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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.
Great piece Craig.
Reality I find is more complicated than any political narrative.
This was good then and still is. I laughed out loud at several of those Craig, especially given I know who your talking about ?!
I remember hearing the shots; nearly running up the curb (coming in hot!) and our cops being in a foot chase of an armed murderer.
Contrast holding the crime scene; staring at the victim with a half eaten candy bar hanging out of his mouth, bullet holes in his body and my wife complaining about diapers over the cell phone. Oh yah, a family member pouring out some of his 40 ounce in memorial of a fallen “comrade”. Okay.…
The hundreds of “F**k!” moments when cops look at one another in the middle of a s**t‑storm; dodge another one and then go to the next. You don’t get it until it’s on you; it’s after you and it changes you.
Would have been smarter in hindsight especially with self care, but I would do it 10 times over (still am for now) to experience what I have so far, with the amazing human beings I have been privileged to work with.
Your right, more of it sucks than ever, I could definitely go out on my shield one day and my old ass should probably call it — but I don’t like criminals; I do like helping people and I it’s probably what God called many of us to do. And the humor, oh man the jokes.
Besides, some of us in a cubicle doesn’t end well for anyone.
Recently a mutual friend (they used to confuse you two bald heads) caught an armed robber. It could have went badly. He commented shortly afterwards, “No awards for the ones we don’t shoot huh sarge?” Nope, not even a Thanks.…
John Cornelius says
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.
And there were unwritten laws in Texas:
“Why did you kill him?”
“He needed killing.”
“Why did you kill him?”
“It’s a family thing.”
A classic essay, Craig. Good to read it again.
I hope all of your current trials and tribulations end on a good note. Prepping for winter here at the Homestead my ownself.
Ugly Hombre says
“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.”
A lot of people are still grateful, for the good work you sheep dogs do. I hope you and your brothers will not forget it.
Always good to remember Hombre.
It’s why I tell my patrol cops and practice the same — to spend some time flying the flag in neighborhoods and the public you serve, who actually DO “pay your salary”.
A large percentage of our objective is the pursuit of and dealing with the devil’s handiwork.
More good people on this earth than truly bad ones and you have to balance the perspective. Hard to do sometimes…
Ugly Hombre says
I always try to talk to the local cops and tell them ’ ”You guys must have a helluva job those days- stay safe’ ”
They are open and honest and will tell you the truth.
The land behind the tofu curtain is a kind of a criminal state now, run by criminals for criminals and must be the worst place in our Republic to be a LEO.
“Dealing with the devil’s handiwork.”
That’s for damn sure- Old scratch has a kind of a HQ up in Sac-Town, imo
Ugly Hombre says
“Trying to kick a long term Copenhagen habit. ”
hmmm If you have a pard close by a China town- have him get some high quality Korean red ginseng for you, slice it up thin, put it in your cheek like a chaw of tobaccy- let it dissolve and get soft, don’t chew it it will frack up yer fangs.
Takes away tobacco cravings, has interesting secondary effects- with a couple big slugs of black coffee- makes a long drive seem like a short trip.
That’s how I got off the cigs back in Korea. It takes away the nicotine cold turkey effects pretty well.
Check with yer TCM doc first of course- before you dive in! blah blah lol
Greg Walker says
Just saw and read this. Well said.
Like yourself I did my time in the military and then ten years on the streets. First as city cop then a deputy sheriff. SWAT leader, DPSST certified instructor in a number of both soft and hard skills, et al. Two wartime campaigns while in the military. Folks who haven’t been and done know very little about Rules of Engagement, especially in counter-insurgency environments where telling the bad guys from the civilians (of all ages and gender) usually takes place once the shooting or bombing begins.
The first person I didn’t shoot/kill was a 15-year old armed gang-banger who along with a buddy was vacationing in Sunriver with his parents. He’d taken his dad’s Ruger .357 so he could “shot those hicks some class” and indeed, that night, he threatened several folks in that community with it while out running around. Long story short — contact made — foot chase — he spins, drops and in the glow of my flashlight I see the gun coming up. Mine is out — we’re within ten feet of each other — before his barrel breaks the plane where it would be definitely pointed at me he drops it and begins running again. Another officer and I capture him about 10 minutes later. When we retrieve the gun I find it is fully loaded, the hammer pulled back to half-cock.
When I first got to Bend in 1985, and became a reserve officer and then reserve deputy, and a trainer for the newly formed Bend BERT team, the not so funny joke was that I’d be the first to drop “the hammer” on someone because of my military background. Actually then, and throughout my formal certified career, because of the level of my training and experience — which was far greater than the average law enforcement officer in Oregon — I was the most disciplined in that respect. I knew my limitations and my strengths — I could push the envelope a bit more than most because of this.
