Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 8, 2016

The Court Martial of a Crossing Guard

So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

-William Shakespeare

Last week I began seeing news items about a school crossing guard and the phrase “chain of command.” I perked up instantly. Some things just don’t go together. They may as well have been talking Victoria’s Secret and animal husbandry. So I wanted to know what it was all about. I don’t guess the truth, whole and complete, will ever be fully known, but what is known of this story suggests something pretty unpleasant. This is a story of a small town kerfuffle that is symptomatic of a cancer in the larger community. That cancer is militarization of police, and this is one tiny example of why it’s so wrong.

The bare facts of our story are simple as one, two, three:

  1. School crossing guard and borough resident, Gina Bowne, arrives at work one Monday morning — a street corner outside the Bingham Elementary School in Runnemede, NJ, USA. Snow and ice from a severe storm had not been cleared from the street where children would cross; it may also have been blocking a sidewalk where children needed to walk.
  1. Guard Bowne deems the intersection a threat to her safety as well as the children’s. She has said her supervisor, a police sergeant, was not at work that day, and she had instructions not to contact him at home. Since she already had a longstanding phone-texting relationship with the borough Mayor, Nick Kappatos, she sends him a text message so the town’s highest authority is immediately made aware of the unsafe conditions endangering children.
  1. Two days later guard Bowne is punished for violating the “chain of command” by directly contacting the mayor. She is suspended from employment (without pay) for two days.
DSCF6130s

Scene of the snowy battle outside Bingham school. A dangerous intersection of one-way and two-way streets and turn restrictions.

The phrase “chain of command” originates with the military, and it has very specific military meaning. Even though a crossing guard is supervised by the police department, it’s ludicrous to suggest she is anything but an employee in the civilian world. The real issue seems to be the ever increasing militarization of police in this country. In this instance, things proceeded just as they would in the military. And in the best tradition of the military, command failure is passed to the lowliest private — and the court martial proceeds. The lowliest private, in this case, crossing guard Bowne is punished with a suspension of duty — without any actual court martial or due process.

Fortunately, Bowne is a spunky sort. I guess you’d have to be to stand outside protecting children in every sort of bad weather for 16 years at her crossing guard post. So she takes her case to the court of “social media,” what has now become the real “people’s court.” In this case, that appears to be mostly Facebook.

runn cops

Bowne published this on Facebook to show her “punishment.”

Bowne uses a Facebook group oriented to the town of Runnemede, and she lets people know what has happened. She doesn’t think it’s fair. She saw a threat to children and herself, and she made that known to the person who could most effectively stop that threat. This story upsets the citizens of Runnemede. They don’t think it’s fair either, and it smacks of putting some kind of administrative policy ahead of the safety of their young children. That upheaval in the citizenry gets media attention. Next thing, it’s in newspapers and on television. It’s picked up by wire service Associated Press and appears in newspapers as far away as Washington, DC. More people get even more upset as they hear details of the story.

Runnemede is a town with a slowly declining population now numbering around 8500, and the town governance was unprepared for this mass disagreement with their actions. Like all politicians they quickly put on their backpedaling shoes. News is released that the suspension has been rescinded. A large contingent of citizens attend a Borough Council meeting and excoriate the mayor publicly. He apologizes publicly. Guard Bowne presses him and demands to know why he was discussing her private personnel issues on a radio talk show. The mayor seems to decline to answer — since, of course, it’s a personnel matter, and he doesn’t want to discuss it in public. The ghost of Joseph Heller is felt in the meeting room.

That seems to be about where things stand at this point. There’s no end of “he said, she said” stuff being bandied about in the social media world still. Some folks want to recall the mayor. Opinions are all over the place. I’ve got an opinion too.

I believe the real problem is going unnoticed and unspoken. That problem is dereliction of duty by police. In their role as guardians of “public safety,” the police should ensure a school crossing is fully safe. This should be done long before any crossing guard or child ever gets near the scene. They failed to do this. Either they never looked at the situation or they did not perceive the danger so obvious to an experienced school crossing guard. The mayor, in a recording I heard of his talk-radio appearance seems to suggest he and the police and the school knew about the situation in the very early morning hours, but they could not or would not do anything about it. Instead of leadership, apathy was the order of the day, at least until crossing guard Bowne happened upon the scene.

DSCF0781s

How they roll…

The correct resolution in this instance is for the police chief to be held accountable. Maybe he’s the one who should be suspended for a few days. Although I grew up in Runnemede and love the town that nurtured me in so many wonderful ways, I’m glad I don’t live there now. Having a police chief who does not back up his own employees and who does not value the safety of young children would frighten me.

Finally, if the town wants to conduct itself as a military enclave, someone in their “chain of command” should put crossing guard Bowne in for a formal commendation. We hear a lot about “heroism” these days; truth is we are usually blinded when the real thing hits us between the eyes. I believe Bowne needs to be recognized for what actually is heroism. Her response to a dangerous situation required bravery and action above and beyond. She put herself in harm’s way, given the police militarization there. Children could have died that day.

As I said the whole truth of this story will probably never be known. From my perspective out in the cheap seats it has the look of a spaghetti western. A good crossing guard, a bad police chief and an ugly mayor. I’m glad to see the people of my town are as fine as ever, even if they do have poor leadership, for the moment. I’m sure they’ll get that corrected.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. A lot of the police problems are from a lack of oversight and also from hiring from the military. Civil service exams give extra points to those who serve. The police are no longer her to protect and serve.

  2. Very good reporting.

  3. As always, a great and informative read! Hopefully a lot of towns take heed! Maybe FB while annoying at times because we get to see every selfie ever taken and see what all our friends and family ate for lunch, just maybe it can bring about needed societal changes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: