Thursday, October 6, 2011


On September 30th of this year, just a week ago at the time of this writing, A Tennessee State trooper pulled a car over for ‘traffic related violations’ in that state’s rather sparse Henderson County (population 27,769) midway between Nashville and Memphis.
A check of the driver’s identification turned up a felony record/open warrants and that the driver had provided false identification to the trooper. He immediately restrained the driver, Christi H. Pepper (47).
Trooper Dwayne Stanford (27)  then returned to the stopped vehicle to establish the identity of the passenger. Robert Cunningham (50) a resident of Cadiz Ky. (my original hometown) stepped out of the passenger’s side of the vehicle and shot Trooper Stanford in the chest. Trooper Stanford returned fire, killing Cunningham. (Sources: ‘Cadiz Record’, 4 OCT 2011, and 'The Jackson Sun', 4 OCT).
Stanford, according to the articles,  was wearing a bulletproof vest and was treated and released from the hospital and is reportedly doing well.
 A few days later, near my second hometown, Springfield Mo., A Greene County Sheriff's deputy responded to reports of a drunk driver and pulled over a blue-green van that fit the description in the reported area. The woman driving, Tammy L. Robinette(46) pointed a gun at the deputy and reportedly attempted to fire. The deputy returned fire, killing Robinette. (Source: 'Springfield News Leader', 4 OCT)
I didn’t know any of the people involved in these events. But that isn’t the point of this missive, just coincidental that these similar, yet unrelated events were reported by my hometown papers this week, and that I’ve had occasion over the past month to get to know several law enforcement types and learn more about their job, duties and limitations.
I enrolled in the Jefferson County (Mo.) Sheriff’s ‘Citizen’s Academy’ . It’s a twelve week course (three hours each Tuesday evening) to learn more about the local Sheriff’s Department’s responsibilities and techniques. On the first night when Sheriff Glenn Boyer asked each of the twenty-six of us our reasons for enrolling, I answered: “I am an occasional writer and when I write about cops and crime, I want to get it right.”
He seemed amused and pleased at the same time. I was being sincere. I have recently been playing around with a series of Noir-style (hardboiled) detective short stories. In the course of writing them I’ve pinned myself and my character into several awkward corners, stuck on minor procedures, etc. The only thing I really know about law enforcement is what I’ve learned from TV and read in hundreds of novels. I know that those stories all take generous liberties with facts and timelines, as well as laws themselves, so I decided to take the opportunity to grab some fruit directly from the tree of knowledge rather than rehash some second/third hand translation.
The academy is broad-reaching. Many classes are lectures on organization, policies and statistics, but intertwined are demonstrations and discussions on various elements of the department’s operations. We’ve watched a canine unit demonstration, taken a tour through the county jail (Yikes!), visited the 911 call center, and have examined traffic radar units, volunteered to take field sobriety tests and breathalyzers and had accident scene diagramming explained and demonstrated. We were even shown a barely-filtered slide presentation of photos taken at actual fatal traffic accidents. (I drove home pretty slowly after that one, just like when the Air Force showed us the Ohio Highway Patrol’s iconic shock-film ‘Signal 30’)
Currently we’re only five weeks in, seven more to go. I’ve learned a lot so far and my respect and appreciation for the men and women in brown has increased at least ten-fold. (Not that I had a low opinion before, I just really never gave it much thought.)
In every class and demonstration we have been allowed to ask as many questions as we wanted, and there have been many. In each case the deputies were always receptive, open and quite candid.
My ride-along, a perk of the class, is scheduled for this coming Saturday evening.
At least a score of deputies have participated in the presentations already, some for full sessions, others brought in for support and demonstration. We’ve heard already from the Sheriff, the Under-Sheriff, and the County Prosecutor. These high officials were of course, a bit ham-stringed by politics and liability concerns and their lectures and Q/A were quite polished and precise. The deputies a little less so.  Established veterans all, along with being courteous and respectful toward us mere civilians, they also oozed authority, professionalism and dare I say, testosterone.
 Taken out of context, many of the things they’ve said could easily be considered quite intense and certainly skirting at the edges of contemporary political correctness.
   I’ve jotted down some of the grittier, more edgy comments from the front line troops. Out of context, the quote from one DWI deputy in particular would send chills down a regular, law-abiding, nine to five, taxpayer’s spine. It's a line that I plan to borrow, it fits my fictitious character's persona perfectly.
“. . . I’m going to screw my Glock into his ear.”
Trust me when I say that in context, it made perfect sense. Here’s the stage from which that seemingly cold, harsh, chest-thumping reaction was cast.
Question from a member of the class: “Let’s say you pull a car over, routine traffic stop, erratic driving or whatever. The driver reaches for his license and as he does, you observe a handgun tucked into his waistband or under his jacket. Missouri is a CCW (concealed carry) state and the weapon may well be perfectly legal. What do you do?”
Without much of a pause the deputy responded. “If I see a person reaching for, or even toward a weapon, legal or otherwise, without telling me about it first, I’m going to screw my Glock into his ear.” He said this without apology, without hesitation.
