When I read John McCann's story in yesterday's Herald-Sun, I would have known just whom the courts and crime reporter was interviewing by the words and turns of phrase the subject used.
"[P]otential for an ethnic war" between black and Latino gangs. "[A]bout 70% of the black community has retrogressed in Durham." "[A]ttributable to the thug culture." That people who claim to care about the problem are only looking to "grab for federal grant money" to build unachievable visions.
Perhaps you think McCann gotten an all-access pass to the commenters at WRAL? Maybe "whatelseisnew" or "underPSI" or one of those other social commentators has managed to find his way to claw at a phone long enough to initiate a dialing sequence? Or perhaps a representative of one of these Tea Party movements?
Ah, you'd think, but no. Had I not seen the interviewee name, I'd still have known it was Major Paul Martin, a senior officer in the Durham County Sheriff's Office and frequent, er, commentator on social issues.
Brand-new Wake County school superintendent Anthony Tata may be an occasional Fox News contributor and I'm-With-Grizzly-Mama fan, but I suspect if Martin were seeking sideline work, it might be more of the WorldNetDaily or NewsMax variety.
After reading the missile, er, missive yesterday, first place I went was to my email archives to pull up a Partners Against Crime - District 2 email blast that Major Martin had sent out to the listserv a couple of years back, which painted a similar dire picture of papaless criminals whose childhoords were warped by crack cocaine, with drug industry sympathizers holding see-kret political power around town and happy to let the mayhem continue. Oh, and that non-disabled, non-elderly persons getting social services money must get routine drug tests -- and mamas should have to identify the papas of their babies.
Come to think of this, this does sound like something that might fit one of Tata's novels.
Anyhow, apparently the PAC2 email was among the first things the Herald-Sun's Ray Gronberg thought of, too.
This morning's paper contains a deeper analysis of Martin's past -- including a look back at the multipage manifesto Martin shared with PAC2 more than a year ago, along with more on the major's background.
And it also quotes a seemingly angry County Manager Mike Ruffin, calling the comments by the major "unbelievable" and wondering whether they were really, as Martin claims, "personal" views.
Ruffin added that he already asked for "an audience" with Martin's boss, Sheriff Worth Hill, and would use it to make clear he's not buying the major's argument that he was expressing only his personal views and not the department's.
That doesn't wash for high-ranking officials in any governmental organization, Ruffin said.
Once someone rises to command level, "there's no such thing as 'personal,'" Ruffin said.
The 2009 report-out from Martin didn't describe itself as an official statement on the part of the Sheriff's Office -- but then, as Gronberg notes and as is documented in the PAC2 archives, "Maj. Paul Martin" was invited to speak at a Partners Against Crime meeting to have a dialogue on his controversial assertions.
Gronberg's reporting today is a must-read, going into Martin's past history at (and controversial comments while working for) the city police department, and his past assertions that murder rates would skyrocket -- something that doesn't match either the local or national trends, as we've seen here in the past.
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Now, as a blast from an anonymous (why are the always anonymous?) commenter to the PAC2 list this morning shows, there are certainly people who believe in the thug-and-drug theory, who salivate at the idea that paternity tests and drug tests should be the coin of the realm for "gummint handouts" from the social services set.
But I daresay many in this community wouldn't agree with them.
The question of whether Martin is within or beyond the pale in trying to retreat behind a "personal opinion" fallback line on his positions is one that Ruffin and Co. will doubtlessly be looking at.
The broader question it raises to me, though, is: just what the heck is going on at the Sheriff's Office, and what impact do comments like this have on the ability of the office, or Martin, to do their job without perception of bias?
Take, for instance, this mention of Martin in the N&O on Wednesday, the same day that McCann's retelling of Martin's comments came forth:
The Durham County Sheriff's Office is investigating Mangum's supporters - a small group of longtime community activists - for alleged witness intimidation in the case. Maj. Paul Martin said he may decide whether to charge anyone next month. He would not say what sort of intimidation may have occurred.
One supporter, former Durham City Councilwoman Jackie Wagstaff, has already served five days in jail for contempt of court. When Superior Court Judge Abe Jones sent the jury back into deliberation for a third time at Mangum's trial, Wagstaff said, "This is ridiculous."
Now, mind you, I'm pretty familiar with the Wagstaffs, Steve Matherlys and the like in Durham.
And suffice it to say, their opinions on matters great and small carry not one iota more influence or currency with me than do Major Martin's.
Matherly lost any public-policy cred with his me after his bizarre campaign ("Stalin Would Understand") against the old food co-op, and his foray into a downtown restaurant had a flight path that resembled the Lynyrd Skynyrd charter plane's route from Greenville to Baton Rouge. (Down, hard, in the swamp -- quickly.)
And while I think her son has a potentially very bright future in local civic life, Wagstaff's missteps and malaprops during her time in and out of elected office -- including a mess of a time on the school board -- don't give her credibility to me on the issues of the day.
I wasn't in the courtroom that day or any day. I have no idea whether there were disruptive comments made or "witness intimidation" activities.
Paul Martin may very well be right.
On the other hand, with comments like those appearing contemporaneously in the Herald-Sun, Martin is subject to accusations -- fair or unfair -- over impartiality.
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To the broader point, though, one is struck by this recent episode as to whether there's a thick blue line separating a county-centric sheriff's office from a city-centric police department.
Worth Hill was re-elected in the fall and had his celebration party out at a wildlife club off Junction Road in the nether-regions of eastern Durham County, at the edge of the city limits.
Which shouldn't be a surprise. In past press comments, one always gets a sense that when it comes to their non-jail, non-warrant law enforcement duties, the Sheriff's Office is happiest operating outside the corporate limits.
In the minds of those who live inside the incorporated boundary, it's hard to avoid calling back mentally to the county-city divide -- especially among all those Internet commenters who harp on about how they're glad to live in the "county" of Durham and not the "city," where presumably they're safe from all that dangerous crime.
Mind you, there's no city-county divide on controversy in law enforcement. Conservatives harp on the DPD for the lacrosse case and the overtime scandal. But when the sheriff's office has an embezzlement scandal, the outcry is more muted, quieter. Barely perceptible.
Similarly, crime rates have been flat to higher in both city and county over the past year -- but you hear much more attention to numbers in the city than the county.
Of course, Martin's gangland-mayhem worst case scenarios have never come to pass. In either locale.
Yet Worth Hill, as Gronberg notes in today's paper, has suggested Martin as a possible successor to him for sheriff when he's done at last in 2014.
Martin may be an outstanding law enforcement officer. I don't know him, never have met him. I certainly thank him, and all LEO's, who put themselves in the literal line of fire every day in the name of public order.
But the kind of comments he's made on listservs, and in the report quoted in the Herald-Sun, will always raise to me, and I suspect others, the same questions that arise in the witness intimidation claim:
How could I see Martin representing a whole county, or not have questions about where his personal opinion ends and his professional one begins?
And the fundamental questions that raise have as much to do with today's Sheriff's Office as they do tomorrow's elected leader.