CONTRADICTIONS IN TERMS
By Gina Gallo
It was one of the first things we learned at the Academy. Besides
criminal codes, case reporting, and the appropriate time to use a weapon, our instructors handed down the most important commandment written for public servants: Never trust the media. They follow us everywhere, reporters wielding microphones, news anchors and cadres of
mini-cams swarming crime scenes, major accidents, anywhere cops are required but angels fear to tread. It's all about getting a story, something 'newsworthy' to play back
live at five, six and ten to the waiting public.
In many cases, the story - especially one featuring cops - that makes it to the newspapers or TV broadcasts is a loose interpretation of the actual events.
In media-speak, 'newsworthy' means any item with enough blood, violence or shock value to leave the public horrified and wanting more. Since cops and violence seem to go together, the media is close
behind, ready to record and broadcast the next breaking crime story or, - even better, another documentation of police brutality.
While police brutality has been a national concern for decades, it's resurfaced with a vengeance since Rodney King made headlines in Los Angeles. The current trend in the interpretation of police activity
seems to be sensationalistic allegations first, the REAL story later....if at all. Countless news editorials have focused on law enforcement's 'justifiable use of deadly force,' which, by their estimation, is a
contradiction in terms. They claim that deadly force is never justified. It's barbaric and inhumane, they say, totally unacceptable in a civilized society.
With the advent of more sophisticated policing strategies, we as police officers are expected to find an acceptable (read: more humane) way to contain criminals, disarm crazed felons and assume a
pacifist's posture while we face an offender's loaded gun. An interesting theory which might be considered armchair quarterbacking by anyone who wears a badge. As law enforcement agents, we
were taught that deadly force is employed only when the officer is placed in reasonable fear of his or others' safety. And while there may be varying interpretations of 'reasonable fear,one thing's definite:
once a gun bore is pointed at your face, the options for peaceful disarmament have narrowed considerably.
According to the media, the police are trained professionals who are responsible first for public safety. Their expectation is that we should be skilled enough to prevent fatalities while preserving the peace.
Reminding us that the police motto is 'To serve and protect,' they are quick to add that no mention is made of maiming, beating or killing.
What the media doesn't mention is that theories sound great on paper, are most impressive when broadcast by some dour-faced news anchor on the evening editorial. But unless those theories are
tested extensively in field conditions, nobody knows for sure how they'll work, - or if they'll work at all. And because every incident is unique, each street occurrence a set of circumstances unlike any
other, there can be no hard and fast rules for non-violent policing.
For those who've never been in a situation where those theories have been tested, where
'contradictions in terms' regarding the use of deadly force can work both ways, consider the following incident.
It's a chilly autumn morning, barely 0730 hours when my partner and I hit the streets. I'm working
with a rookie today, a young guy just one month out of the Academy. We're on uniformed patrol, and our first assignment is to check the crossing guards at their assigned intersections near the
elementary schools. The first two school checks occur without incident. At the third school, I notice the blue car that pulls up on the far side of the playground. It's an older Pontiac LeMans with
black-tinted windows and a pock-marked rear passenger door.
"Check out that ride," I tell my partner. "Let's go around the block, get a better look."
"Is that hail damage on the side?" the rookie asks.
Unobserved, we ease up the side street and watch as the passenger window rolls down. The
occupant, a lanky teenager with a red do-rag, passes something to one of the school kids.
"Let's roll," I tell my partner. "Those are S.P.'s* (*Satan's Posse, one of the most powerful gang
factions on Chicago's South Side) and they're making a dope drop."
I instruct him to radio in our location to our dispatcher, along with a description of what we've got. I
have no way of knowing, until much later, how excited my partner is - his first drug arrest - and in that excitement he forgets some elementary procedures. Like how to key in the mike so the dispatcher
actually receives his message. And, once we pull up behind the Regal, how to approach it safely when we get out of the squad.
Instead, he shouts into the radio without keying the mike, so there's no information on our location and no hope for a back-up car. Next, he activates our emergency equipment, switching on the blue
lights and siren to announce our pursuit. Except we're not pursuing anyone. With all windows now closed, the blue Regal didn't move.
My partner grabs the loudspeaker mike.
"Occupants of the blue Regal, open the doors slowly. Open the doors on both sides and show us your hands." Correct procedure for a street stop, except that the rookie wants to grandstand a little.
