The matter of the “Rolling Stone” with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover won’t go away. Just when things should have been cooling off, Sgt. Sean Murphy, a Massachusetts State Trooper and tactical photographer whose job it was to take photos of the stand-off with the younger Tsarnaev, acted without authorization and sent “Boston Magazine” his photos of the bloody Tsarnaev coming out of the boat.
Why? Because Murphy decided his opinions on the divided issue of the magazine cover took precedence over his job description, the regulations of the law enforcement agency he belongs to, the trust that the public has placed in him, and the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Even if you hated that magazine cover, you should have a problem with the way Murphy acted.
Fill in the Blank
Murphy (who runs the site trooperphotography.com) got an immediate one day suspension. Rather than tactfully faking some remorse over this blatant breach of professional conduct, he’s puffing himself up as a hero. The Huffington Post quotes him saying:
As a professional law-enforcement officer of 25 years, I believe that the image that was portrayed by Rolling Stone magazine was an insult to any person who has every worn a uniform of any color or any police organization or military branch, and the family members who have ever lost a loved one serving in the line of duty.
Aside from the maudlin rhetoric and the fact that people accused or convicted of killing police are on the covers of newspapers and magazines all the time, it doesn’t matter if Murphy is right or wrong. It doesn’t matter if a magazine is an insult to “fill in the blank.” Everyone is insulted by something. It was Murphy’s job to keep those pictures in house, not send them to the press. Releasing them wasn’t heroic. It was a lousy thing to do.
US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz apparently agrees and told the “Boston Globe” through a spokesperson that Murphy’s release of these photos “was completely unacceptable.” Ortiz seems like a terrible person, and her overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz might have driven a good young man to his death. I’d like to see her follow up on this with the same ruthless tenacity.
But that’s unlikely as, according to Ortiz’s office, they “have spoken with the Massachusetts State Police, who have assured us that the release of the photos was unauthorized and that they are taking action internally in response.” Murphy’s hearing began today in Framingham behind closed doors. In the wake of this first session, a Massachusetts State Police spokesperson said:
State Police will conduct an internal investigation into Sgt. Murphy’s release of departmental photographs to a media outlet last week. The investigation, which is expected to take several weeks to complete at the minimum, will determine whether Sgt. Murphy violated State Police rules, regulations, policies or procedures. State Police took from Sgt. Murphy his use-of-force equipment, badge, and identification, and he will be assigned to administrative duties while on restricted duty. Additionally, he is being transferred from the Office of Media Relations to the Division of Field Services.”
The family of Sean Collier, the MIT police officer allegedly killed by the Tsarnaevs, supports Murphy’s actions. If Desmond Tutu and Oprah supported Murphy too, it wouldn’t change the basics. The release of the photos was a violation of the public trust. Society gave Sean Murphy not just a camera but a gun, and a badge, and tons of authority. In return, he gave us as an oath, literally, that he would follow the rules.
Of course, following orders can be a really bad thing. Nazi Germany showed us that. People who break the rules can be heroes. Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning showed us that. But Murphy didn’t break the rules to save lives or call attention to hidden injustice. He did it because he felt insulted by a magazine cover. Nevertheless, in true #BostonDumb fashion, Murphy has received an outpouring of support. He will probably profit from his misconduct in numerous ways.
Can you trust law enforcement?
This isn’t about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s about you. Can you trust law enforcement? If you are assaulted, can you trust that cops won’t release evidence photos of your bloody face or naked body? If someone you love is arrested, do you want their case handled professionally or should the cops, lawyers and judges create their own rules as they go along? When a police car is in front of your house, do you want to be terrified?
The release of photos is a relatively minor thing in this country where people are brutalized and killed by the police every day. But it’s still a thing. Health care professionals obey the dictates of HIPAA. Priests mustn’t violate the sanctity of confession. If police and troopers really want to be seen as “law enforcement professionals” rather than uniformed thugs, much needs to be changed.
This drama created by Sean Murphy hasn’t helped anybody except, possibly, himself. As for the negative effects, he hasn’t hurt Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or the editors of the “Rolling Stone,” or people that disagreed with him. All that Murphy has injured is the reputation of the law enforcement community and the trust that good people place in it.