Our Opinion: Uniformed officers were out of place at DA political event

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It had all the makings of the perfect campaign photo-op: An acting district attorney whose previous boss graciously greased the skids by resigning early so that the candidate would enjoy the advantage of incumbency on election day; a backdrop consisting of the steps and front facade of the county's Superior Court building and a phalanx of uniformed law enforcement personnel gathered together in support. The only problem with this impressive tableau was that, according to state ethics regulations, it never should have happened.

Paul Caccaviello is an accomplished prosecutor with years of experience under his belt who will have a case to make for election as the county's top law enforcement officer. As such, he should not have had anything to do with this clear violation of state guidelines regarding the use of uniformed public personnel at a campaign event. The advisory from the State Ethics Commission is unequivocal: "A public employee may not engage in political activity, whether election-related or non-election-related, on his public work time; while acting in his official capacity or while in his official uniform."

To some, the transgression might seem like a tempest in a teapot; after all, so what if various sheriff's deputies, local cops and some office employees show their support for the current acting D.A.? Don't they have the right, as American citizens, to support whom they please? What if they took a lunch break to be part of the photo — were they expected to change into civvies?

Yes, as a matter of fact, they were. There are important reasons for such ethical guidelines, and it's all about message and symbolism. When an individual dons the uniform of a public law enforcement agency, he or she no longer represents that person's viewpoint or political preference. They are expected to set all that aside as they perform their sworn duties without passion or prejudice. Once in uniform, they have undertaken to serve the public, not a single individual, no matter how high up they may be in the law enforcement hierarchy. In showing public backing in uniform for the chief prosecutor, they send a subliminal message that official law enforcement is in for this candidate.

For his part, Mr. Caccaviello has expressed his regret for the incident ever since Pittsfield resident Igor Greenwald filed a formal complaint with the SEC. The law enforcement officials in attendance should follow the acting DA's example.

The photo op may have been an oversight, or it may be that such rules are rarely enforced because they have become accepted practice. In a prosecutorial setting, however, it would be a pretty safe bet to assume that Mr. Cacaviello would be quick to cite the well-used dictum, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse," or to assert that just because a law isn't consistently enforced doesn't mean it shouldn't be obeyed.

Between this incident and former District Attorney David Capeless' resignation to allow Mr. Caccaviello to complete his term, supporters of the other two DA candidates can be forgiven for suspecting that the law enforcement establishment is being overzealous in trying to elect its preferred candidate. Regardless of the eventual winner, that establishment will be expected to serve the new DA faithfully. America is not a police state, and law enforcement personnel at all levels must take great care to ensure that any message to the contrary is never sent.


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