Point Austin: What Should Lehmberg Do?
Whatever her decision, she's earned her own mind
If politics makes strange bedfellows, it makes even stranger lynch mobs.
That's my reaction to all the folks calling for the head of Rosemary Lehmberg, a chorus that began even before we knew much more than that she had been arrested for drunk driving. The latest soloist is Austin Police Association President Wayne Vincent, who chimed in this week that Lehmberg's behavior has caused her to lose "credibility ... with the law enforcement community." That's rich, coming from a union official who has grimly defended every officer accused of offenses ranging from flagrant DWIs to shooting unarmed civilians. Moreover, it appears Vincent spoke for the APA without consulting his board or members; could be his own credibility needs a fact-check.
For the moment, I've been trying to suspend judgment on what Lehmberg should do – it's a decision she must be carefully pondering while she serves her sentence. But when I see Vincent agreeing with the deep thinkers at the Statesman editorial board, who from their high moral horses reflexively and instantly called for her resignation, I know it's time to examine that notion more closely to determine what's wrong with it. Ours is a culture (including a cop culture) rampant with binge drinking – and it too often has deadly consequences – but if everyone who received a first-offense DWI also lost his job, the drinking wouldn't stop, and the unemployment rolls would be staggering as well.
Lehmberg's behavior is all on the open record and is hardly edifying. As the widely posted recordings reveal, she was visibly quite intoxicated – too drunk, it seems, even to recognize she was drunk or to follow simple instructions. Yet she knew enough to know she was in deep trouble and that the arresting officers had indirectly "ruined [her] career." It isn't ruined entirely, but if it ends now in disgrace, it's entirely her own doing. She was drunkenly combative on the highway and at the jail (where she needed to be restrained), and her eventual blood test – hours after she was initially stopped – was high enough to get her charge raised to a Class A misdemeanor. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla was only being accurate in describing her behavior as "deplorable."
On the other hand, the most inflammatory and sensational charges made against her in the immediate aftermath – that she had kicked and spit at her jailers, potential felonies – have proved to be false, and the deputies who actually dealt directly with Lehmberg are to be commended for their forbearance and professionalism. (Impatient to be arraigned, Lehmberg repeatedly "kicked" the cell door because she was back-handcuffed and couldn't knock it; she was restrained and shielded for her own safety.) Meanwhile, those jail and courthouse "sources" spreading the worse, false version via social media and even legal petitions ought to be ashamed of themselves (they won't be).
In this context, one can only wonder what might have happened to Bob Bullock or Ann Richards (or a host of other officials) had the Internet been available to chronicle and repost their every bibulous indiscretion. Anonymous trolls would be demanding their immediate ejections from office, and editorial writers (hardly squeaky clean themselves) would be anonymously chiming in. Yet we have long known that alcoholism is a treatable disease, and that reflexively treating alcoholics as criminals only fills our prisons without addressing the underlying problems.
The Face in the Mirror
All these factors influence what Lehmberg should eventually do, and one hopes she and her friends and counselors are considering them all. Based on the available evidence, she has an unacknowledged drinking problem and needs to confront that first. Democratic supporters have been pointing out that should she step down, she'll enable Gov. Rick Perry to appoint an interim D.A., who will likely undermine the effectiveness of the Public Integrity Unit (or worse). That's regrettable, but it's really a separate issue from Lehmberg's personal and collegial decision, and she'll need to sort out what's best for her and her office separately from the larger political context. She stumbled into drinking and driving; she shouldn't rush into determining what must happen next.
Over the years, we've had our differences with the D.A.'s office under Lehmberg and her predecessor and mentor Ronnie Earle. Jordan Smith's reporting on the Keller daycare case, for large example, reflects a festering legal sore – we still hope that public pressure will eventually lead to some redress for the Kellers. Whatever happens to Lehmberg, we expect to remain professionally skeptical of the prosecutors' office, because of its raw power over the lives of citizens and its structural advantages over the defense bar.
All that said, it wouldn't be the worst outcome if a duly chastened Lehmberg returns to her official desk with a direct, personal experience of what it's like to be arrested, charged, and convicted of a mortifying offense, and having spent a brief stint in lockup with plenty of folks with fewer options than she has and fewer prospects when they walk back into daylight. No doubt having seen her own intoxicated behavior broadcast all over the Internet – an extremely public humiliation that the rest of us will never have to endure – she will be much less likely to put herself in that position ever again, one reason to believe she will have learned her lesson.
Should she resign? Ultimately, it's her own decision – but she shouldn't be bullied into it (or against it) by a self-righteous chorus of people who are simply not in her shoes.