Monday, March 04, 2013

Real life Barney Fife

When I started my three decades-plus at a suburban school district in 1976, the district had just over 60 schools covering about 400 square miles of county. To protect it we had a security department, led by a small, slender man who reminded me of Barney Fife.

(My guy may have reminded me of Barney, but there will never be another character like Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, played by the genius Don Knotts.)

If ever I met a real-life Barney it was him. He was officious, self-important, and he threw around what little weight he had. I said he was like Barney, but not totally. As a boss he ran a tight department, and he was effective in that sense. In time during the tenures of two school superintendents he lobbied the administration to expand his security department. He built it into a police force, with officers trained in the State Police Academy. They had full police powers anywhere in Utah.

It was funny to me that our police chief, who had started out wearing civilian clothes, really got into the uniform thing. He wore a black police uniform, which made me think of the Nazi S.S.

Barney was a guy who took his job seriously. Not only was he sworn to protect the schools (which his force did, and well), but he was also charged with protecting the district against employee theft.

It is a large organization. When I left at the end of 2008 there were over 100 schools and 7,000 employees. It is like a small town. Barney had a dozen or so employees, including a dispatcher and even a detective working alongside the uniformed officers.

I knew Barney because I saw him often, at schools, in the district offices. He knew me, he knew my wife. He was always polite, but he had the puffiness of self-importance, and it wasn’t just grunts like me who noticed it, but his higher-ups, also. The police department budget got bigger every year, and the school board had a lot of questions about why they had a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year operation when there was a county sheriff’s department that could be counted on when needed. Our police operations seemed superfluous and overly expensive to some.

There were always murmurs and stories about Chief Barney. Over time he began to take on more of the persona of a Captain Queeg. There were tales of paranoia and accusations and threats. One of my fellow employees told me he had been suspected of stealing. He was later cleared, but during the investigation Chief Barney had come to his house to grill him. He also interrogated him in his office. He wanted to know “who runs the theft ring”? That struck me. Stories started coming in that Barney was obsessed by a theft ring with a mysterious leadership, a large and coordinated operation to rip off the school district. Barney was known to call some employees late at night and make threats, then ring off by telling them, “If you tell anyone about this call I’ll deny it.”

It was obvious Barney was obsessed and deadly serious about catching culprits who may or may not have existed.

But Barney's paranoid fears and threats did not cause his ultimate fate with the school district. Barney’s unraveling was caused by school board members who thought the police department unnecessary, and who frankly wanted Barney out of there. I remember the actual event that led directly to Barney’s forced retirement. One of Barney’s rookie police officers had a gun stolen out of his personal vehicle. Another of the officers, Barney’s assistant chief, whom I’ll call Tim, got a tip on who had stolen the gun. He and a couple of his fellow school cops went to the suspect’s house. The suspect ran out the door, so Tim pulled out his gun and shot him in the back. The suspect lived, but sued, and within a period of time Barney was forced out and retired, Tim was prosecuted by the County Attorney for an unlawful shooting, and the school board went about the business of downsizing, although not eliminating, the police department.

I saw Barney a couple of times after his retirement. He was very bitter and spoke out about his bosses and their vendetta against him. But that was while I was still working when I’d see him at a retirement function for someone we both knew. One day after I retired my wife and  I were shopping, and ran into Barney in a grocery store. I started the conversation. I told him some of the problems I’d had with my own boss that led to my decision to retire. Barney looked uncomfortable so I stopped talking and went about my business. I later noticed he’d left quickly. I told my former coworker, Brian, the story and said, “I think he left the store rather than talk to me!” I wasn't joking. I had a pretty clear impression Barney didn’t want to talk to me.

This is all a long story, isn’t it? The ending to the story happened recently, the week before Valentine’s Day, when I took a package of Valentine gifts for our grandkids to the Post Office. I walked in right behind Barney, who casually looked over his shoulder at me. I acted as if I didn’t see him. He dropped some letters into the slot. I loitered a bit, looking at something else, until he left, which he did without looking in my direction. Barney looked bad; he looked ill. He’s had some health problems, probably because he smoked for over 50 years.

I told Brian about the Post Office Barney-sighting a few days later and added, “I scared him away from the grocery store, and haven’t seen him there since. I didn’t want to have him afraid to go to the Post Office because he thinks he might run into me.”

How the mighty have fallen. It’s kind of sad.

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