Opinion » John Rember

Law Enforcement Class

And lowest common denominators


John Rember

Word had come down from the regional forester that any Sawtooth Forest employee with law enforcement authority had to attend a training session before issuing tickets to lawbreakers. So on an otherwise beautiful June day in 1971, I was sitting in a hot, linoleum-floored, fluorescent-lit room in Twin Falls, doodling on a legal pad and wishing I was on the way to Sawtooth Lake, cutting logs out of the trail with a crosscut saw. With me were 20 other wilderness rangers, our Sawtooth-White Cloud trail crew and other seasonal employees of the Ketchum, Stanley and Fairfield ranger districts.

We were listening to Cecil the Retired FBI Agent, who began his lecture by telling us he wouldn't die until the last bad guy he had put in jail served his time. Cecil had the controlled violence of a genial Alabama sheriff and when he looked at you, it was easy to imagine that he was sizing you up for multiple life sentences.

But the crimes Cecil talked about weren't life-sentence material. He discussed stealing timber and vandalizing forest signs, motorcycles in the wilderness, squatters in campgrounds and marijuana plantations in the forest. He was particularly concerned about the latter, and asked us to be on the lookout for camouflage netting, PVC hoses in mountain streams and old camp trailers at the end of narrow, just-chainsawed roads.

"If the growers find out you've discovered their plants, they'll kill you." He grinned, forgetting he was retired. "I get to put them in jail."

The wilderness ranger next to me raised his hand. "How about if we just ignore them?"

Cecil looked at him. "That's accessory to a felony," he said. "I get to put you in jail, too."

After Cecil, we were hoping the Good Cop would show up. He did, in a Forest Service uniform. "My name is Rick," he said. "Ranger Rick." He was part of the Forest Service's law enforcement team, and he began with a story about the 1968 Olympic Massacre in Mexico City, when Mexican authorities placed tanks around a square filled with protesting students and machine-gunned the crowd.

"They killed at least 500 kids," Ranger Rick said. "Maybe a thousand. Maybe two. In Mexico, the people serve the government or else."

Then he said, "In this country, the government serves the people. That's why, when you're out in the forest, try to remember that the people you meet—even if they're breaking rules—are the people you work for."

He wasn't in front of us to talk about Mexico, he said. His topic was LCDs, or Lowest Common Denominators. He told us about a former colleague of his, on a city police force, who traded in his service-issued Colt .38 for a .357 magnum. When he fired his new gun at a fleeing suspect, the bullet traveled two blocks, went through two walls and shattered a woman's arm while she was breastfeeding her baby.

"What happened to the baby?" asked the wilderness ranger next to me.

Ranger Rick said, "I don't know. She probably dropped it. I do know if you go back to that guy's squad room today, there's a rule that nobody can have a .357."

Ranger Rick told us that in any group, there was a Lowest Common Denominator, a person who would obey every rule but get everyone in trouble anyway. "Somebody in this room is your LCD. Any one of you could tell me exactly who it is."

The wilderness ranger next to me raised his hand, but put it down when he saw that everybody was looking at him.

"If somebody's really gung-ho, if he sees his job as writing tickets, if he sees the public as the enemy, if he sees every situation as a matter of catching a bad guy, sooner or later he'll hurt an innocent person. Not long after, we'll have a new rule for everyone to follow." He paused. "The rule I don't want to see next summer is that you all need to carry weapons. That will mean one of you has let a situation get out of hand."

It was a different message than Cecil had given us. The reason I remember it now, 44 years later, is that the Lowest Common Denominators have won. See a person in a uniform these days, and chances are they have a gun.

Lowest Common Denominators always win eventually, Ranger Rick had told us. Screw-ups add up. Organizations get so rule-bound they can't function, and rule-breakers end up as the only people who get things done. That's why bureaucracies—even law enforcement bureaucracies—end up being violent to the people they're supposed to serve. You can stay home and still end up in Mexico.

In retrospect, Cecil was our LCD, not because he was gung-ho, not because he was a predator who saw humans as prey, not because he simplified every situation to a contest between right and wrong, but because he was a double-dipper. He'd retired out of the Bureau and was drawing his pension and Social Security, all the while making fat consulting fees teaching hardcore law enforcement to people whose main concerns were dropped gum wrappers and making sure that campfires were dead out.

Cecil is no doubt dead himself, money being a poor life-extender compared to putting people in jail, but still. There ought to be a law.