6. Tulsa County Deputy Mistakenly Grabs Gun Not Taser…

June 21, 2020

[Ed. Previously published April 16, 2015.]

There are some things about which I know very little. This is not one of them.

As many in the press have been too quick to proclaim, this case does point out a serious problem with the policies that govern the behavior of the police in this country. But the press, impelled by the desire to be the first to sensationalize an event and fan the lucrative flames of racial hatred and civil discord, have it ass backwards. 

They immediately raised the alarm because the Tulsa County deputy was a 73-year-old man and a volunteer who also donates a lot of money and equipment to the department.

“Wealthy donor… who pays to play cop” is the way the RAWSTORY blog put it, and every other news outlet including CNN questions whether his age was a factor. 

NBC news referred to the usual “unarmed black man”, ignoring the fact that the man, a drug and gun dealer on PCP, was fleeing from the scene of a sting wherein he was recorded selling a pistol to an undercover cop. Caught after a chase, he was struggling with police, pinned prone on the ground. Under the circumstances the only safe assumption was that he was still armed, given that he had one hand under him in his waistband and was refusing to take it out to be handcuffed.

Yet the media story became about a volunteer deputy, “playing” cop, who was assumed to be untrained and incompetent, who grabbed the wrong tool and shot the “black man” who proved, after the fact, to be “unarmed”.

First let‘s stop and recall that the exact same scene played out in Oakland, California a few years ago. There, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop tried to tase a black teen, resisting on the train platform as cops, pinning him on his belly, struggled to arrest him during a manhunt for several black youths who had immediately previously been using a pistol to intimidate train passengers. At the time his department foolishly didn’t specify that the service pistol and the taser were to be worn on opposite sides of the duty belt. In the heat of the struggle, the officer grabbed the wrong one and shot the teen in the back thinking he was tasing him.

In that case the narrative advanced by the press and the black community included the implication that the cop was young, inexperienced and likely undertrained. There was also, as there will surely be in this case, the assertion that he was careless because, to him, black lives did not matter. Never mind that this latter allegation was completely contrary to anything anyone knew or learned about the officer before or after the incident. When he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not intentional murder, there was raging, rioting, looting, and arson in Oakland, resulting in the arrests of 80 people. 

Returning to the matter at hand, in the interest of full disclosure I must reveal that I have been a volunteer with the Sheriff’s Office for a few years each in two separate counties. I was a ham radio operator member of the Alameda County S.O. Communications Team, including the time of the Oakland shooting, and heard second-hand accounts on the very day of the incident from the deputies of the Special Response Unit (SRU) with whom I also volunteered on the Sheriff’s 85-foot, high-speed patrol boat. At the time I, too, was in my mid-seventies.

We ham operators who were part of the disaster and emergency communications team did not participate in any law enforcement duties, though it was a slightly different story on the patrol boat. That boat assisted the coast guard in dangerous cargo inspections of incoming freighters, including, on one occasion, escorting a captured Colombian drug ship carrying half a billion dollars worth of drugs. Because there were many similar port security circumstances in which our patrol boat and everyone on it could possibly have become engaged in a fire-fight, (think McHale’s Navy without the torpedoes, but with the machine guns). the civilian volunteer on the boat (that would be me) was required to have a Concealed Carry Weapon’s permit, rare as hen’s teeth in California and requiring eight hours of annual training in the classroom and at the pistol range. Moreover, in both counties in which I served, volunteers underwent the same F.B.I.-based background check as applicants for sworn deputy positions.

But the chance I would ever have to participate in combat in Alameda County was extremely remote, and my main duty, in addition to setting up and operating ham communications between the boat and the County Emergency Operations Center, was to help the chief engineer with engine maintenance and repairs.

Far different when I moved a few years later to the Phoenix area and joined the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Communications Posse. That county is larger (9,226 square miles) than five different states and the District of Columbia, while being home to just under four million people. The sheriff enforces the law with something under a thousand sworn deputies, augmented by a number of specialized “posses” totaling about 3500 men and women of all ages.