He's thrilled to be doing a street stop, even more thrilled with the way people on the street turn to stare. And maybe a little dazzled by his own power to make it all happen. Forgetting everything he's
been taught, my partner draws his weapon and sprints toward the Regal. When the passenger's first gun blasts blow out our windshield, the rookie drops to the ground. Amid the smoke and dust and
black exhaust fumes, I can't tell if he's been hit, only that he's rolling on the ground.
In a combat crouch behind my car door, I can hear the crowd screaming.
"Muthafuckas!" someone shouts. "Y'all be messin' with us all the damn time. You deserve to die!"
By now my partner has yanked open the driver's door and brought his baton crashing down on the driver's hands. Apparently unhurt, he hauls out the cursing occupant and shoves him to his knees.
"Police brutality!" someone else screams. "Watch - they gonna kill that poor child."
The 'poor child', now handcuffed and face down on the ground, is spouting obscenities and threats.
Wondering where our back-up is, I order the other passenger out of the car. What might have been minutes seems like hours, and the crowd around us is closing in, louder and more agitated as critical
seconds tick by.
"Bitch! You think you bad cuz you got a gun? Somebody need to shoot this bitch!"
Threats and jeers all around us now, two uniforms surrounded by at least a hundred people intent on
street justice. Playing to the crowd, the Regal's last occupant - the boy with the do-rag, simply slides out of the car and onto the ground face down, which is enough to outrage the frenzied witnesses.
"He's dead!" shrieks an onlooker. "They done killed that boy!"
Fear puts me on auto-pilot. I don't know when the first rocks will be thrown, or whether this crowd
will rush us. Nothing to do but keep my weapon steady and cover my partner. Cautious now, he approachs the inert passenger slowly. Too spooked by the shouting crowd, he can't react quickly
enough when the do-ragged boy rolls into a crouch. Blue fire spits from the muzzle of the boy's gun, a Chilean machine pistol , dropping the rookie. Later, his own weapon, a Colt Peacemaker, will be found
in the seeping pool of his blood.
That evening, all the local news stations feature the cop shooting as their lead story.
Film clips taken on the scene feature sympathetic reporters recording the statements of outraged witnessed, all of whom pronounced that the Regal's passengers were innocent, that the cops simply
roared up like gangbusters, and started beating them for no reason. Snapped one boy's leg like a twig, they said, and crippled him. And then nearly killed the other. No wonder the cop got shot. That
young boy was just trying to protect himself. The cop deserved it.
As with most media 'eye-witness' accounts, there are a number of critical elements that are omitted.
Like the subsequent examination of the 'crippled boy' at the local hospital, which reveal only minor abrasions sustained from the handcuff ratchets when he tried to escape.
No mention is made of the boy's machine pistol, which was never recovered, or the armor-piercing ammo it contained. Neither is there mention of the fifty balloons of heroin to be sold to the school
kids, or the stash of crack cocaine found under the Regal's front seat, or the Glock automatic with one spent magazine found near the driver's door.
Instead of showing footage of the wounded cop, or the shattered squad car windshield, news reports focus on yet another example of police brutality on innocent victims. An attack, they say, that
backfired with tragic results. Another example of the consequences of deadly force. While the citizens of Chicago are mulling that over, I keep vigil at the hospital with the rookie's wife. In silence we watch
his labored breath, the beeping machines that keep him alive. I remember how excited he was, how proud to be a cop. And how his blood flowed like water after he'd been shot. And I wonder, if he dies,
how I'll ever explain to his wife what we're up against. What all street cops face each day, how it's a war out there with no rules. Only more weapons, deadlier than ever, designed to serve up death in
spite of what little protection cops are allowed. There's laser sights and sound suppressors and armor-piercing ammo that cuts through our safety vests like butter. Sophisticated firepower that
creates another contradiction in terms,
one the media never thinks to mention and the public's not aware of: that bullet-proof vests aren't, that
no riot-prone crowd stops to analyze a police action before mob mentality takes over, and it's our blood that's spilled, our lives sacrificed by the public we've sworn to serve and protect. Maybe it's
not newsworthy to mention the incredible odds cops face each day they report for duty, or to discuss a cop's own self-protection. Another contradiction in terms.
Copyright © 2000 by Gina Gallo - www.gallostories.com
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