Sometimes as a city and community, we have to face difficult realities. This week, Alexandrians are grappling with the saga of our former police chief, David Baker, who was arrested Saturday night on drunken driving charges after causing an accident in Arlington. We watched this week as the details of the case emerged bit by bit: Bakers excessively high blood alcohol content of .19; the four failed field sobriety tests and the fact that the driver of the other car was injured. The drama reached a conclusion on Tuesday when Baker resigned from his post and announced his retirement.
The most compelling aspect of this all-too-human morality play is the suddenness of it all. In one night filled with several bad choices our police chief endangered the public and lost his career. Yes, Baker is fortunate that he and the other driver didnt lose their lives, as drunk drivers kill thousands on Americas roadways each year (just under 13,000 in 2007, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving). But on Friday when Baker left work, he was an admired police veteran with an apparently unblemished record, including 19 years as chief or deputy chief of Alexandrias police force. By Monday, the whole city knew of his transgressions and by Tuesday his police career was over.
The reality that our lives can change that quickly gives pause for thought. One night of bad decisions can cost us our careers and even our lives or the lives of others. For people in the public eye the margin for error is even smaller: one misstated word can result in a dummy label or a spoken insensitivity can forever label someone a bigot. And that doesnt take into account things that we cant control, like careless drivers, falling tree branches or random acts of violence. Careers, power even life can all be gone in the blink of an eye.
One positive facet of this sad saga is the exemplary way our city officials, especially City Manager James Hartmann, handled the situation. Unlike when then superintendent of schools Rebecca Perry was arrested for a DUI in 2004, city officials were immediately forthcoming: a press conference was held the day after Bakers arrest, statements were issued in press releases and officials were available for comment. Hartmanns actions were also swift, as the chief was immediately placed on administrative leave (with pay) and Bakers status was resolved in three days.
Some Alexandrians are undoubtedly wondering why, since Perry retained her post after her DUI arrest, Baker felt pressured enough to resign from his job. While similar, there were several important differences between Bakers situation and Perrys. First of all, at .12, Perrys blood alcohol level was significantly lower than that of Baker. Once a persons blood alcohol level rises above .15, a whole new set of stiffer penalties, including mandatory jail time, kick in. Thats because if a person has a blood alcohol level of .15 or above, they are likely really, seriously drunk.
The second important distinction between the two cases is that while their poor decisions to drive were the same, Perry was arrested for driving erratically. She wasnt involved in an accident and didnt harm anyone else that night, though she certainly could have. Chief Baker, on the other hand, caused an accident serious enough to send the other driver to the hospital.
Finally, theres a big difference between being head of schools and being chief of police. While Perrys ability to set a good example was certainly compromised and her arrest was at least an unspoken factor in her ultimate dismissal Bakers very job was to protect us from people who behaved as he did on Saturday night. It would have been impossible for him to have sufficient credibility with Alexandrias citizens after such an offense. And while most of Alexandrias police force may have loyally rallied around their boss, they, and the citizens they protect, need a chief whose ability to lead has not been compromised.
By resigning when he did, Chief Baker spared the city and his police department the ongoing embarrassment of an investigation. He deserves our thanks for a long and distinguished career despite Saturday nights events. If nothing else, the events of this week are a cautionary lesson for us all.