Community Reaction

     Americans are well versed in cop stories.  We've been telling tales of crime and justice for a very long time through books, radio, TV and movies.  I guess you could add video games to that list as well.  And it's not just Americans, either.  Stories about police solving crimes and chasing bad guys are popular everywhere.  Still, since I am going to discuss recent events here in Fox Lake, Illinois, I'll begin by saying we Americans are pretty familiar with cop stories.  We know how this is supposed to go.  There are heroes, and there are villains.  Every crime comes with a set of clues that ultimately reveal the truth, and the criminal is caught before too long- half an hour maybe, or at least before you turn the final page.  We know the rhythm of it, and we know the characters.  While there may well be a twist in the investigation, we know it won't be too complicated and we'll be satisfied with the justice in the end.  Since we are so familiar with the way these things go, we get thrown off balance or even angry when the real world doesn't match our storytelling tradition.  I think that has contributed to the reactions after Wednesday's announcement.

     If you're unfamiliar with the events, you'll be able to find all the details from various news reports, so I'll just give a brief summary here.  At the beginning of September, a local police officer, well known and well liked, radioed he was chasing three suspects in a remote area.  First, he declined backup; then, he called for help.  When other officers arrived, they found him shot and dying with some of his equipment missing.  Citizens in my town and others nearby were shocked and frightened.  Everyone was determined that the shooter be found and justice be done.  There was overwhelming support and sympathy for the slain officer's family.  Hundreds of people from multiple police departments, county, state, and federal organizations were involved in the manhunt and investigation, but still the shooter had not been found.  A grand funeral procession was held in the cop's honour with onlookers lining miles of streets along the route.

     As time went on, rumours circulated as to why no villain had been found.  Years of cop shows had taught us that evidence gets quickly analyzed with pinpoint accuracy, especially when there's DNA involved.  If nothing else, a team of three culprits was sure to crack and give up the trigger man under pressure.  The bad guys can't just get away.  So while no arrests were made, minds turned to the other plots we've seen - conspiracy, betrayal.  Some pointed to the changing details of the story from those initially reported that day.  Some noted the allegations of corruption in the department that were recently under scrutiny.  Some concluded that the reason the investigation dragged on must be that a cover-up was being carefully constructed behind the scenes.  Few seemed to realize that the rush to report details at the start had resulted in some inaccuracies that were corrected along the way, or that analyzing evidence takes a little more time than we see on TV shows.

     Just about two months after the incident, the investigators called a conference to disclose what they had found.  The people didn't like that either.  It turns out that our beloved hero cop had embezzled for years from the explorers program fund, from the very program that he ran to mentor teens interested in police work.  Concerned that a village audit might uncover his crime, he carefully staged his suicide to appear as if he were killed in the line of duty.

     Again, people were shocked.  Those who knew the officer well couldn't resolve the idea that he might kill himself and flat out denied the possibility of his crime.  I have to admit the suicide theory seemed fishy to me, too, when it was first leaked to the press the night before the announcement.  However, the investigators backed up their conclusion with some pretty damning evidence.  All that day, everywhere people gathered, they were talking about the stunning news, trying to make sense of it and to settle the blame somewhere.  Faced with the evidence of his crime, some still deny, but many have suddenly turned on his memory and his family.  They have mostly removed or defaced the memorials, the ribbons, tributes, and signs that were ubiquitous in the area only days ago.  Betrayal has turned adoration to hatred.  People feel deceived, and there's plenty of anger expressed toward the investigators, as well, for not exposing that deception sooner.

     I want to take this moment to say that anger is completely misplaced.  Investigators in this case did exactly what good investigators do.  They kept their minds open to all possibilities until they had gathered enough facts to conclusively determine what had happened.  They avoided speculating to the public until they had examined all the evidence and followed every lead.  Some have asked why so much time, money and manpower was spent on the search for nonexistent suspects in those early days.  Very simply, the clues that might indicate suicide at the crime scene were not enough to rule out the possibility of armed murderers running loose in the community.  There was a very real possibility that that was the case, and when you have a potential danger to the people, you don't stop and ask if they really need protection.  Narrowing the investigation to suicide was actually a fairly recent development, as I understand it, and until that time, all possibilities were still in play.  The police were not withholding the conclusion from the citizens so that they would feel foolish later for honouring the victim; they were merely allowing for the possibility that a good man had actually been killed in the line of duty as we all initially believed.

     But this post is not really about the investigation or even the unfortunate truth it uncovered.  This is about the reaction to that revelation.  What do you do when a hero disappoints you?  How do you reconcile the knowledge that one man has done both good and evil?  As I mentioned in my previous post, from all appearances, this was a very good man who did very good things in our community.  There were reasons he was liked and respected.  He was a positive influence to most people who knew him, and many kids looked up to him.  Does that mean he just fooled us all? Yes.  Maybe.  It's a complex question.  We all want to believe in heroes.  The truth is heroes are humans, sometimes tragically so.  In this case, the officer made some really bad choices that led, as they often do, into more really bad choices.  It's clear he and his conspirators did things we should disapprove of, things that should have earned them stiff punishment, things that clearly brought him shame.  Still, that should not wash away what good he did accomplish.

     I am not saying that any of it excuses his crimes.  What I am saying is that, sincere or not, his influence has had real effects.  If you were a teen inspired to become a good police officer, you can't discount that because Gliniewicz wasn't everything you thought he was.  Hold on to the ideal.  You can still be everything you admired.  If the original narrative moved you to consider the courage of all police officers, or to do some kindness for those who were grieving, or to feel a kinship with your neighbors, don't feel foolish for your genuine reaction.  Those are positive responses to the crisis that need no apology.

     Cop stories have told us that there are heroes and villains, and sometimes we'll even see the villain disguised as hero.  However, we rarely see the more complex mix of the two.  They're harder to acknowledge, but far more real than the others.  Struggle between our good and bad impulses is part of the human condition.  This unfortunate tale has many people unsure what to think.  I choose to say it is what it is, and we shouldn't let it diminish the hero each of us can be.


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