The situation about a Winder police officer having been disciplined because of having written some bad checks has gotten a lot of comments. The unfortunate side effect of that ordeal is that it has reinforced some views that may, or may not, be valid in the larger context.
First, the way the officer was able to rush her bad check case through the judicial process gives support to the widely-held idea that in Barrow County, it matters more who you are than what you’ve done. Right or wrong, that perception has tainted Barrow County’s public sphere for decades. A lot of people from both within and outside of Barrow believe that “connections” carries far too much weight in how judicial cases are handled. That perception is not unusual in many small communities. In fact, it is rooted in some truth. Historically, rural Southern communities did indeed have a cultural pecking order that everyone understood.
At the top of that order were the merchants, business owners, doctors, lawyers, bankers and other professionals who gravitated into small towns. They were the ones who lived in the fine old homes of a town and many were the descendants of early settlers and old money. They are often referred to in old newspaper articles as “leading citizens” or “prominent citizens.” These families tended to dominate the political culture, but often indirectly. These people were often “too important” to actually hold a public office and get their hands sullied by politics, but behind the scenes, they would hold sway over those who did.
A close second in rural communities were the landed gentry, large farmers and landowners. While perhaps not as well educated as their city counterparts, these people were politically influential in the Southern agrarian economy and many held important political positions.
From those two top positions, the pecking order fell off considerably. Next were the blue-collar workers who worked in the fields and factories owned by the upper classes. Even within those workers was a caste system where certain blue-collar positions were held in higher esteem than others. Trade professionals, such as mechanics, were at the upper end of that scale while factory workers, the “lintheads” of textile mills for example, were at the lower end of the spectrum.
Of course, at the bottom of the pecking order of that era were black residents. Until the 1960s, most weren’t allowed to vote in the South and weren’t considered as “citizens” in the way we would today understand it.
In that era, the way people were treated in the judicial system depended on which of these groups they came from. Those from the “important” families often got preferential treatment — charges tossed or handled in secret — while those from the lower groups often suffered the full weight of the law, especially if they were black.
It took a long time for that kind of thinking to eventually fade. This writer remembers arguing in the 1980s with some who thought that doctors or lawyers who got arrested for DUI should not have their names published in the newspaper because they were “too important” to suffer such an indignity.
Today, there are those who argue that in Barrow County, this kind of thinking hasn’t faded enough. You see that in online comments to various articles about politics or the courts in the community. There is a widespread belief that insider connections play a large role in how people get treated.
So when a WPD officer was able to quickly get her case through the system, the immediate response was that it was because of that kind of insider connection. Who else could have a bad check case adjudicated in less than a week unless they knew how to “play” the system?
But making this situation even worse was that the officer involved apparently didn’t really do her mandated community service hours. She worked her regular SRO job and counted that as community service, but turned in the data before she could have possibly worked enough hours.
And therein we find the second issue of this case: That some in public safety positions too often perceive that they don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. That has long been an issue in communities of all sizes. Those who enforce the rules often come to think they are above the rules. Barrow has seen several cases of that in recent years.
It’s that kind of thinking that makes the lives of police chiefs and sheriffs difficult. Keeping their own law enforcement officers in line takes about as much time in management as many of their other duties.
Some argue that law enforcement and public safety officials are human just like everyone else and are subject to the same kinds of problems and should not be singled out. Some readers commented that the Journal should not have reported on this particular case.
But our society holds those public positions to a higher standard than everyone else. We expect more from our public safety officials than we do just about any other position. Law enforcement officers simply can’t allow themselves to get into situations where they are breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold.
This case has now been settled and the officer disciplined. One can hope this will set an example and send a message to others in the public sphere that not only are they not above the law, but that they are also being held to a higher standard than anyone else in the community.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.