In the entire incident report chronicling the shooting death of a Dallas police officer and two other nonfatal shootings by a man at a Dallas Home Depot store April 24, the most terrible and heart-stopping line is this: “Body camera footage shows that as Officers [Crystal] Almeida and [Rogelio] Santander were attempting to place the suspect in custody, he removed his hands from his pockets, drew a handgun and shot both officers.”
According to the report, Armando Luis Juarez had been detained on suspicion of theft and taken to a security office. An off-duty Dallas police officer working at the store had checked his record and found an outstanding felony warrant.
Police were called, and two on-duty officers came to the scene. While the two on-duty officers and the store officer remained in the office with the suspect, the off-duty officer went out to the patrol car to view the warrant and a photograph of the suspect to make sure he was the right guy.
And all that time, Juarez still had that gun and still had his hands in his pockets.
According to authorities, Juarez shot the Home Depot loss prevention officer, Scott Painter, three times. Painter is walking again. Almeida is recovering slowly after bullet fragments were removed from her brain. Santander died the day after he was shot.
According to the official Dallas Police Department policy called Response Continuum, the Dallas police officers on the scene were acting in accordance with official guidelines by not handcuffing the shooter. And that’s what I want to talk about.
Handcuffing is part of the Dallas Police Department’s Linear Response to Resistance Continuum, which is both a policy and training regime designed to de-escalate confrontations between police and citizens. The idea is that before an arrest is made, a police officer only puts handcuffs on a person in response to resistance or because the officer is concerned for her or his safety.
The old style of policing, in which an officer might handcuff a person just to be on the safe side while he figures out who the person is, is considered too aggressive by more modern standards.
And let me tell you, I have always been modern. A lifetime of covering violent police incidents in two cities with tough racial problems persuaded me that the cops need to be constrained and controlled as much as the citizens they confront. I’m still not totally off that feed.
But the terrible gun slaughter of police officers in this city over the last year has made me really seriously question my beliefs. Let me tell you some of the why.
I don’t want to argue gun control today. We’ll do that another day. Today I wish we could just take the world the way it is right now, so we can get on to the subject of policing. And the way it is today is that everybody’s got a great gun in his pocket. Or can. So, if you’re a cop, you need to assume everyone does.
We agree, I hope, that we’re not going to tackle gun control right now, so we’re not going to talk about the idea that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Great. All you bad guys and you good guys, you go have a shootout at the OK Corral.
The point here is that if everybody can have a gun, then all the bad guys will have guns just like the good guys. If you know a way to stop the bad guys from getting them, do tell. But you don’t because there isn’t one. If the guns are out there, the bad guys have got them.
And they’re great guns. In today’s world of advanced engineering and cheap, high-quality manufacturing, $250 to $600 will buy you one hell of a gun, a semi-automatic 9mm pocket-rocket that can fire 600 rounds per minute, right up there with many AR-15s, with magazines that hold anywhere from seven to 16 rounds. Even the smallest, most concealable semi-auto handgun these days is one hell of a close-quarters killing machine.
It sickens me that the shooter in the Home Depot cop murder was standing around an office with his hand on a semi-automatic pistol in his pocket all that time. They check his record: He’s got his hand on the pistol. They call the on-duties: hand on the pistol. Go out to the car, recheck his record: hand on the pistol.
Does he have a concealed carry license? Of course not. He’s a bad guy. That’s his license.
The policy says that if a police officer handcuffs a person and then decides not to make an arrest, the officer must file a miscellaneous incident report via a mobile data terminal explaining why the person was handcuffed. Combined with other strictures and guidelines on the use of handcuffs, what all of that winds up telling officers is that they should be very cautious about using handcuffs.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, taught the continuum of response at the police academy for years and knows the whole thing backwards and forwards. When he and I talked about it Wednesday, he cited the important Supreme Court decisions on both sides of the issue. He said, “Handcuffing is taking away a person’s freedom,” and he noted that the U.S. Constitution says that’s not supposed to happen without due process.
But he also noted that the net effect of the rules — the paperwork requirements, the hassle factor if a citizen complains — tends to push officers away from handcuffing except as a last resort.
“Even though they may feel that maybe something isn’t setting right, a lot of times they won’t handcuff because of those possible complaints that may come out, and then it goes to the internal affairs department, and now you’re under investigation for a year,” Mata said.
He thinks the threshold where handcuffing is allowed and considered appropriate needs to come forward to meet the changed realities of the times. I brought up guns, and he didn’t disagree with me, but the other changed reality he cited is body cameras.
“It was one thing when we didn’t have body cameras and handcuffing could become oppressive and it was your word against theirs. But now, every public contact, especially when you are answering a call, you must activate your body camera.”
Don’t let me fool you here. I’m no lifelong, gung-ho, back-the-blue supporter of the police in every instance. I know exactly where every ounce of that restraint on them comes from. Especially years back, I was way on the other side of this issue. But Mata made a point that seemed especially smart to me. He said that many of the worst incidents in that era came from what he called “miscommunication.”
Yeah, I would call it everybody being scared to death. Maybe it was a nothing incident or could have been, and all of a sudden everybody thinks he’s going to die. Yes, race and racial fear are factors. And it's a factor for everybody under the age of 30, white, black and Latino, to try to look like he just got out of prison an hour ago. Explain that one to me. No, don’t. Don’t want to hear it.
What Mata said is this: If the body camera is on and the person being questioned is handcuffed, there’s way less room for miscommunication. Everything is slowed down. Everything is under control.
He asked, “Why can’t we just explain to the public, ‘I’m going to handcuff you for your safety and for mine?’”
Would that be embarrassing? Let’s say somebody calls me in for road rage, not realizing that at my age that’s just how I look. So now I’m standing on the shoulder of Central Expressway with my hands zip-tied behind my back. Is that embarrassing? Sure it is.
But I need to be thinking about those police officers and the private security officer getting shot at Home Depot by the man with the gun in his pocket. I need to be thinking about the five officers murdered in downtown Dallas last summer.
In this world, where anybody and everybody might have that pocket rocket somewhere on his person, just shutting the hell up and putting my hands behind my back is the way I can back the blue.
And it draws a line. If the expectation is that we will all quietly allow ourselves to be cuffed if the officer wants to cuff us, then anybody who resists is sending up a big red flag.
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SHOW ME HOW
Yes, it may involve giving up some freedom. But freedom to do what? Freedom to be a pompous ass? Freedom to make a police officer fear for his or her life? And, as Mata cautions, freedom to send the wrong signal so I get myself shot? (I should be saying, “Officer, this is my smile.”)
We said we weren’t going to argue gun control. I’m kind of biting my lip, you can tell. Hey, I probably have more mixed feelings about it than you might imagine. I do think people in favor of gun control need to learn more about guns.
But here’s the thing. If we are going to extend ourselves what may be the ultimate freedom, the freedom to carry the machinery of death around in our pockets, then maybe we’re going to have to even things up by surrendering some freedom somewhere else.
If not, then guess what? If everybody gets a gun and we’re not willing to cut the cops a single break, then guess where I think that puts us? Here we are, toting iron and telling the cops to kiss off. I think we’ve just become the cousins of that guy at Home Depot.