Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How Far We've Moved From Mayberry

July 4, 2012  -  R.I.P Andy Griffith

In the ugly cynicism of the 21st century, many Americans yearn nostalgically for a time when our nation was epitomized by Mayberry, North Carolina. This small town in the rural south captured perfectly the values we like to believe are uniquely our own.

It isn't true though. Mayberry being what it was rested solely on the shoulders of a wise and strong and kind and tolerant leader. To be the Mayberry we loved, it required an Andy Taylor to make it so. The citizens of Mayberry contained all the same qualities we do ourselves. At times, they were ignorant or selfish or judgmental or greedy or short-sighted. It took the Sheriff to bring out the best in them.

Andy Taylor was not a man who bullied or badgered or sermonized to bring his people to reason. He was a master of leading by example, of gently nudging his folks to understanding while allowing them to believe they'd found the answers for themselves. The Sheriff was content to stand back so someone else could bask in the glory of a successful conclusion although, behind the scenes, he'd written the script for that success.

He suffered fools gladly and didn't mind being played for a fool himself if being underestimated meant the right outcome was reached in the end.

This is the part of Mayberry that is true. Leadership matters. It is the determining factor of the character of any entity - be it a school, a corporation, a city or a country.

Over the years, I watched my own county Sheriff's Department evolve or devolve, depending on who we elected to be its head.

For a while, we had a very authoritarian sheriff who encouraged his deputies to be the same. He had an "us versus them" mentality, with the cops on one side of the divide and the public on the other. Officers knew he'd always have their backs, blowing off citizen complaints about over-aggressive treatment, no matter how egregious. Inmates knew it was a waste of time to write a grievance about rough handling by jail officers. The reputation of the Department suffered as people talked among themselves about deputies who threw their weight around because they had the authority of a squad car, a badge and a gun.

When the Sheriff ran for re-election, he lost. But we over-reacted. Ah, America, this is always your downfall, isn't it. Your pendulum always swings too far.

Replacing the old sheriff, we hired ourselves a kinder, gentler version. He was so kind, he left the doors to the cell blocks open. He was so gentle, he said we needed to be "understanding" about the nature of child molesters. He ordered bitter jail officers to serve as character witnesses in court for some of our most low-life prisoners. He allowed some inmates to go home for conjugal visits with spouses, as resentful deputies cooled their heels, waiting outside in the car. In any dispute between a criminal and a cop, he sided with the criminal. He appeared to be confused about who the good guys and the bad guys were supposed to be.

Well, hell, that wasn't quite what we had in mind. So when his term was up, he wasn't re-elected.

Our next sheriff was as close to Andy Taylor as you can get. He supported his officers while making sure they understood that he wouldn't tolerate the mistreatment of either citizens or inmates. He added a GED course as well as drug and alcohol counseling in the jail. He pushed his deputies to become more educated, approving almost any class they wanted to take. We developed our own instructors so that other departments came to us for training. He added a Detective Division and a drug dog. His door was always his officers, to his inmates or to his constituents. If any of them had a valid complaint, he would act on it. He was a good old boy kind of sheriff (a little like Andy Taylor, in fact), only deigning to wear a uniform for photo ops.

He had a successful 8-year term and probably could have been re-elected indefinitely except that Indiana term-limits its sheriffs.

So, then we elected a former State Trooper - our heads were turned because he was young, handsome, charming, with a gleaming white smile in a deep tan face. He decided the previous sheriff had operated the Department in an highly unprofessional manner (professional, being his be-all-and-end-all word). He was horrified that we had a Department cat (although battered wives and their terrified children seemed to get great comfort from her loving attention). Cuffs was the first to go when he took over. He was horrified that the wallpaper border in our office featured duck decoys and had it quickly removed. He was horrified that deputies had been allowed not to wear their ties and hats and ordered a prompt change in the uniform policy. He was horrified by a lot of things and took immediate steps to polish our image. No question, the Department's looked sharper but over time, though ticket-writing went way up ("I want you out on the roads where people can see you"), crime-solving and arrests went way down. The day staff stopped going to lunch together. Camaraderie disappeared. This Sheriff thought professionalism meant appearance rather than competence.

The moral of the story is that leadership matters. Mayberry isn't Mayberry without Andy Taylor in charge.


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