In Maricopa county there is an extensive training curriculum through which posse members can qualify to, for instance, direct traffic, use restraints, (cuffs), search and transport prisoners, and even carry and deploy tasers, pepper spray and firearms. It can take a couple of years to go through all the training. I know because I took about half the training: including engaging in hand-to-hand combat with criminals. That training was very illuminating to me, as I was at the time approaching 80, my age at the time of this writing. I was doing well enough on gym mats with classmates a third my age who were only engaging in mock combat with me. The only reason I didn’t complete the training and go on to the pistol range, where I am already more than proficient, is because there came a time when I had to repeat all the techniques I had just learned, but after being sprayed in the face with real pepper spray. That I could not allow. For one thing I’ve had both cataract and glaucoma surgery on both eyes. For another, I have extensive scarring in my lungs from a pneumonia I had ten years ago. I simply couldn’t allow myself to be sprayed in the face with and to breathe capsaicin. As it turned out, there was no possibility for a waiver, since a posse member’s life, and that of the deputy with whom he or she is working, might depend upon being able to fight and call on the radio for help after being sprayed with pepper spray. 

In Maricopa county a posse member may volunteer for patrol duties, riding with a deputy, or for transporting prisoners to jail from the point of arrest in cage-cars. Qualified, armed posse (QAP) members may volunteer to assist at DUI check-points or go out with task forces serving felony warrants.

I had a major epiphany as I underwent the training in the application of “less than lethal” force. Not only did I finally fully concede that I was a fat old man incapable of taking down a tattooed psychopath with muscles developed at a jailhouse “muscle beach”,  but it became clear to me at last what we actually ask our police men and women to do when they go to work each day. They are expected to chase down and wrestle physically with the scum of the underworld, without killing them or applying any force that some political activist sitting safe in an armchair with a permanent animosity towards cops will, after the fact, decide to call “unnecessary”.

In the back of my mind had been the illusion that it would be sufficient that while I might no longer be able to fight, I could still shoot the eye out of a gnat.

As a physician and surgeon, standing in the operating room for hours repairing actual consequences, I know that real fights are not like the movies or TV, where actors trade punches for several minutes, only suffering a smear of fake blood at the corner of the mouth when it is all over. In real fights a single punch can collapse the bones of the face like eggshells, resulting in several months of surgeries followed by only a partial restoration of function. Or a broken blood vessel in the brain can result in death within minutes. 

To me it is perfectly clear that someone who throws a simple punch at me is putting me in real danger of grievous bodily harm or death, justifying the use of deadly force in self- defense. But the segment of the public with inverted values doesn’t see it that way, and insists that the police who protect the community use, even at the risk of their own lives and in the heat of the moment, the least possible force, doing everything to avoid hurting the poor drugged out, drunk or insane psychopath coming at them. This bizarre combination of medical ignorance and belief in movie “fight mythology”, is compounded by racial politics when the criminal is black. 

In the black communities of the inner city the prevailing narrative has become that the police are to be mistrusted and reviled, and that black young men are “unarmed” and “innocent” even when engaged in serious crimes. It is as if many in the black community feel that on the basis of past mistreatment, blacks have “earned the right” to be criminals, and to flee from or fight with police when apprehended.

It seems reasonable to suspect that this inversion is somehow related to that which has been found in sociological studies in school systems. Whereas popularity seems to track along with academic accomplishment among white students, among black students popularity and esteem are bestowed in inverse proportion to academic ranking. Black students who do well in class and speak standard English become objects of contempt among other black students. Those who copy the speech, dress, behavior and values of their fathers and older brothers in street gangs and county lockup are the sub-cultural leaders. 

