Ethics Quiz: The Hitler Photo

Adolf-Hitler

Officer Craig Eichhammer, a 31-year veteran of the Williamstown, Massachusetts police department, kept a photo of Adolf Hitler in his locker for two decades without incident. Two years ago, the photo was removed and thrown out when when the department staff moved into the new police station. The presence of the photo was raised as part of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in August 2020 by Sgt. Scott McGowan, who claims that he was retaliated against for decrying racial and sexual harassment by the Williamstown police chief.

In his statement to the town manager last year explaining the presence of a photo of Der Fuhrer, Eichhammer wrote that his former partner on the night shift in 1999 was kidded in the station for his supposed resemblance to Adolf. “I stuck the photograph on the locker wall just as one would of possibly hanging a comic strip or picture they thought was funny,” he wrote.

“The photo was out of view and could not be seen even with the locker door open. The photograph was put up for no other reason than a laugh factor poking fun at [his former partner]. The photo was left there and basically forgotten about. It stayed in the same spot for 20 years and no one knew it was there….At no time was it my belief that the picture was nothing more than a figure from a history book,” he added. “I had no ideologies of Nazi Germany, swastikas or anything terrible that happened during WW2. Again, the photo was simply just to get a laugh of the likeness of [his former partner].”

Okaaaay. But predictably, many are not satisfied with the officer’s explanation. A letter demanding his dismissal from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, stated,

To flaunt Hitler’s image is to echo neo-Nazis and other hate groups that revere Hitler as a symbol of white supremacy. It is impossible to expect the community to turn to the WPD in the wake of a hate crime — whether that be a school vandalized with a swastika, or bias-motivated violence such as Massachusetts has recently seen — when there is a perception that WPD officers may hold the same white supremacist or bigoted beliefs as the perpetrators of those crimes.”

The Legal Redress and Race Relations committees of the NAACP Berkshire County branch also argued that the photo was a firing offense:

“Such behavior is abhorrent and reprehensible, in addition to being in direct violation of written (Williamstown Police) Department policy. Any public servant who engages in such behavior does not deserve employment with a public agency…We are writing to demand that the Town of Williamstown terminate the employment of Craig Eichhammer from the Williamstown Police Department for conduct unbecoming of an officer of the law.”

It appears, however, that Eichhammer will keep his job. The town’s select board ruled that it does not have the authority or grounds to fire him.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Would it be ethical to fire Eichhammer for his Hitler photo?

This is one of those ethics quizzes in which I have a very definite opinion, and your job is to talk me out of it.

Despite the rhetoric in the letters above, Eichhammer did not “flaunt” Hitler’s photo; if he did, that would be a different matter entirely. Nor is keeping a photo in your locker—it doesn’t matter of who or what—job related “conduct.”  I know Hitler is special, but thought crimes aren’t crimes in the United States…yet. Absent a policy limiting what a cop can keep in his locker for his own private perusal, having the photo of someone the NAACP doesn’t like (Like, say, Woodrow Wilson), really doesn’t like (like Donald Trump), really really doesn’t like (such as George Wallace), or that all of the NAACP’s members, their allies, and pretty much all decent people everywhere don’t like (Hitler) is the kind of personal act that cannot be punished without creating a dangerous precedent greasing the metaphorical slope to enforced conformity of thought.

It is nobody’s business what a police officer thinks of Adolf Hitler, and nobody can tell him what photos he can keep in his locker for his own private edification or amusement. Maybe Eichhammer‘s explanation, as unlikely as it is, is the truth. Maybe he kept the photo of Hitler on hand to remind him of what happened to Germany when they constrained free speech and took away private ownership of guns. Maybe he thinks Hitler is funny looking. All that matters, or that should matter, is how the police officer performs his job.

However, I have to say this: What an idiot.

_____________________________

Sources: MSN, The Berkshire Eagle 1, 2

24 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Hitler Photo

  1. Back before the apocalypse, in 2019, you addressed the issue of an officer being investigated for displaying a KKK application and confederate flags in his house (here: https://ethicsalarms.com/2019/08/12/ethics-quiz-and-poll-the-cop-and-the-kkk-application/ )

    At the time, you summed up with:

    “In the end, perhaps what we have is a “Racist Home Decorations and Memorabilia Principle,” similar to the Naked Teacher Principle so familiar to frequent readers here. You have a right to display and collect whatever you want, but if your tastes appear objectively racist and your memorabilia somehow becomes known to the public, you can’t complain about the adverse consequences. You accepted the risks.”

