As indicated last week, I was going to write a column on some of the hate mail I've received in response to my El Monte article. But headlines of a couple of South Carolina newspapers caught my eye and as officer safety trumps matters of personal frustration, I'll have to put the fan mail thing off another week.
One headline ran: "Police Don't Want to Pull the Trigger." The piece was actually one of the more objective articles focusing on law enforcement's perpetrators, and emphasized the fact that, generally speaking, cops don't salivate at the prospect of capping their fellow man.
But a separate headline got me thinking about another reason cops "don't want to pull the trigger." It read: "Teen robbery suspect killed in SC police shooting."
The ensuing article went on to say that the Rock Hill (S.C.) PD police chief said that he thinks "officers were justified when they shot and killed a 15-year-old girl suspected of robbing a store at gunpoint," comments that left the girl's relatives expressing outrage.
"She ain't nothing but a baby," Tia Williams said about her slain cousin. "She ain't even made it to 18 yet…"
The deceased suspect's family goes on to express outrage that the officers fired after seeing the girl point a gun at them. It was later discovered she was carrying a very realistic looking BB gun. Hopefully these cops won't be fired or otherwise tossed to the wolves for having indulged their survival instincts (as might be the case if they were working with, say, LAPD). I just hope they're not beating themselves up for an eventuality that was forced upon them.
I used to joke that the first white middle-aged, middle-classed heterosexual male I saw coming out of a bank with a bag of money in one hand and a gun in the other was mine. Why? Because I knew it would be as politically viable a shooting as one could hope for: Who would be apt to controvert it?
Give me a break.
But however much that illusory bad guy might've filled the bill for me, the reality is we don't get to handpick the demographics of our adversaries, despite suspicions of critics who think we do.
I wish we could. Because in contemplating deadly force, officers have enough distractions without having to worry about the political implications of their use of force. They have to concern themselves with their field of fire and any innocents that may be exposed to harm. They have to wonder to what extent their gross motor skills will be affected from rounds coming at them. And while it shouldn't be on their minds just then, many no doubt wonder if they're going to be sued or fired no matter who they're up against.
Reconciling these concerns could be difficult even with the luxury of time, let alone in a situation demanding a split second response. But cops can do something about mitigating analysis paralysis by anticipating and coming to terms with such prospects ahead of time.
Most cops probably have some iconic imaginary image in their sights on the firing line. Some six-foot four, 240-pound ex-con whose frightful visage doesn't warrant a moment's hesitation to the mind's eye when it comes to the prospect of a double-tap to the head. Often, these images are kindly rendered incarnate with pictures of ten-ringed bad asses pointing a variety of firearms back at us.
But how many cops would spend any time conjuring up an image of a teenager or an elderly man down range?
My bet is damned few.
But in an era of school shootings, mass murders, and various acts of familicide, maybe they should. Because thanks to video games and movies, youths have developed the requisite motor skills with which to assault or kill others and an inclination to do so. And as our population of elderly rises, so, too, do the dangers associated with dementia.
It follows that the next cop killed by someone occupying either end of the age spectrum will hardly be the first.
In Floyd County, Ind., 15-year-old Tyler Dumsdorf shot and killed one deputy and wounded another.
Baltimore Police Officer Jimmy Halcomb was shot and killed by a teenage sniper who was using armor piercing ammunition.
Phoenix Officer Gilbert Chavez was shot and killed by a juvenile during a burglary.
This past December, a Detroit officer was shot while attempting to find guardianship for the 16-year-old that killed him.
In response to a request to check on a senior citizen's welfare, a Marion County, Fla., deputy was murdered by a 74-year-old who shot him through a window.
In Lauderdale, Tenn., two deputies gave a ride to an 82-year-old man whose car had broken down. They were transporting him in the back seat of their patrol unit when he pulled out a revolver from his jacket and shot both in the head, killing them.
And just this week, 88-year-old white supremacist James von Brunn shot and killed a security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
One of my greatest fears about the job was the possibility of having an innocent person die at my hands because of a mistake involving my vehicle or firearm. Next to that: Hesitating to take a shot and allowing someone else to die because of it.
That was why I always tried to remind myself that if ever faced with someone hellbent on killing myself, another officer, or some other innocent, I would do everything in my power to prevent them—their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation and political or litigation consequences be damned. It was the only way I could I get myself in that black and white at the start of my shift.
More than ever, it takes a certain man or woman to wear the badge. With the possible exception of the "kill the pig" dogma era of the late sixties and early seventies, it is much more dangerous today to be a cop. People of all ages—not just criminals—are better armed. They're also pissed off—at the economy, their peers, their family, their country. And they're willing to kill because of it.
The sooner that cops embrace the notion that the person they may find themselves in a firefight in may look more like a grandfather than a gangster, the better able they will be to not only respond to the threat at the time, but deal with its aftermath. A certain amount of desensitizing may be in order so that you won't hesitate to take the shot the next time you have to. Think about Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris the next time you're at the range. Contemplate the image of James von Brunn. But don't consider their age a basis for any amnesty.
Because when deciding a course of action while facing a person armed with a gun, the question should never be what sex, age, or race they are.
The question should be whether or not they've the capability of mustering 2.2 pounds of trigger pull—and the inclination to do so.