The case of the flattened hat
Should a trooper's conflicting statements about a lost hat constitute the type of credibility failure that destroys an officer’s career?
Nothing says “state trooper” like a $200 campaign hat. It is a source of pride, a target for truckers, a hazard for getting out of a patrol car fast and an irreplaceable icon of trooper culture. For over a decade, the case of a North Carolina State Trooper’s missing hat has wound its way up and down the state’s courts, making at least one appearance in North Carolina’s Supreme Court. On February 18, 2020, an appeals court ruled that the trooper shouldn't have been fired for losing his hat and lying about it.
Of course, it’s not about the hat, but whether Trooper Thomas Wetherington lied about it.
His first narrative was that the hat had blown off his head, his second account was that he had perched it on the patrol car’s light bar and drove off before recovering it. The question became whether Wetherington’s conflicting statements constitute the type of credibility failure that destroys an officer’s career.
There are two types of punishment: consequences for clearly established unacceptable behavior for which there is little to no tolerance, and punishment based on the individual officer’s favor or disfavor with supervisors.
For zero-tolerance offenses, termination must follow where the offense is clearly defined, its violation is proven and years of honorable service is no defense. For lesser transgressions, relationships often rule, resulting in unequal outcomes. Here are three examples of that in action:
1. The untouchable
This officer isn’t likely to be held highly accountable for violations. They could be a hero whose downfall would harm the department's image or wield some political influence by family or friendship. Or it could be an officer who is in a protected employee class or has recently filed a complaint or prevailed in a lawsuit, making the department skittish about being accused of retaliation.
2. The good soldier
This officer has never caused any trouble and is a reliable, above-average cop, loyal to the profession and the department. This category could catch a break due to their record of good service. On the other hand, often the good soldier can be expected to not buck the system or fight a disciplinary action, so they can be subjected to punishment with no backlash.
3. The bad hire
The department regrets the existence of this officer on their roster, or their immediate supervisor has them on “the list.” Any infraction or deficiency will be noted to build a case to get rid of them. Whether by personality or poor performance this officer will never get a pass on anything until the personnel file accumulates enough disciplinary actions to await the proverbial last straw enabling the agency to fire them.
A Culture of Conformance
It is important to talk about punishment separately from discipline. Ongoing training, development and articulation of values, integrity monitoring and restorative programs for deficiencies are all components of keeping officers high performers and ethical operators. To maintain credibility and coherent discipline, department leadership must be consistent in the application of punitive and corrective measures.
Whether former Trooper Wetherington was on “the list” or all instances of potential false reporting are treated with zero tolerance in the North Carolina State Patrol, I do not know. No case that is summarized in an article or two includes all of the nuance and background to allow an accurate assessment of the case. The courts haven’t even sorted it out yet. But for police leaders, the question of maintaining the ability to direct, terminate, or penalize their officers remains a balancing act.
One thing we do know about his case: it’s not about the hat.