there, left, and were ‘angels, no problems.’” 

 

 

 

Park’s solemn history 

 

Assuming all the statements are true, the officers could have been more respectful of the park’s solemn history, a point the ranger goes to great length to explain in the first half of her report as if to justify her complaint. Two of the officers may have been smart-alecs. In total, the officers may have been like the “college kids” described by the anonymous witnesses. 

 

And yes, had the officers encountered the same behavior in Columbus, either on a traffic stop or at some place like Friendship Cemetery, they would have been irritated. In such a case, their options would be limited — maybe some kind of traffic citation — but in the end, they, like the ranger, probably would have used civic or professional courtesy and let the offenders off with a stern warning. 

 

Since these were police officers, certainly their behavior should be held to a higher standard, whether they are at home or out-of-town at a conference, on duty or off duty. They should be held accountable for what amounts to, in the worst light, childish behavior. 

 

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute. 

 

First, it’s not difficult to question the ranger’s credibility. She says all the car’s doors were open, something the officers dispute. And given her description of driving up beside them, it doesn’t sound like the doors actually were. 

 

Second, she can’t pinpoint how many officers were in the vehicle. In fact, when she first spoke with Columbus authorities, she described them as four “white officers.” Robert Walker is African-American. And from the officers’ version of things, she didn’t realize a Lowndes County sheriff’s deputy, Scott Glasgow, and his fiancée were sitting in the trunk until well into the conversation. 

 

 

 

Six is a crowd 

 

The officers say they were driving the way they were for logical reasons. Six people in any car, especially four in the back seat, is crowded. In a police car, it’s even worse because the rear doors can’t be opened from the inside, meaning front-seat passengers must open the back doors to let people out. 

 

In the area of the park where the officers were driving, monuments are only a short distance apart. The two mentioned by the ranger — New York and Rhode Island — are across the street from each other. 

 

The officers were driving slowly, stopping at each monument to read the history and take pictures for a school project for Heath Beard’s daughter. Having two people in the open trunk and the back doors ajar made it easier and more comfortable for getting in and out of the car every few feet. 

 

That’s also why they weren’t wearing seat belts. 

 

The officers say they asked the ranger to take a picture of all of them in front of a monument, not to take a picture of her. She apparently misheard or misinterpreted their request. In their version, she was the one who was arrogant. 

 

Most importantly, the officers deny playing loud music or using the cruiser’s siren or blue lights. Again, the only witness to that alleged behavior hides behind anonymity. 

 

Maybe the officers did run like children at the monuments. Maybe they did joke with each other or — God forbid — laugh from time to time. After all, it was a pretty afternoon and they were among friends, free from the day-to-day pressures — pressures many of us can’t fathom — of their professions. 

 

And maybe they thought the ranger was kidding or taking her job too seriously. Maybe their comments to her were meant in jest or as a way, in nervousness, to break the ice and smooth things over. 

 

Yes, perception is reality and if the ranger mistook their overtures as something more egregious, the officers must accept it. But all that must be taken into context when deciding what, to a civilian, amounts to a 15-day jail sentence. 

 

Frankly, the tenor of her report sounds almost as if she, like the Columbus officers, wished it hadn’t happened. With her closing statement about their behavior with another ranger, she sounds almost as if she is having to make a misunderstanding into something more serious — a mountain out of a mole hill as it were. 

 

 

 

Should have apologized 

 

Similarly, the officers, once they realized the situation had reached the scale of a complaint to their superiors, should have gone back to the ranger and her superiors and apologized for the misunderstan