Later, many years later, in Astoria while a city cop there I could have shot/killed a local homeless guy who, armed with a knife, and very drunk, had decided to do “suicide by cop” one night. Another officer and I responded down on the docks — we drew down, gave ground, and talked the man (who we knew pretty well) into putting the knife down. Re-holstering, I cuffed him and took him to jail. He was out the next morning, sober, and later found me and thanked me for my not killing him. You see, we knew his brother had been a Chicago cop who was killed in the line of duty. Our homeless man had been a Chicago fireman at the time. His brother’s death broke him. He’d been on the streets for years since.
Vinnie Zeitz was a good man. He once showed me a picture of his beautiful daughter. He moved from Astoria to Redmond where he later died, still homeless. He is buried at the cemetery in Redmond.
There was the emergency room nurse in Astoria who lost it one afternoon at home and we ended up in her home, gun to gun, in a stand off that last 45 minutes until we were able to distract and take her down. She still managed to get all five shots off from her .38 Smith snub nose while I was pressing her hand and the gun into the carpet. One of those recovered rounds in mounted in my retirement shadow box. At the jail she told me she never “wanted to hurt any of you…I just wanted to die…I live in so much pain”. Another attempt at suicide by cop. She got help although she lost her license and job — and in court thanked us (the officers who responded) for “not killing me”.
She had a son. He was a Marine at the time.
There were a few others in my later career in Deschutes County once again. Close calls. Decisions made based on training, experience, and God’s good graces (the most important factor). I was never the “first to drop the hammer” as a police officer. Over time, however, several cops I knew and worked with did have to do so. The experience left its mark on them forever.
Again, solid piece and well worth publishing again in the future. We can never hear your message enough.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Greg. I wrote that just after Ferguson when I was still conducting a solo debrief and it was more of a knee-jerk piece, but seems to have aged well. My daughter graduates from the academy in less than a month. She will be working in a tough city. I am filled with both pride and terror. What we know about the job and what it actually is accounts for the second part. No man would actually WANT that for his daughter. But she wants it, so there it is. Despite her youth and lack of experience she has wisdom, tactical sense, and is capable of next-level thinking — which will help her immensely on the street. It makes me feel.…old.
You know it gives and it takes Brother and you are right to feel both pride and terror — as we become unnaturally too comfortable standing next to and interacting with terror.
The mystery and fear of terror is defused in the frequency and comfort with it, but it’s source is no less able to seriously damage and ultimately kill you. What a weird, dangerous and alluring relationship we have with it, for those who discover the call to the pursuit of evil.
My oldest (20 year old) USCG had a recent case of what sounded like a medical resulting in the death of a local fisherman in the community he serves at his Surf Rescue Station. The decedent was just a bit older than his aging, past his prime warrior of an old man (me) and he watched the family process the loss at his station. Hit him hard and I’m glad it did.
He told me, “Dad, I’m not sure I’ll be able to work around anyone but non-military; fire; law enforcement, or first responders as I can barely stand five minutes in my civilian peer group in general.” Good he knows that at 20 — and age, experience and his service will temper his pace and increase his grace to those outside of his world.
He is living a life in service to others as a part of something bigger than himself and most certainly in more danger as a result of it.
That amazing young women sharing your dna (which is good or bad depending ?) is doing her version of the same and it’s a conscious, full contact life that should she connects with it; will privilege her to a view of the world, few are privileged to share.
Dangerous; costly; life altering — YES. Vivid; meaningful; clarifying — you better believe it. I’ve never had a better relationship with my first born and worry about him daily. I also gave my false sense of control over to my God and entrusted his care to him in life and death over a year ago.
Although most of it will never make the press, she will help, save and make a positive difference even in the worst parts of that state.
I pray for her safety and what better advocate, sounding board and support could she have, than you in her corner.
Scratch the “non” preceding military.…
I need to buy you a beer my man — it’s the thousands of those scenarios experienced by great cops and soldiers all over the world. Great stories and thanks for them and your service on both sides of the pond.
I was trying to explain the concept of the lack of any real anger during these interactions to a good friend and civilian recently.
East Coast Latin Kings banger in the process of an attempted murder with a knife (just released from Florida prison for the same and in SB six days) when I roll up on my way home wearing my goofy bike helmet and equally goofy shoes.
Last thing I said pointing my G27 at him as everybody is screaming, was “I’m not f*****g” around.” All the tactical stuff was institutionally automatic. Don’t remember even any conscious thought about it.
Simultaneously I am thinking to myself, “If he makes me shoot him, there is no way I make it to Lazy Acres in time to get my dark chocolate and kombucha.” I just want to go home.…
He told the detectives he abruptly jumped to the street because, “he was gonna shoot me” and that he could tell because I was older (gee thanks) and too calm.
He got life I think.
Can’t make this stuff up.…???
Greg Walker says
Thanks for your service and sacrifices, Brother.
Yes, I was an older officer, too. And yes, the things we say that seem to come from nowhere…and work.
Be safe — I’ll look forward to that beer 🙂