Peer pressure is not just for junior high anymore

Correctional officer cadets objecting to participating in a Nazi salute for a class photo were first pressured, then ordered, to participate


This article originally appeared in the January 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Nazi salute photo firestorm | Peer pressure in LE | How to hire cops, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

A corrections officer graduating class assembles for its class photo. Such pictures are often framed and displayed for years. The photo of a West Virginia corrections academy class #18 was going to be reproduced and put in each officer’s graduation packet, but when this picture saw the light of day, it became not a photo of proud graduates, but a roster of unemployed cadets. This photo will likely not hang on the academy wall along with the others. It is an official photo of future public servants rendering what everyone recognizes as a Nazi salute.

It was a joke, people. Just a joke. A nod to a hard-charging lead instructor whose passion she herself had compared to Hitler’s. The instructor had occasionally been greeted with the salute by a few students and apparently got a kick out of it, and the notion spread. She ordered all of the graduates to render the “Hail” salute in the graduation class photo. Five digits positioned just so. How could that cost dozens of careers?

Some sensed the weight of history behind that gesture and wanted to abstain or attempted to change the stiff-fingered salute to a raised fist instead. They were still fired along with the rest of their class, as was their instructor and two staff members.

Because the profession is always under the focus of somebody’s lens, every public servant in uniform must necessarily look through that lens as well. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Because the profession is always under the focus of somebody’s lens, every public servant in uniform must necessarily look through that lens as well. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Pressure to conform

We have all been subject to both positive and negative peer pressure. In the moment, the rewards of either are significant.

As a third-grader, I remember sitting quietly when Mrs. Edwards stepped out for a moment and the rest of the class began misbehaving. I remained stoically obedient because Mrs. Edwards would return, see me behaving and give me her classic currency of reward. I got my Tootsie Roll and was quite proud of it. Ten years later, still a well-behaved youngster, I vowed not to swear while in Army basic combat training, even though many of the march cadences included such language. Due to an observant and lip-reading drill instructor, the importance of platoon solidarity was quickly explained to me, and thereafter I joined in with the requisite poem about smashing a yellow bird’s f*&%ing head and other manly vulgarities.

It’s all about counting the cost. As a young trainee, I was cautioned about my behavior at somber scenes. People passing by didn’t want to see me smokin’ and jokin’ over a crash or crime scene. Then the Rodney King era began, and no officer went without the admonition to assume that they are being filmed every moment. Then came the reality that officers are on video every moment.

Because the profession is always under the focus of somebody’s lens, every public servant in uniform must necessarily look through that lens as well. That means setting a personal standard of accountability that calculates the long-term cost of a short-term chuckle. To focus on that goal, here are some things to think about.

[Did the correctional academy cadets who participated in a Nazi salute class photo deserve to be fired? Click here to answer our poll.]

What would this appear to be if taken out of context?

We all know that reading one page out of a book doesn’t tell the whole story, but what if one page or one picture was all you had? Avoid being that one page or one picture to which someone can attach an untrue narrative. That’s not always possible, but it can at least provide truth for a defense and counter-narrative. A Nazi salute will never translate well no matter what the back story.

Symbols are powerful

Think of the power of symbols in police work in affirming the high ideals of the shield and star, the American and blue line flag, the salute and volley, and Amazing Grace on bagpipes. Consider what emotions will be evoked from groups and individuals outside of the law enforcement circle when disrespectful symbols and actions are portrayed.

Although police are still generally highly regarded and trusted, Americans are steeped in suspicion of armed government agents, and history around the world confirms those suspicions. Before you strike that selfie pose or slap that bumper sticker on or choose that Halloween costume, imagine who might want to build a viral video around it.

Reject excuses

We can say it was all in fun, that it wasn’t intended for the public, that it’s none of anyone’s business, that it’s your first amendment right. And don’t ever think you can do something that no one will ever know about. Regardless of how true that may be, accompanied by a sigh and an eye roll, that won’t stop the headlines. Bad behavior tends to see the light of day at the worst possible time, even if it is years later.

Keep your eye on the Tootsie Roll

There may be a cost to standing up against peer pressure. The cadets objecting to the Nazi salute were pressured, then ordered, to participate. Had they prevailed they would have kept their careers but may have been subject to ridicule and harassment for standing up. It’s not the nail that stays down that gets hammered. If that is the price of integrity and foresight it is a risk worth taking.

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