At the Allegany-Limestone graduation ceremony on June 26, the commencement address was given by Matthew Bouch, a Chicago police detective and A-L alum, who shared a controversial viewpoint that police are not accurately portrayed by the media in what seemed to be a reference to recent acts of excessive police violence that have led to protests across the nation.
After graduates expressed their disappointment about the chosen speaker, the school superintendent promptly apologized and admitted that their “process for selection failed in appropriate background checks, setting clear guidelines for appropriate messaging and approval of content.” Several people have since criticized the school for apologizing and have suggested students should instead be thanking Mr. Bouch for his efforts.
While I personally think neither the speaker’s presence nor speech was appropriate given the current climate of our country, I am not going to try and argue the acceptability of his views. However, I refuse to let the significance of this misstep by the school administration go unnoticed.
I encourage those who are so quick to criticize to actually heed the speaker’s own call to action in the most ironic way: to approach matters “with an open mind using information obtained from competent, informed, and non-biased sources to form an educated opinion.”
A simple Google search reveals that Mr. Bouch is in fact not a prime example of who we should be encouraging our graduates to look to for inspiration. According to the Citizens Police Data Project, the number of use-of-force reports filed from 2002-16 involving Mr. Bouch places him at the 99.7th percentile of all Chicago police officers (based on the average number of reports filed per year of employment).
While many of these reports may involve standard procedures, one of those complaints from 2013 resulted in over $300,000 in compensatory damages to a citizen. A Chicago Tribune article details the trial in which a jury concluded Mr. Bouch used excessive force during an arrest, first fracturing a 19-year old man’s jaw while he was already handcuffed, then neglecting to provide him with the medical care he needed as a result.
According to the article, the victim “needed three surgeries to repair two fractures to his jaw, including having a steel plate and screws inserted.”
After considering this readily available public information, and given the recent events revealing the existence of police brutality in our society, it would be inconceivable to argue that this is the best representation of a role model that we could find for our graduates.
As a recent graduate of Allegany-Limestone and sibling of a 2020 graduate, I was extremely disappointed to see this rush to judgement from our community. I hope that a knowledge of this easily accessible information and the reason for the school's apology will help people reach an informed opinion, whether that matches mine or not.
While the ignorance of the decision to place a police officer with this history on a pedestal is still perplexing to me, I applaud the school administration for its timely reaction and apology. I get it, mistakes happen. The best thing we can do is learn from them and it only takes a sliver of awareness to see why this was a poor choice for a graduation speaker in 2020. Whether we agree with it or not, we cannot turn a blind eye to what is going on outside of our own bubble as consequences of obliviousness like this only reflect poorly on all of us.
To the 2020 graduates and my fellow alumni: it’s our responsibility to make sure we do our part to, as Mr. Bouch himself puts it, “set the record straight and gather real facts to make informed decisions on local and world events.” We can do all we want to bring awareness to important issues on social media, but if that message hasn't reached the place we call home, it’s clear that we still have a lot of work to do. We should be upset about this, and we can, and should, hold our community to a higher standard.
So, I ask those who believe that Mr. Bouch should be upheld as a role model and given the responsibility of inspiring our graduates: Is this really the person you want your children and grandchildren to aspire to be? I want to be proud of my hometown and know that it’s always doing its very best to set an example for the students it fosters.
Is this really the best we can do?
(Rajiv Thandla of Allegany is a 2020 graduate of New York University with a bachelor’s degree in business, computing and data science.)