    I find it hard to imagine that a locker in a workplace could be considered more private than someone’s house. Have your thoughts on the previous case changed with the dramatic increases in intolerance of free speech, or is a picture of Hitler less obviously racist than a KKK application?

    (Not playing gotcha, I’m genuinely curious. I remembered being concerned by the free speech issue at the time of the older post, and this one is more in line with my thinking.)

    • This is my thinking, too. The other guy was a police officer, if I’m not mistaken. There maybe needs to be a Law Enforcement officer Principle: Someone who chooses to display photos or memorabilia of historically racist groups even on their own property should not be surprised if he or she is suspected of harboring racist opinions when discovered.

      • Good principle that is already embraced by a majority of the people and has a broader application than only Law Enforcement officers.

        • See, this is exactly why I don’t think this should be a consistent principle. The question balances two equally valid ethical concerns: “people should remain trustworthy and inoffensive in professional life” and “people have a right to hold private opinions that don’t affect workplace behavior and speak freely outside of work.”

          Ideally there’s a balance between the two: people don’t bring politics into the workplace, and those around them turn a blind eye to political opinions as long as it doesn’t affect their job performance. But that scale can tip to either side; there may be times where certain groups of people are too outspoken in the workplace and need to be called out on it, and there may be times when people go digging for dirt and/or make uncharitable assumptions that end up chilling free speech out of fear of job loss. In either of these cases, I think there’s something to be said for course correction in the opposite direction. If too many people are becoming political in professional settings, a signal needs to be sent that it’s not appropriate. If too many people are being disciplined for the wrong opinions being uncovered or assumed through non-work related activities, we need to promote leniency and a standard of judgement based on job performance.

          This was my issue in 2019, I felt like the “assumption of guilt of racism” was already starting to chill free speech when Jack made his call. I feel that even more strongly now, and I was wondering if that was his reasoning or if he had a different reason for his different inclination.

    • Emily, Jack’s position is no different in this case than it was on 08/12/2019. The closest it comes to similarity is that he states that it is a rebuttable presumption of racism. He went further to say that racist attitudes do not prevent a person from performing exemplary public service. Jack used Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson as examples.

      Imagine if we started firing people for having photos of Al Sharpton, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakahn or Obama’s minister on their wall. Those people are racists as well so are we to purge only that which is unacceptable to some. Does Obama posing in front of Che Guevara when he was in Cuba or Harris posing in front of Ho Chi Minh when in Viet Nam make them a communist?

      Some people collect memorabilia and some are quite anal about showing it all off. That does not necessarily make a person a racist any more someone that collects sports related junk.

      BTW it was not uncommon for American soldiers in Germany or the South Pacific to bring home spoils of war. My uncle brought back a German Nazi banner and my neighbor’s father returned with other objects my neighbor displays.

      I myself have a photo of the original Mathew Brady iconic image of Robert E Lee prior to his buttons being cut off his coat at Appomattox hanging on my wall in my living room. My copy was produced before my family donated the original to Washington and Lee University. Unlike the thousands of reproduced images from that original mine shows the frayed edges of the original and has the letter of thanks from the university attached to the frame. I display it in memory of grandmother and her Virginia ancestors.

    • At about 3 am, when I wrote this post, I went looking for the post on the KKK application, and couldn’t find it. I was sure I had written it, but didn’t have the right search terms. THANK YOU!

      My answer is 1) both are equally private, but 2) an application for membership in the KKK—displayed no less—is unequivocal evidence of racist attitudes…which, as I said, the officer has a right to hold without punishment. 3) The fact that both officers should recognize that it was their own bad taste and carelessness that their private item became public—as with the comparison to the Naked Teacher Principle cases, where a teacher who puts her naked or nearly naked body on the web can’t complain when parents object and 7th grade boys get aroused—doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fair that they may be punished for exercising a right, just that it’s their own recklessness that created the situation. (Hence “”What an idiot!”) Finally, 4): A KKK application, paired with Confederate flags, is pretty damning. The application says “I did this, and I’m proud of it.” No wonder citizens are concerned. A photo of Hitler, as I wrote, could mean anything, everything, or nothing.

  2. The only part I would disagree with is “…thought crimes aren’t crimes in the United States…yet.”

    We have “hate crime” laws that essentially punish for wrongthink. They’re justified with convoluted weasel-logic arguments about how they’re not really what they are…but they are.