Another deputy stepped forward. “You have to understand sir, that there are people out there on the roads that want us dead, either for stopping them or just because they see us as a sworn enemy. Every stop we make is a potentially violent situation. Memorial walls are filled with the names of officers killed in the line of duty while on a ‘routine’ traffic stop. We have families that love us, depend on us and that want us to come home at the end of the shift. We will protect ourselves.”
Another deputy came forward. “Almost one hundred percent of the time, CCW carriers tell us about their weapons immediately, as they should. This is all you need to do to avoid this kind of situation. At this initial point of approaching a car in a traffic stop, we don’t know whether you have a legal right to carry or not, we have no idea what your background or intents are, we can only err on the side of self-preservation.”
(As a side note, when asked about Missouri’s CCW law, every one of the deputies there at the time, stood up in support of it, as a legitimate citizen’s right to protect themselves. One of them also recounted multiple occasions where a CCW citizen helped save the life of an officer in trouble.)
So yes, it takes a certain, complex personality type to make a good cop. That type may at times seem to some of us as overly jock-ish, crude, unsympathetic and prone to baser reflexes and instincts. I certainly do not share this personality type. I know I would not make a good street cop, I’ve never even seriously entertained the notion. My personality is perfectly suited for writing or cubicle work. Analysis, troubleshooting, focused and prolonged concentration, limited physical activity and minimal interaction with other humans. I do not react quickly or especially well to severe adversity, I study it first, measure the angles, contemplate the logical sequences and possible outcomes. I rethink them, exhaustively. If I were a cop, I’d probably very soon be a dead cop. I just don’t have the juice to instantaneously make life or death decisions on a day to day basis.
Sure, sometimes cops go bad. Sometimes geniuses go mad too, sometimes postal workers go postal. I’m not at all convinced that the biological and psychological ingredients that make a cop a good cop is also a certain recipe for corruption, abuse of authority, or violence.
I recognize that in the gritty underworld that tints their typical workday, these folks are constantly in danger. Real danger.
 In my simpler, more sedate world, I worry about my boss being unappreciative, of losing my job. I worry about my car breaking down or my computer locking up and missing deadlines. The most dangerous things I’ve ever routinely done were to drive to and from work and consume too much fatty food. Even my nine years in the military were spent entirely behind a podium in a classroom or toting a tool bag. I was a technician, a spark chaser, not a foot soldier. Except for two days in Basic Training I never even held a weapon. Even though I served in uniform, I could only barely imagine the world of the front-line soldier, as I now can only imagine the daily life of a law enforcement officer of any stripe.
   We live in different worlds, their clouds are completely different from those in mine, the streets and roads they travel are nothing like those on which I casually tread. Any one of them may find themselves in a violent, lethal situation any day of the week, it’s in their job description. They deliberately walk into desperate, emotional, irrational and often chemically-fueled confrontational situations. They deal with horrific and savage events and cruel and vicious people, precisely so the rest of us don’t have to. I tip my metaphorical hat to all of them, even more so to those that dedicate their lives to the betterment of this public service.
As the news stories at the beginning of this essay spell out perfectly, these officers are in near constant potential peril. They never know which speeding or meandering vehicle may be the grim carrier, the source of the bullet with their name on it.
Like Marines and foot soldiers, it’s a profession that calls for a certain type of person. One that can quickly and readily face, and if necessary exert, brutal and fatal force if called for, without hesitation, without overthinking, without pausing to take measure of tentative and fluid social sensitivities. If that means cops tend to occasionally come off as arrogant macho men (and women), a bit coarse and non-PC, you know what? I’m okay with that. So go ahead deputy, screw that Glock into his ear.*

* This is not to imply that I condone thuggish or overreaching bad conduct by officers. As a dutiful taxpayer and concerned, law-abiding citizen, I expect, in fact I demand, that these civil servants observe all prevailing laws and behave professionally in accordance with common standards of decency. I do not care so much what these officers think, or say. I am much more concerned with what they actually do. A little excess bravado is fine, a bit of dark humor as well, but only to the point that it does not actually manifest itself as a significant part or precursor of their actions in the field.


Yet another disclaimer:
The quote about the Glock is accurate since I wrote it down as soon as the deputy uttered it. Other quotes contained within are merely ‘as I recall them’, and may not be/probably are not, verbatim. I am an essayist, not a journalist, I strive for a semblance of accuracy, but due to chronic lousy handwriting and laughable note-taking skills, I reserve the right to, and will, meander a bit from perfection. I have made every effort however, to accurately express the message, tone and intent of those speaking to us and sincerely apologize for any inaccuracies.