An Open Letter to Traverse City Police Chief Jeff O’Brien:
Dear Chief O’Brien,
Fire Officer Michael Peters.
With an understanding that you are committed to the often lengthy path of due process, note that the officer’s recent conduct was dangerous to the safety of the community which your department is sworn to protect, and it has damaged trust in local law enforcement.
While Traverse City does not boast a wide range of racial and ethnic diversity, it has a small but growing community of color, and is a town known for its progressive culture of inclusivity, and for the thoughtful quality of its public sector servants.
Many area residents were shocked and saddened by the conduct of Officer Peters when he chose to fly a Confederate flag on his pickup truck at a peaceful Veterans Day Love Trumps Hate rally held in opposition to Trump’s abhorrent policy pledges and his un-presidential private and public behavior.
In addition to Peters’ gross public display of such a deeply offensive symbol, the off-duty officer reportedly parked his vehicle illegally and was seen drinking a Bud Light at the scene before driving away. His actions were clearly meant to intimidate rally-goers and are unbefitting of a member of the Traverse City Police Department.
Some may argue that his actions were within his 1st Amendment rights — that it was protected speech. As a public servant though, he is held to a higher standard as a condition of his employment, even while off-duty.
Most police departments have in place a written code of ethical conduct which extends to off-duty behavior. We understand the TCPD has adopted a generic code borrowed from the military — Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer, which specifically states a violation (in an off-duty capacity) would include:
“[An] action or behavior in an unofficial or private capacity which, in dishonoring or disgracing the officer personally, seriously compromises the person’s standing as an officer.”
Typically these codes will include things like personal grooming standards — tattoos, hair length, etc., but more broadly they demand that officers conduct themselves within the bounds of the department’s overall mission — with the primary goal always being public safety.
As a former manager of a financial institution in the same community, I was required to sign a code of conduct pledge that said, as an officer of the bank, I was prohibited from engaging in any conduct which could adversely impact the image of the institution, including my dress, manners, affiliations, and financial transactions. A violation would have led to termination.
In an article in PoliceOne.com, a professional trade publication, on the topic of police ethics and disciplinary actions, the author finds that courts rarely challenge the terms of these agreements, and give police departments wide discretionary authority to implement, interpret, and enforce their codes. Citing a 1976 Supreme Court case as precedent for maintaining a vigorous disciplinary role for administrators, PoliceOne notes that the case touched-on freedom of choice questions for off-duty officers:
“In a footnote to the decision, the Court even gave a nod to the department’s Code of Ethics as an example of those regulations which may “infringe on…freedom of choice in personal matters” but which nonetheless are related to the department’s overall mission and organization. Regulations upon officer conduct when off-duty have been similarly upheld to the extent those regulations did not pry into personal matters.”
Under your watch, Traverse City has recently moved to a “community policing” model — a system intended to strengthen trust between law enforcement and the people they serve.
Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, under its guidelines states the primary goal of the program is to promote community trust in police departments, as explained in their handbook, Community Policing Defined. Simply put, trust builds better, stronger, and safer neighborhoods.
Officer Peters’ behavior has cast aspersions on the integrity of the TCPD, offended and frightened the public, violated the core tenet of Community Policing, and likely was a breach of code of conduct rules at several levels. And now word comes that this isn’t the first time he has put the TCPD in a bad light. At Chief O’Brien’s press conference on the topic we learned that Peters was reprimanded for flying the same flag on his vehicle while parked in the city police parking lot.
Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers has issued a social media statement on the ongoing process of investigation:
“As many may be aware now, a very unfortunate situation between peaceful protestors in the Open Space and an off duty city police officer occurred Friday evening. After a long day on the phone with the City Manager and our Chief of Police, I can report that an investigation is forth coming and that the officer in question will be suspended pending an investigation and dealt with accordingly. This type of behavior is not something we inTraverse City accept from our employees and especially from a member of our police force. Chief O’Brian [sic] assures me he is working toward a speedy out come to remedy this and that Traverse City citizens will be safe and free from discrimination.”
By way of a small example of the collateral harm the actions of Officer Peters has inspired — when I shared the news story on social media, it immediately attracted a number of disturbing comments which others found offensive and frightful, prompting one of my friends to private message me with the following:
“Wow, you have some really sick guys commenting on your post today. Very scary. Be careful.”
Just as Trump’s words and actions have served as a catalyst for hatred and bigotry across the nation, so have Officer Peters’ in this Northern Michigan community. The ramifications of his poor judgment won’t dissipate with a dock in his pay and a few extra hours of sensitivity training. His behavior has created a dangerous ripple effect, not just in Traverse City though, because news of his disgusting display of intolerance has spread worldwide and will surely have a negative impact on tourism — the bread and butter industry for our town. The National Cherry Capital’s diversity swells during the summer months as guests from all over the world converge to enjoy the Cherry Festival and the Film Festival. Adjacent communities could be negatively impacted too. We want all to feel welcome and safe here.
Officer Peters is not fit for the important duty of protecting the residents and visitors of this welcoming and peaceful community. His behavior is antithetical to the values we hold dear.
Chief O’Brien — fire Officer Peters.