  3. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall
    Written over 100 years ago, Simple, precise, and applicable. Why does everything have to be so complicated, delicate, and up for debate nowadays? We are not doing ourselves any favors in making it so.

  4. As someone who has fired officers, I have to say this is stupid, but NOT a firing offense in and of itself. It was where no one else would see it and does not appear to be part of a larger pattern of behavior that might justify firing. Absent a policy, unless you want to try to throw this into the catchall category of “conduct unbecoming,” which might not stick, at best this is a reprimand, especially if the officer’s record is otherwise clean.

    That said, I think this should prompt the writing of a carefully vetted and facially neutral policy that will stand up to legal challenges, governing the possession while on duty, storage on departmental property, or display during departmental business, of printed or photographic material unrelated to the job, particularly that which has the potential to be disruptive or to reflect poorly on the department in the public eye. Obviously no one is going to say officers can’t keep family pictures in their wallets or that the common practice among officers of faith of keeping Mass cards or the equivalent somewhere about their persons (inside the hat is a popular place) must end.

    That said, there really isn’t any value to officers keeping or displaying controversial or potentially offensive material in their lockers or with them while on duty. There is no value in younger officers keeping pornographic material in their lockers, when all it’s going to do is perpetuate frat-boy attitudes and offend the female officers and other personnel. There is no value in black officers displaying BLM material, when all it’s going to do is raise the question of are they cops first or black men first. There is absolutely no value in displaying pictures of the greatest historical villains, when the question is going to be “what’s wrong with you?”

    Not sure how exactly it should be phrased, but I think that’s the answer for the future.

    • Steve-O hit the nail on the head. Agencies need universal and equally applied policies prohibiting potentially offensive material in the workplace. I saw too many instances of photos, cartoons, and other displayed items causing unintended offense and resulting in numerous instances of discipline, not to mention workplace rifts and hurt feelings. This is necessary just like horseplay and other “frat-boy” workplace behavior has to be kept under close control lest chaos result. This has always been a good idea, but in today’s “woke” environment it is essential to avoid unneeded distractions from the agency’s mission.

  5. It sounds like he found the photo funny 20 years ago, and forgot all about it. Now he has to sheepishly explain a stupid joke to people who are deadly serious.

    • That’s my read, too.
      I think it comes down to the word “flaunt” (at least it isn’t “is”). Clearly there is no evidence that he “flaunted” anything, and any lawyer who thinks otherwise should be out of a job.
      Side note: when I was a teenager, I had a poster on my bedroom wall showing Hitler and the generals admiring a model of a Volkswagen beetle. There was a cutline in big letters across the bottom: “Advertising Makes It Happen.” I thought it was funny half a century ago; I still do. But it isn’t something I’d put on my wall now.

  6. Seems to me, everything is a slippery slope principle right now. Someone said something along the lines that in order to have free speech, you must have too much. To me that means you will be offended by some free speech at some point, and today more than ever images are “free speech.” However, it was in a workplace. That’s discounted because it was a photo that was there over 20 years and part of the background and in a private locker. How many have a naked woman photo in their locker? Maybe some image that “promotes violence” like an Ali photo?

    I know families who have taken a family photo on their cotton field and were asked to take it down because it somehow promotes slavery… so the question is what do we value more? Free speech or being inoffensive? It’s not really a right or wrong at this point, it’s a matter of tolerance of content that people find offensive. I’m reminded of the movie “The People vs Larry Flint” because it seems like the same argument.

    • Clarence Darrow said that (the actual quote is “In order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much”). You make me happy by quoting it: I have been promoting that line for many years after seeing in in Darrow’s letters!

      • Ahh thank you for that!
        There’s a few that flit across my mind frequently when I read the news, and that’s one of them. Another one is from the Start Wars Episode 3 movie… “So this is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause”

  7. I normally wouldn’t post when I basically agree with everything that everyone’s said so far… but I’ve been on a contrarian streak lately, and I just wanted to assure everyone that I have not in fact lost my mind.

    The one question I have is whether or not Sgt. McGowan has a case absent the Hitler photo.

