Author’s Note: I originally wrote this piece for my blog, The Bunkhouse Chronicle, after the Ferguson nonsense and later published it in my book of the same title. Several incidents in recent weeks, mostly in the greater Dallas Metroplex, have revived the theme, and I’ve decided to republish it here, and maybe for as much as the third time. I don’t care. It stands up. The conversation hasn’t changed. As a former SWAT Team Leader, Narcotics Detective, Crimes Scene Investigator, and beat cop, I resist drawing easy conclusions from shootings or uses of force. Suspects lie. Cops lie. DA’s lie. Reporters lie, and eyewitnesses are almost exclusively full of shit. I’ve seen good shootings been called bad shootings, and bad shootings called good ones. That’s politics, not justice, but that’s America. As of this morning I’ve seen ABC use footage from a Kentucky Range Shooting they claimed was from the Turkish invasion of Syria.
But the essay stands up if you believe, as I firmly do, that 90% of the cops in this country are doing necessary work in impossible conditions.
So it’s here again because–and pardon my impatient language–I’m fucking busy: prepping horses for winter, moving cows around and taking hay deliveries, smashing this thing, burning that thing, mailing another thing, finishing a shed project for my wife, giving various government agencies the finger, getting fucking eyeglasses because apparently I’m going blind, cutting down trees and dealing with the slash piles, coaching my daughter through the final weeks of a demanding police academy where her own department just had a cop kill himself, writing columns, watching helplessly as a great man and a good friend dies from cancer, and trying to kick a long term Copenhagen habit.
So I serve the essay up again. I’ll spare you the pictures of the mountains of meth and yeyo and heroin and curbside lineups of shitbirds I took back on the job, when I was kicking in doors several times a week with a great team of brave people who were just trying to get the fuckbags out of our city and send a message to crooks. Because, really, if we are being honest — nobody, in the end, really gives a shit.
Yesterday, after a luxurious week of toiling underground, minding my own business, breaking the code of a hard poem by Rilke, sitting on the porch to watch the hawk who was watching our chickens, shooting twice–and missing–at the coyote who slinks in from the trees to salivate at the henhouse door, I made a tragic mistake: I came up for air.
The air, it turns out, is bad, full of Ferguson, Missouri, and smoke from that fire. Two minutes of television news: shrieking and hand-wringing, nabob commentary, industrial shouting matches. That’s it, that’s all there was.
Television journalists have done more than kill the ghost of Walter Cronkite, they have become tenured Professors in the Jerry Springer School of Commentary and Analysis, stoking the generational embrace of identity politics and grievance theater.
It made me want a drink. A hard rye whisky. Neat. Instead, I strapped on my Asics and went for a run in the woods, always a better choice, and was rewarded for that rare moment of discipline. The woods were quiet and warm, the treetops in full sun. There was only the sound of my feet on the trail, the birds and the small creatures alarming as I ran by, and my own labored breathing on a steep, rocky hill.
Recently I was asked how many people I killed when I was a cop. It wasn’t the first time. Like doctors, forced to diagnose illness at every cocktail party, cops (and former cops) endure a battery of complaints about law enforcement at every turn. No couples’ dinner is safe. A roadside chat with a friendly neighbor quickly devolves into a conspiracy rant against their recent speeding ticket, and by extension, naturally, the militarization of law enforcement, blue helmets, and black helicopters. Cops accept this, like vomit in the back of a squad car, idiot lieutenants, and late night alley fights with psychotic tweakers, because it comes with the territory.
Sadly, the inevitable harangue almost always reveals too much about the person giving it.
In this case the question came from a young person, and they can be forgiven the crudity of their curiosity, even if it is backloaded with tired assumptions force fed by bad television, video games, abysmal schools, and that grandest of American traditions: the full criminal embrace. While the characterization of cops has migrated from the Officer Friendly types on Adam 12 to masked bogeymen in “tanks” fiendishly no-knocking the wrong house, outlaws and very bad people enjoy the fruits of selective judgment.
We still love Jesse James. Charles Manson married his pen pal. Bernie Madoff’s underwear sold at auction for $200.00.
But the question was wrong. As I ran through the woods, following the trail where it wound through a dry creek, I thought about the people I didn’t kill. I didn’t kill Gary T, Jr., a career criminal and dimwit who pointed a loaded and strung crossbow at me and my partners, (after running inside his house and barricading in the upstairs bedroom.) I could have, but I didn’t. I also didn’t kill Eddie V.T., a disturbed Iraq war veteran, on the La Cumbre overpass, though I held his solar plexus squarely in the crosshairs of my rifle while he brandished a handgun at me and my partners–an incident broadcast live on CNN. I didn’t kill Manuel B., late one night when he was sawing through the backdoor of his girlfriend’s house, smoked out of his mind on meth, likely to kill her, and settled for attacking my partner and I with a live reciprocating saw. I didn’t kill Jose R., because he was too fast, I was too slow, and the man he’d just shot four times in the parking lot was bleeding out in my arms. I might have killed all of these people, but I didn’t.
I have a good friend who reminded me once, while we shared a coffee between calls for service, our backs to the wall in an alcove on the urine-soaked and bum stinking low rent side of the Monopoly board, that it has only been in the last hundred years or so that good people have been forced to tolerate criminals. Not so very long ago, but in another world altogether, it seems a gentleman might run a bandit through with a sword. And decent people were decently grateful. In modern America, see San Francisco, that same gentlemen is not only forced to tolerate the bandit, but must also give him a job. In other words, the modern American gentleman must, by law, help the bandit rob the other passengers on the coach.
We’ve come a long way, indeed.
I don’t know what happened in Ferguson. Nobody else does either. One of the actors is dead, the other might as well be, and eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Still, the fires keep burning, a failed and suspect POTUS keeps popping off between rounds of golf, and the race hustlers have flown in on their private jets.
But I know this much, if the young officer who fired his weapon did wrong, he will pay the price. He is already paying the price. And here’s the rub for those good people charged with the thankless task of policing this nation: it is likely that even if he did nothing wrong at all, legally, morally, or otherwise, he will be sacrificed, like the sloe-eyed lamb, on the altar of race relations–if only to stop the looting of spinner rims from Auto Zone.
And tonight, while America sleeps off another heavy meal of sensationalist journalism, hard working police officers will face tens of thousands of dangerous situations without killing anyone—though they might have, and no one will offer so much as a cursory Thank You in the morning.
In the meantime, smoke from our own wildfires is casting an orange pall on the ponderosas. Harry Dean Stanton, the ranch mascot, is stalking chipmunks down by the greenhouse, the dogs are asleep on the back porch, and the chickens gave us four eggs this morning. The coyote, perhaps leery of another bullet creasing his forehead, is somewhere else in the forest. The hawk is still in his tree, because he is hard-eyed royalty. But he is always there, and I’m going for another run.