Op-ed by Carleton Cronin, West Hollywood, California
One is disposed, almost as a reflex, to immediately condemn the police when one hears of their shooting of a suspected or confirmed felon. This is a strange reaction in a country which allows just about anybody who can sign his name to own a firearm.
Yet, it is more of a human reaction than an intellectual exercise.
We all know that the only reason for the existence of guns is to use them to kill – or to threaten to kill. If the argument is that they are used as a defensive devise, the threat is still implied.
Never-the-less, the proliferation of guns has made our society a very dangerous place – the arguments of “gun rights” citizens aside.
If our country is to live up to its credo, we do not need guns.
Of course, that’s a Utopian view and the correct view is that anyone of us can be shot dead at any time.
I am moved to write this in response to the most unfortunate recent shooting of a Mr. Winkler in our town. The excellent article in the previous WeHo News covering the incident and its consequences has further inspired me to write this piece.
Moreover, I am writing because of a concern I have had for some time, and which I have expressed to a few acquaintances who make their living – and live it twenty-four hours a day – in the enforcement of our laws.
That concern is the public image of police in our country, and especially, in our community.
In the earlier days of our democracy we were pretty law-abiding. There weren’t too many laws to consider during the first century of our growth, and we were governed more by the Christian bible and survival needs than by secular rules.
Eventually, codification of laws began and the regulations proliferated. After our ferocious civil war guns began to be worn in public, especially in the country’s burgeoning western areas where legends were being built upon stories of “gun-totin’” lawmen and their exploits in “taming” towns like Tombstone. The gun cult emerged.
One of my favorite tales of the Old West is of “Wild Bill” Hitchcock. Sometimes mentioned in the newspapers as “Duckbill” for his singular facial profile, his reputation was such that when he drew his two Colt six-shooters, in an odd, cross-handed fashion, people scattered as fast as possible since he would simply unload all twelve cartridges all over the place.
The results of this unfortunate activity, as often noted – but not by many historians – was that innocent passers-by were wounded or killed in his efforts to shoot a felon. Wild Bill, indeed. The Old West was often without real law enforcement until the end of the 19th century.
Earlier days were not sunnier days. As police were becoming more professional and organized, so were the elements of our society which opposed laws. In my lifetime police were often out-gunned by the bad guys.
J. Edgar Hoover, in forming the FBI, sought and received permission to arm his agents with more than a Colt revolver. Machine guns, specifically the Thompson, and shotguns were now allowed to be used by the FBI to combat the similar firepower of the felons and crooks which had overrun some of our major cities.
The day of my old neighborhood patrolman, Denny Driscoll (who had never even loaded his Smith & Wesson he told me many years later) was over. Even as a kid in South Boston I knew where to obtain a gun. Our innocence was gone before we knew we had it. The streets were now a far more dangerous place. Cops and robbers.
For two years, beginning in 1951, I walked a beat in central London, England. I was, however, an American military policemen, not a “bobby.” But, we had to follow the rules regarding the British police policies in that we could carry no side-arms and had to follow the rules regarding confronting suspected miscreants – their word.
After six months we were allowed to carry our Monadnocks, or night-sticks for defense. For several months, each of us were accompanied by a Metropolitan Police constable as we learned the ropes. During my two years in London I had my share of confrontations with GIs with knives, pipes and some with far greater strength than I.
We learned from the Brits what came to be known as “verbal judo,” a disarming technique – which did not always work. We also learned the most important feature of British police work: that the public – and the “miscreants” as well – respected the police.
In a time when one reads of police shootings, nearly every week, and the circumstances are questioned by the news media, the term “respect” seems to be whittles away. That is most unfortunate for respect is at the heart of relations between the community and the police.
In many confrontations involving guns, the bullets certainly go both ways. In the year 2012, 587 people were killed by police – and 127 police officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty. That it’s a dangerous trade goes without saying.
To have the power of life or death at one’s hip only highlights the possibility of having to make a split-second decision involving the mortality of another human being. This is not a business for the faint-hearted. That some cops are put in that situation more than others is not a matter of choice. For those who like to believe that there are gunslingers who like the action should know that cops like that are usually sounded out by their brother (or sister) officers.
So – how can we look upon our sheriff deputies with an air of respect? Those people who know them already champion the police. Thus, the answer lies in familiarity, with knowing and understanding each other.
For example, in the early days of cityhood, the sheriff had an annual open house, with displays from their several departments and a tour of the facility – even a visit to a helicopter on the rooftop. Other agencies joined in with the country fire department being there in force.
Ride-alongs were promoted for citizens wanting to know how cops really worked. Our Public Safety department encouraged residents to join the Watch program and get to know individual deputies.
These activities promoted respect in both directions. It becomes far too easy for police to remove themselves from the personal view to one considering us as “civilians” and building fences where they should not exist.
Unfortunately, some of our neighbors can make fallacious judgments about police - and promote fear and distrust by so doing.
We can change all that easily and in good time. Support your local Sheriff.