The sign on the police car door says “Serve and Protect.”
It does not say “Lookin’ Out for Number One.”
York, South Carolina. County Deputy Terrance Knox initiates a traffic stop, a pickup truck he has spotted with an expired tag. A 70-year-old citizen named Bobby Canipe pulls to the side of the road and stops. A brief moment passes and he opens his door and creaks out. The truth is, Bobby Canipe looks pretty much expired himself. It is just a guess from watching the deputy’s dashboard-mounted video camera, but you probably wouldn’t want to trade bodies with Bobby Canipe, at least not the moving parts.
There are three fundamental stages of the life cycle of the human male: First, you smile at the pretty girls and they smile back. Then you smile at the pretty girls and they look away, disgusted at the thought. And finally, the bleak end, you smile at the pretty girls and they smile back—even speak—because you are so obviously harmless you have turned cute. And it is a hard fact of life, but the girls smile back at Bobby Canipe.
So as we were saying, Bobby gets out of the truck, the missus stays inside. As I remember the interviews—and I was not able to reach Mr. Canipe to make sure of this, but my memory is that he and his wife are on the way to the hardware store. Bobby walks with the aid of a cane, as they say, and he reaches for it in the bed of his truck. The truck has also seen better days, and unless she has a Derringer in her underpants, Mrs. Canipe is unarmed. All to say, the Canipes are pretty much a collection of old parts and do not appear to need shooting.
To Deputy Knox’s credit, on the other hand, after this is all over nobody will ever accuse him of profiling. And weirdly enough, after this is all over Deputy Knox will end up as a vaguely sympathetic character, but maybe not so much to Bobby Canipe. For now, though, Bobby picks up his cane and Deputy Knox emerges from his patrol car and begins to yell.
You hear the deputy panic, right away, losing control by the second. Is there a snake in the car? The old man can only be thinking that this is not his day. One minute you’re driving along with the missus, minding your own business, and then a county deputy pulls in behind and for no reason you can see turns on the lights. You get out to ask what’s up and he shouts at you to put down your rifle. Think of the questions going through Bobby Canipe’s head. I know the questions because except from not having a hole in my stomach, Bobby Canipe and I are the same person. First the whole world fills up with this dot-com bullshit and now they’re screaming for you to drop a rifle.
Bobby Canipe looks up, bewildered. Nothing sudden or unfriendly, just bewildered. The cop’s voice seems caught between octaves and the more Bobby Canipe stands there wondering what the world is coming to, the more excited Deputy Knox gets. It is worth pausing here I think to remark on the deputy’s tone of voice. Not once in the length of the encounter does he call to Mr. Canipe in peaceful English. On a scale of 1 to 10 Deputy Knox starts at 10, where misunderstandings are pretty much guaranteed, and the chance of violence escalates with it right up the scale, note by note.
Meanwhile, the event itself is taking shape in less time than it is taking to describe it. Officer Knox is scared witless, and witless, he opens fire. He pulls the trigger and misses, and pulls the trigger and misses, and pulls the trigger… He goes on pulling the trigger and missing until he doesn’t, and one of the rounds hits home, and the old man is shot in the stomach. As far as I know there wasn’t anything wrong with Bobby Canipe’s stomach before, and I can tell you, again from experience, when nothing much works the way it used to, you feel sad when something that used to work breaks.
The wound is not fatal.
“Bobby?” says Mrs. Canipe.
“He shot me,” Bobby says, sounding like a man still trying to catch up on events.
The smoke clears, as they say, and what has happened seems to settle on Deputy Knox all at once. He runs to the truck to see what he can do to help. From the old man’s point of view, the law may have already had about as much help from the law today as he can stand. The deputy calls for help and breaks down, and in his obvious anguish you can’t help thinking that his heart is in the right place. Still, not really classic Good Samaritanism, and from the old man’s point of view, the law may have already helped him about as much as he can stand.
By the time the other squad cars and the ambulance arrive, Deputy Knox is inconsolable. He says, “I shot him, I shot him…” over and over.
And up at the truck the old man is still saying, “He shot me,” and on that note of agreement, a recently arrived fellow officer of the law does his best to console the inconsolable deputy, saying that he—Deputy Knox—is in the clear. He says, “You did what you had to do.”
And now we are getting to the point. The second cop says You did what you had to do, but what he’s really saying is that it was the deputy’s prerogative to start shooting because he thought he was in harm’s way. That being afraid is enough when you are a cop, meaning police are a protected class. (It is already a more serious crime in most states to shoot a cop than a citizen, and it is much, much more serious to shoot a cop than it is for a cop to shoot you.)
Which I can only assume is why two Cleveland cops—one of them a 26-year-old rookie who “resigned” from a previous department after displaying “a dangerous lack of composure” during firearms training—feel secure enough to blow away 12-year-old Tamir Rice last November, who is standing by a gazebo in a neighborhood park, a toy gun tucked into his pants. The police then handcuff the kid’s distraught 14-year-old sister and threaten to arrest his mother, if she doesn’t calm down.
The police version is that the cops—Timothy Loehmann, the 26-year-old rookie who fired the shot—and his partner, Frank Garmback, warned the boy three times to put his hands up. The truth is that the child was executed, two seconds at the absolute longest from the moment the car stopped. From the tape, it looks closer to instantaneous, giving to boy no chance in the world to comply with the order.
And this may also be why a Staten Island plainclothes cop named Daniel Pantaleo feels safe stealing up behind 43-year-old Eric Garner, who is apparently arguing—a non-violent, non-threatening argument—on the sidewalk with another plainclothes cop, and takes him down in a choke hold. Garner, famously, pleads for Pantaleo to stop: I can’t breathe. Garner is obese and asthmatic, clumsy on his feet, close to helpless. The argument is over, Garner is begging for his life. Eleven times he says he can’t breathe. He can’t catch his breath.
“Fuck your breath,” one of the cops says.
And when it’s over, Garner lies on the sidewalk for seven minutes, nobody lifting a finger to help. What kind of license do these guys have? This is not war, after all. Snipers are not on the roofs, there are no children with bombs strapped to their bodies willing to die to take you with them. Nobody is planting mines along the road to leave you legless or blind, you do not go to sleep at night knowing tomorrow might be it. That is war, this is Cleveland and South Carolina. This is Staten Island.
The answer to that question—what kind of license?—comes in December, when a Richmond County grand jury indicts nobody in Eric Garner’s death and the city pays the family $5.9 million to settle the civil suit.
It costs the cops nothing but bad publicity, and they’ve got each other for morale.
They’ve got us against them.
And yes, it goes without saying that police run the spectrum, good to bad, just like anybody else. But you don’t turn into a different, better person by putting on a uniform and police are not a higher order of human beings or answering a higher calling than anybody else, and all the fawning media in the world doesn’t make you better than you are, any more than cop-haters make them worse.
Too many of them are in it for the weight of the gun, the pleasure of authority, and a good general rule is to be careful of giving authority to anybody who wants it.