On the street in the inner cities, the cops are fair game and the cons are the folk heroes. According to my observation of what is reported in the media, this false narrative is shared, or at least exploited by anarchists, liberal activists, the media, academics and the liberal white establishment, who consistently minimize the significance of criminal values and behavior, and wildly exaggerate or wholly invent the misdeeds of the police. For the average street cop, most of whom, naturally, are assigned to patrol the areas of highest crime, the general adoption of this inversion of values, and concomitant restraints on police behavior has amounted to handicapping the good guys and giving the advantage to criminals. It is as if, “no good deed goes unpunished”.

In a world where one is expected to use Marquis of Queensbury rules while fighting with 250-pound street thugs, what of the aging officer, slower and fatter than when a youth? What of smaller officers? Outnumbered officers? What of women officers? Do we have the resources to pension police officers off like millionaire athletes when they begin to lose peak physical conditioning?  Or like movie stars when they begin to show a few wrinkles?

Now on the steepening downslope of senescence, when I was undergoing volunteer posse training I had little interest in elective courses in the use of pepper spray or tasers. Instinct told me that my only chance of surviving an assault by a younger, quicker, stronger attacker would be to shoot him dead. That, essentially, would be the “least possible force” I would be able to employ successfully.

Not a problem for me philosophically or morally. If some big guy comes at me with the expressed intent to throwing the old guy down and kicking him to death, he has just forfeited his right to live.

What my police training revealed to me, not in so many words but very clearly, was that shooting an attacker is not what the community expects of its police officers, and that in my present aged state I am not a good match for the job.
Even though I would not have volunteered for any of the overtly dangerous jobs, law enforcement volunteers in Maricopa County are advised that whenever they are wearing the uniform, indistinguishable for that of a sworn deputy save for the fine print on the shield, they should wear bulletproof vests, because the uniform is a target for bad guys. Predators seek out the defenseless. 

At 2 pm on New Year’s Eve in 2013, an Arizona police officer was in pursuit of several men fleeing in a car from the scene of an armed robbery. When they crashed at an intersection the officer jumped out of his car and approached the suspect vehicle. To prevent them from driving off again, he ordered the men witnesses said looked like NFL line-backers, out of the car. Immediately the men grappled with the officer, trying to get his gun.

A 63-year-old Sheriff’s volunteer posse member in civilian clothes, having been stopped in the intersection because of the collision, jumped from his truck and ran to assist the police officer, just as one robber gained control of the officer’s pistol. The felon shot first at the man running to help the officer, hitting him in the center of mass. The bullet exploded his stomach and fractured his liver and one kidney. Then the bad guy shot the officer. Both survived, but the posse member just barely. All but ruined financially by months of hospital bills, the posse volunteer was refused the usual workers compensation medical coverage because he was not under a deputy’s orders at the time he ran to help the city cop.

Was he too old to try to help?

In my own late seventies I had decided even before my training that I would never volunteer for duties that involved backing up a deputy on patrol. Bad enough if I were not able to assist him or her fully. It would have been even worse, I reasoned, if in a dangerous situation the deputy, in addition to everything else, also had to worry about my safety. It would defeat the whole purpose of volunteering. My original intention in joining the posse was to help my community by using ham communications to back up county radios during time of disaster or emergency.  As I mentioned, I only took the more advanced training because I would only have felt safe while wearing the required deputy’s uniform if I had been armed. 

Regardless: when did it become acceptable for a criminal to attack any deputy, regardless of age? When did we turn our sympathies and our support upside down, and give them to the criminal instead of the lawman? This is an idea so absurd and indefensible that the only way to argue for it is with racial demagoguery and rioting. It is because there is no reasonable argument to be made that supporters of a false narrative turn to bullying and intimidation. 

The outcome I fear is that there will an outcry by the usual advocates of racial anarchy, one of whom, in 2015 at the time of this writing, is an advisor on racial policy to the President. Moreover, I expect an inquiry may be pursued by the federal Department of Justice under its racially biased leadership, to attack the policy of using volunteers in local policing. While both the national and the local Tulsa County issues are worthy of close review, deliberations should not be contaminated by the present atmosphere of racist animosity against the police. In my experience, there is a lot more good about the institution of police volunteerism than there is bad.