    Back in 2019, Ilhan Omar was in the middle of making an almost weekly gaffe on the topic of Israel, and Jews more broadly. The whole squad was on a roll, I never thought I’d hear an American politician endorse the genocidal slogan that is “From the River to the Sea”, but there Rashida Tlaib was. Problem is that the squad are relatively young, not particularly well educated, kind of dumb, and at the time, very inexperienced. I decided, in Christlike manner, not to assume malice where stupidity was possible, and give the junior congresswomen a little bit of slack, at least for a little while. Because single instances of racism doesn’t mean that someone is actually a racist; they might not have known what they were saying, perhaps it was a joke that fell flat… But if they were racist, or in this case, anti-Semitic, then they’d give us more proof down the road, because racists can’t help themselves. And in the intervening years, I still believe that AOC and Pressley are idiots, but I don’t think they’re Anti-Semites (they just had shitty friends), and I think Omar and Tlaib have given me the proof I needed.

    Back to this situation, and particularly in a case where someone is claiming against retaliation for reporting racial and sexual harassment (I want to know more about this case “Scott” sure seems like a man’s name, and I’m not saying that men can’t be sexually harassed, but it’s a rare bird for one to be harassed to the point of admitting it). Depending on the frequency and severity of the harassment, I think Scott could make the argument that the picture contributed to the hostility of his workplace. But unless Eichhammer was mentioned outside the context of that picture, I don’t see how it could possibly be fireable.

  8. Ah, the Berkshires. Was Williamstown the location of Alice’s Restaurant? Having gone to college in upstate New York, I grew tired of northerners making fun of rural idiots from the south by calling them rednecks when they seemed to give a pass to their own redneck equivalents in their glorious locale. As a result, I coined the term “morons of the north” to describe what one might call northern rednecks if the sun were strong enough in the north. There are plenty of idiots, even in enlightened enclaves like Williamstown and the Berkshires. I think a lot of elites carry a blind spot relating to the town and gown thing through their entire lives. Elites seem to think they can rid the world of idiots by enacting the correct legislation and funding the correct government programs or filing a sufficient number of arcane law suits. Good luck with that, boys and girls. Half the world’s below the fiftieth percentile.

  9. So my question would be, “Can the Jewish community trust a man who had a picture of Adolph Hitler in his locker?”

    To get the answer, I’d like to ask several other questions:

    1. Can the Chinese community trust a man who has a picture of Mao Zedong in his locker?
    2. Can the Atheist community trust a man who has a picture of Mother Theresa of Calcutta in his locker?
    3. Can the black community trust a man who has a picture of George Washington in his locker?
    4. Can the Japanese community trust a man who has a picture of FDR in his locker?

    I don’t know, but when we decide iconography defines the person, regardless of their purported reason for having it, we have truly reached a tipping point. The next logical extension is to remove all references and pictures of such offensive people and ban their possession.

    We can’t do that. The chief certainly deserves criticism for being careless and insensitive considering his position, but if we fire people for what they’ve looked at, how far can we be from thought crimes?

  10. I wanted to answer this earlier in the day, but work and all…

    I don’t think having the photo is worthy of termination. To do so would be to judge the thoughts and intentions of the man independent of his actions. The photo was thrown away two years ago, so the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s notion of the officer “flaunting” the image is at best, an outright lie. Flaunting would be putting it on your office door or printing it on your t-shirt or tattooing it on your chest and walking around shirtless. Adolf Hitler is a symbol of much more than white supremacy, so focusing solely on this single racist dimension of him is pretty narrow as well – and highly suggestive of a single particular agenda, since “racism” is final accusation of almost all wrong-doing anymore.

    So among my biographies is Charles Flood’s of Adolf Hitler that covers the earlier years of his life, and the cover features a picture of the subject (not all that different from the one Eichhammer “flaunted” in his locker). If that were to be discovered in my overhead bin at work, would I be suspected of flaunting the same white-supremacist, racist, anti-semitic tendencies in my own life as Eichhammer is accused of having in his – over a photo that was thrown away two years ago?

    I believe that not only does the Golden Rule apply here, but also one of the basic tenants of love: believing the best of someone. Rather than assuming the worst of the photo, how much harder would it have been for those involved to give Eichhammer the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a harmless photo that told nothing about the thoughts of its owner?

    From the piece, it doesn’t appear that Eichhammer did anything to give anyone any impression that he was a white supremacist. But a single photo…one photo. The implied story of that single photo is expanded and embellished in an attempt to completely overshadow an actual body of work that spans three decades.

    This is indicative of the general rot in our culture and I think it’s disgraceful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.