Decorum deferred

A recent incident involving a mugging, two emergency services personnel and a near-beating has had me unpacking the dos and don’ts of professionals in uniform. Image always counts when it comes to how they behave in public.

I was at the management offices of an East Rand shopping mall to check on whether or not my debit card — which I had lost — had been handed in to its lost and found department. No sooner had I arrived there, than I was joined by a rather hysterical customer, also a woman. Seeing as she was in a state, I let her go first to make her query.

She’d allegedly been robbed, her wallet having been taken out of her handbag. She was almost immediately able to identify the accomplices of the mugger, thanks to witnesses who’d seen the two — both women — being “handed” the wallet in question by the thief. After what seemed like about five minutes of her giving her statement to the front-desk officer, about six security guards walked in — two suspects in hand — much to the relief of the victim.

The suspects — who were naturally agitated because they had been humiliated and accosted in public — were in uniform, emergency services personnel uniform, to be exact.

My initial instinct, call it naivety, was to conclude that it was all a big misunderstanding. What public official in her right mind would commit a crime, regardless of how petty it was, in public, for the entire shopping mall to see? The security guards — unnecessarily large in number — were only doing all this for show, I concluded, to be seen to be on top of their game. They were never going to catch the real criminal, who in my mind would most probably not be in any type of uniform.

The drama that unfolded only served to jolt me out my naive state: the two accused launched at their alleged victim with such anger and contempt that they had to be restrained by the guards. Fists were flying, and I suddenly realised the need for six guards to escort two unarmed women. Not only were the accused hurling insults at their alleged victim in between their attempts to beat her up, they were also threatening to “deal with her” once the whole matter had been resolved and they were cleared of wrongdoing.

If they were not guilty of the crime as the accuser had suggested, they were definitely guilty of bringing the emergency services industry into disrepute with their reaction.

A great disservice
There’s a certain element of “safeness” associated with someone in official uniform. They may not be serving in the security cluster of our society, but the fact that they are in uniform does not only serve to distinguish them from the rest of the public, but to create a message that they can and should be trusted.

Public officials in uniform know that their deportment speaks not only for themselves, but for the service for which they are representatives. Some, however, do their professions a great disservice. The point where good training and an enforced code of conduct meet a choice of good or bad judgement is by far the very measure by which we weigh our trust in people in public service. It seems though that it is also something of a grey area for some people.

It has become almost a daily occurrence to hear from political and religious leaders of the need for people to embrace morality, to do things not because it’s how they have been done for years, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Newspaper reports over the years have served to communicate a growing disregard, for example, by our society for police officials and their role in our communities. Taking the law into our hands first and asking questions later is seemingly the rule of thumb among communities far and wide in our country. One can only imagine how many of the special members of the public — from whom we’ve come to expect a certain level of behavioural standard — have disgraced their professions by acting inappropriately in public. Whether they incite violent or disruptive behaviour or just react to it with more violence, they are considered accountable and should meet the expectation with the required responsibility to maintain decorum.

I do not know how the case of the missing wallet unfolded as I left before it could come to a conclusion, but I noticed a slight tinge of sadness at leaving behind a couple of public officials in an office normally reserved for the scum of shopping malls.

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