A lifetime ago, it seems, I took a sociology class with a Laredo police officer, as well with a probation officer. The police officer, Agustin Dovalina III, would go on to become the Laredo Chief of Police, while the parole officer is the current sheriff of Webb County.
Working in a classroom over the period of a semester is not in-depth knowledge, of course, and I would have done well to remember that. Dovalina was already eying the top spot on the force, and listening to him talk about honesty and protecting the public made me feel that, if local politics didn’t rise up and bite him, he would sure attain the position and he would serve it well.
On one occasion, he came to class with a daughter—I believe she was five at the time. Beautiful little girl with long hair and smiling eyes, who sat quietly in the back of the class room and behaved like a perfectly raised child.
Over the years that Dovalina served as chief, I’d see him on the news or hear him defend himself against this charge or that, and I always believed him. He’d been a dedicated student who didn’t make excuses about the demands of his job, he’d seemed well-qualified, smart, and kind—good qualities in law enforcement. And he hadn’t been embarrassed to baby sit. Good quality in any man.
When news broke of a scandal in the police department involving illegal gambling and protection for drug runners, I wasn’t shocked. Lord knows, the drug business has corrupted many, from those on the streets stealing and killing to those in the high reaches of law enforcement and governments, here and abroad. But I refused to believe that the scandal would touch Dovalina. He sat next to me in class, all those years ago, and he declared that honesty was the most sacred value of all in running a department charged with public safety. He brought his kid to school and said he would protect us just as he would protect her. The officer leading the charge against him was a known malcontent, or had always been portrayed that way, and the council members generally denounce everyone.
In spite of the fact that I’m an acknowledged cynic, I would not believe that the honorable man who attended class with me was involved in taking bribes. While I recognized that as the man in charge he was ultimately responsible, I drew the line at him having been blinded by loyalty to men who had worked with him for more than twenty years.
The two men accused pleaded guilty to accepting thousands of dollars from owners of “entertainment” businesses operating 8 liner slot machines. One of the officers also admitted to protecting drug dealers and advising them of raids and such. Neither implicated the chief, and I clung grimly to my belief that at worst, he had been stupid. But not crooked. Not him.
When he resigned abruptly, even I couldn’t pretend the implications weren’t there. The stories were racier and racier—a rookie cop had been assigned to a sensitive job he wasn’t qualified for because he was dating the daughter. That sweet five year old with the angel’s smile had, it seemed, grown up. The officer making those charges still was the officer who’d been complaining for years. Maybe he merely resigned because of embarrassment over the other officers’ behavior. Maybe.. . And then Dovalina stopped on the street coming out of court and told the world he’d pled guilty to accepting bribes. It was, he said, the darkest day in his life.
Wasn’t a bright day for anyone. Somehow even in this jaded world, we expect some semblance of honesty and honor from those charged with protecting us, and protecting the law.
Personally, I took the news rather harder than I should have. A cynic can’t be naďve, right? So I must have known better, really I must. How could high-ranking officers in the department have profiteered so shamelessly if the chief hadn’t been involved? But still, it hurt. More than angered, it hurt.
Since Dovalina’s announcement, I’ve begun to wonder about honor. Or, more specifically about whether or not honor exists. Among troops, I believe it still must. Defending one’s country is honorable, whether or not the public cries for you or curses you. Someone has to be willing to bear arms. Most aren’t.
Individually, there must be honor. But where, and how long can it last in the face of contempt for honor?
Many years ago, a 9 year old found $30,000 at one of our local malls. He turned it in to the mall office. I bet, even today, there are still those who call him stupid. He may now call himself stupid, especially if he is struggling as many do, to make ends meet. He was honorable, but I wonder—no, I doubt—that he would make the same choice today. Too many around him deplore honor as weakness or stupidity.
More recently, the brother of one of my first graders took the state test three times. He failed the first two, and considered dropping out. He knew people, he explained, who were seated close to each other and allowed to copy. He didn’t want to copy—believing it dishonorable and useless if he wanted to make something of himself in college. Honorable views, and unusual in today’s academic world.
People who make insurance claims for injuries they don’t suffer, who put pieces of the human body in restaurant foods to profit, people who abuse children—none of those are honorable people. The girl whose father sent her to stay at a hotel overnight because he and his drug people needed to take over the family house—well, she was honorable. She told me. But there is nothing I can do to restore honor.
In a pending case, a key witness was found shot to death just a few days ago. The prosecutors looked earnestly at the camera and said that the trial and the murder are not related. My naiveté must be gone—I didn’t buy it for a second. But I wondered: what is the pay off for honor these days? Can a feeling of self-worth and being right be worth death? For most of us, probably not.
Dovalina will go to jail. Probably not for long, given his years of service and his self-serving admission. Because he resigned and pled guilty, he keeps his pension, gets his unused leave—walks out a rich, if tarnished man. Money to continue providing for his family. But the damage he has done to his community is incalculable. Those who were cynical of law enforcement have been proven right—in spades. Those of us who tried hard to believe, can’t.
And as children grow up, realize that hey, crime does actually pay, it is honor that doesn’t pay—well, where do we go from here? And where the hell will honor come from tomorrow?