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Keeping It Cool

July 29, 2009

A heat wave has had the Pacific Northwest in its grip for the past couple of days.  Temperatures where I live in Portland have soared past the century mark, and overnight lows have provided little relief.  Records are falling all over the place.

Under such conditions, keeping your cool can be pretty difficult, but people here seem to be coping rather well.  This makes the recent news of people elsewhere losing their cool all the more noteworthy.

Two incidents on the East Coast attracted my attention this week.  The first, involving Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley, and President Barack Obama, is coming to a close over a couple of cold beers tomorrow night at the White House.  At least, that seems to be the fervent hope of the principals in this little drama.

Another less widely publicized and in some ways much more unsettling event involving an off-duty Asheville, N.C. firefighter grabbed my attention just as the first incident was starting to fade.  Although many media outlets carried it as a sort of “news of the weird” story, it hit me in the face like the blast furnace effect I encounter every time I walk outside at the moment.

It seems this particular firefighter was driving along a busy street when he encountered a man and a woman riding bicycles.  The man’s bicycle sported a child seat, in which the couple’s three-year old was riding.

I can only assume based on the events that followed that the firefighter in question — who has more than likely encountered many grievously injured victims of trauma during his career — was moved to act out of fear for their safety for he stopped and confronted the cyclists about their conduct.  Unfortunately, the bicyclists saw no need for an intervention, having already decided they have as much right to use the road as anyone else, regardless of their mode of transit.

The widely divergent and probably irreconcilable views of the bicyclist and firefighter concerning the advisability of riding along a busy highway apparently escalated into a heated dispute.  At some point, the firefighter, no longer fearing for the man’s safety and now much more afraid he wasn’t getting his point across, decided to punctuate his argument with a pistol.

Fortunately, the shot he fired missed the man’s head as it passed through his bicycle helmet.  (See, there’s a reason you should always wear your helmet when riding!)  Nevertheless, the firefighter was subsequently arrested and now faces charges of attempted first-degree murder.

Everyone involved in these two wee melodramas acted with the best intentions and thought for all the world that they were in the right.  Reason did them little good in the face of their own and others’ unleashed emotions.

I have worked with cops and firefighters like those involved in these two incidents throughout most of my working life.  Sadly, I cannot say either of these incidents surprises me all that much.  Cops and firefighters increasingly find themselves living in organizational and social monocultures,which insulate them from critics, isolate them from support, and both inculcate and intensify extreme views of the world they inhabit.

When cops and firefighters are busy, they rarely have time to worry about trivial matters.  Oddly, they seem to be the most content and easiest to deal with when the people they serve are most miserable.

If a civil service system that favors the best performers on written exams either produces or contributes to this sort of maladaptive perspective, then maybe we need to use something like a lottery to select public safety recruits instead.  On the other hand, we could make sure our cops and firefighters stay busy in ways that involve them in more positive interactions with the public.

Wouldn’t it be cool if firefighters and cops used their status as positive role models to forge a more effective parntership with their communities before an emergency occurs?  We don’t need the best and brightest cops and firefighters — as if written tests somehow produced this result — but we do need caring professionals who can relate to the people in their communities.

If public safety professionals were more representatives of or at least engaged with the communities they protect, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have cops and firefighters creating or contributing to crises like the ones we saw this week in situations where none really existed before they arrived.

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