When I was a kid, my parents always told me that you could trust the police. If I were ever in trouble, I could always find a police officer and ask for help.
Recently, Maj. Robbie Lillard, an official with the Tulsa Sheriff’s Department, testified that two other top officials within the department pressured him to report the death of Eric Harris as a justifiable homicide, rather than the manslaughter that investigators determined it to be. Another one of the officials later encouraged Capt. Billie McElvey to meet with Eric Harris’ brother to discourage him from seeking legal council.
In the opinion of Maj. Lillard, the two officials who pressured him, Maj. Tom Huckeby and Undersheriff Tim Albin, were motivated by personal allegiance to Robert Bates, the reserve deputy who accidentally shot and killed Eric Harris during a weapons sting.
This has disturbing implications, not only for the Tulsa Sheriff’s department, but for the way police officers everywhere are perceived. As the old cliche goes, it is the duty of any law enforcement officer to protect and serve the people. They are expected to act in the best interests of the people in their community, rather than the interests of their friends and co-workers.
This should be obvious, but it seems that personal allegiance has time and again clouded the judgement of the top brass at the Sheriff’s department. Even before the shooting of Harris, Bates was getting special treatment from the department. He was allowed to do things that no other reserve deputy would be allowed to do, like skip parts of his training. You know, the training that’s supposed to make sure the cops don’t accidentally kill anyone.
It’s natural to want to protect your friends, to want to do them favors. But more is at stake here than that.
When someone is tasked with protecting an entire county, they can’t use that authority to do special favors for their friends the way Sheriff Glanz did, and they can’t try to cover up their mistakes the way Albin and Huckeby did. If they do, how are we supposed to trust the police?
It isn’t terribly profound to say that the police should do their jobs correctly. Everyone knows that. What we seem to have forgotten is that when someone has been given more power and authority than usual, they should also be held to higher standards.
Is the favoritism displayed by the Tulsa Sheriff’s Department understandable? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make it okay. The fact that we all do favors for our friends does not make Eric Harris less dead, nor does it restore my faith our county’s law enforcement.
In addition to telling me that I could always trust the police, my parents told me that trust is something that is earned. If someone does not act trustworthy, you are foolish to trust them.
I believe that the majority of police officers and other law-enforcement officials are good people who genuinely want to make their communities safer. But even under that assumption, if the institutions themselves allow actions like Albin and Huckeby’s, it casts doubt on the whole operation.
Regardless of how understandable it may be, it is a perversion of the criminal justice system if the officials are operating under the same sort of protect-our-own code of silence that characterizes organized crime.