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Crossing the Broken Blue Line

A Primer: Being on the Right Side of the Law in Iowa City, IA.

I have no doubt Michael Smithey is a diligent, conscientious police officer; one his boss, Chief Sam Hargadine is proud to have on the Iowa City force.

It’s Smithey’s revelation of personal bias that’s troubling when laid bare on the streets he patrols.

At first glance, Smithey appears rational as a negotiator, which in the line of duty, doesn’t allow for many character flaws. The human side of the man or woman in blue is often glossed over in favor of exaggerated stereotypes Americans have of law officers. The bar of professionalism is set high with the job, where convincing the citizenry of that rectitude can be just as taxing as catching the bad guys.

Imprudence would assume chinks in the mental armor of law enforcement don’t exist. The public has seen time and time again brutality occurs when raw emotion is put to the test. Smithey’s breach was nowhere as cataclysmic, yet speaks volumes as it was directed toward the wronged party making the 911 call he responded to on August 21st.

There on Highway 1/Riverside Drive, Chinese exchange student John Man Chun Ma led Dan Holman on a foot chase after Ma assaulted Holman’s wife Donna several minutes earlier. The object of Ma’s ire was a notably graphic anti-abortion placard Ms. Holman was holding while protesting outside an Iowa City Planned Parenthood office.

Dan Holman filmed his encounter with Ma and Smithey’s near flawless handling of the situation, until Holman pressed him for the reason why Ma did it. From that point Smithey placatingly told Holman, “You know why he (Ma) did it, ok?”

As Holman persisted, Smithey moved him out of earshot of Ma,  saying, “Look, you and I both know why he did it. He doesn’t like the sign, I personally don’t like the sign, it doesn’t matter though.”

Smithey’s leak of individual tilt wasn’t made clear in saying he met Holman ten years earlier; an encounter Smithey’s harbored ever since.

If Ma felt affronted by Donna Holman’s sign, so too was Smithey in choosing not to obviate his non-conservative and pro-choice beliefs on abortion.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Section 5, Conduct Toward the Public, subsection a) Officers shall conduct themselves toward the public in a civil and professional manner that connotes a service orientation and that will foster public respect and cooperation.

Law enforcement’s  presence at a disturbance connotes leverage, but citing individual opinion, as in Smithey’s case, reeks of conduct unbecoming. Yet Smithey wasn’t finished, contorting his words in telling Holman that Ma was “extremely offended by the sign and unfortunately that’s the reaction that I think, look, you’re looking to provoke an extreme reaction with that.”

Unless stirring a contentious pot is integrated into preparation, or lack thereof, the ICPD imparts in managing notably peaceful protests by Tea Party and Libertarian groups, Smithey either misinterpreted, never studied, or failed to adhere to the US Constitution, where the 1st Amendment clearly defines what the Holmans were doing that day.

It would be easy to excuse Smithey as just another officer of the law with an inferiority complex compensating with a badge and a sidearm, or simply a first responder who acted in a manner that was shameful if witnessed and recorded.

Police officers are not separate, autonomous entities. They communicate with one another. Iowa City isn’t much different from Memphis, Spokane, or Hartford. Survival on the streets depends on that interaction, and is reflected in the way they relate to special interest groups and pro-life advocates like the Holmans.

By the time he told Holman he could “separate his politics from his job,” Smithey was already non-relevant.

Maybe Hargadine should recommend Smithey bone up on conducting himself in ways that unnecessarily delay the performance of his duty. That, and not casting his line in shark-infested waters, although that might also be missing from the ICPD’s training manual chapter on Civil Rights.

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