Steve Rogers: Vicksburg Four: Returning to work with lessons learned

June 21, 2009

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The late Robert Rice, a California artist who died last year, once said, "A lack of solemnity is not necessarily a lack of seriousness." 

 

Wade Beard may not fully understand what Rice meant, but he said basically the same thing Wednesday during his testimony before the Columbus Civil Service Commission. 

 

"I''m just a country boy," Beard told the three-man panel, his thick drawl emphasizing the obvious. 

 

"I didn''t even know what solemnity meant until they explained it to me," Beard said frankly as a struggled to correctly pronounce the word. 

 

"My parents taught me to have respect for everyone, to show everyone respect," Beard would testify later. "I didn''t mean anything to offend her... 

 

"I would never do that ... and I would never do anything to hurt the city of Columbus or the department," he added, his drawl rising an octave, leaving little doubt about his sincerity. 

 

"...Those heroes fought for the freedoms we have ... they fought to end slavery..." the 16-year veteran of the Columbus Police Department continued. 

 

His testimony, almost as innocent as a child, and that of his cousin and fellow officer Heath Beard left little doubt they understand seriousness, respect and dignity, if not solemnity, the line between which often is very gray. 

 

The Beards, officer Robert Walker and Cpl. Spence Wallingford were appealing the 15-day suspension handed down last month by the Columbus City Council for the officers'' unruly behavior and disrespect to a federal park ranger at the Vicksburg National Military Park on May 5. 

 

Because the three-hour hearing wasn''t televised, only a few city officials and friends and relatives who already knew the officers'' side heard the whole story. That''s a shame. 

 

The many uninformed who took a few comments from anonymous witnesses and immediately called for the officers'' jobs were left with their one-sided opinions. 

 

Unfortunately, most members of the media who fueled the virtual witch hunt for two weeks didn''t bother to show up. 

 

From the hearing, it''s clear the 15-day suspensions, which cost each officer $3,500 or more in pay and benefits, were too harsh. At best, a case of misunderstanding and miscommunication spun out of control. 

 

One Civil Service Commission member, Al Hatcher, certainly thought so. 

 

Hatcher at first tried to reduce the suspensions to five days for Wallingford and Walker, the least culpable of the four, if any had any real culpability. But city rules don''t allow the Civil Service Commission that latitude; the board can only uphold the Council''s decision or revoke it entirely if it finds the punishments were based on politics or religious beliefs or were done in bad faith. 

 

His hands tied, Hatcher tried to overturn the suspension for those two but didn''t get a second from the other two members, Joe Hodges and Glenn Jefferson, although they both appeared at least somewhat sympathetic, even if unwilling to buck the council. 

 

In the end, the commission did nothing, letting the Council''s decision stand by acquiescence. 

 

Even Mike Vick, the chairman of the board of S.T.O.R.M., the group that sponsored the conference the four officers were attending in Vicksburg, said as much. 

 

"If they''d not embarrassed me before, I''d have been inclined to give them a break," Vick responded when Rod Ray, the officers'' attorney, asked him whether he thought the 15 days, which amounts to a month''s pay based on police work schedules, was excessive. 

 

In fact, Vick investigated the case on behalf of S.T.O.R.M. the morning after the incident and placed the four officers'' membership on probation for a year. He told them if they''d sign a letter of apology, he''d taken it to the park ranger along with a few S.T.O.R.M. t-shirts and that should "take care" of things. 

 

Civil Service Commission members and long-time law enforcement veterans weren''t the only ones struck by the mountain that had been made from a mole hill. 

 

Two objective visitors whose professions brought them to the hearing, both said afterwards the case had been blown out of proportion. 

 

"What actually happened and what we''ve been told weren''t the same," one of them said. 

 

She was right. 

 

Other than their reactions, the two sides told basically the same story. The only wild card remains two anonymous park visitors who apparently started it all. Unfortunately, they remain anonymous and from Wednesday''s testimony, the brief time they were in the officers'' presence has tarnished good officers -- that''s what Police Chief Joe St. John called them -- for years, if not a lifetime. 

 

As one of the Beards said, "I really like what I do and this organization does important work, but I wish I''d stayed home now." 

 

Even if disappointed and maybe even disheartened, the men know their responsibilities. Their suspensions served, they returned to work Thursday, with even more lessons -- good and bad -- under their belts. 

 

Steve Rogers is assignments editor for WCBI TV. His e-mail address is srogers@wcbi.com; other Rogers columns can be found at www.wcbi.com.