Four dead policemen

On Saturday, we took our kids to a movie. The long trail of coming attractions featured a throbbing promo for Dillinger, the latest Michael Mann flick. The five-minute sex, guns, and rock-and-roll preview featured Johnny Depp in fine style, a submachine gun in each hand blasting away at his pursuers after a succession of bank robberies. As always, we like our desperados white, cute, and preferably no later than the Depression-era.

On the way out of the theater, I compulsively checked out washingtonpost.com to distract myself from the $32 downtown parking fee. There were four flag-draped coffins holding the bodies of four Oakland policemen. Perhaps 20,000 people attended the memorial service for these brave, tragically young law enforcement officers.

The four officers–Mark Dunakin, John Hege, Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai–died in a shootout that began with a simple traffic stop and ended in a blaze of bullets in a nearby apartment. The perpetrator, Lovelle Mixon, was a hard-luck chronic offender desperate not to go back to prison. Like most people who commit atrocities, he reminded no one of Johnny Depp. He was just a scared, impulsive man with too-ready access to powerful weapons.

I speak with a fair number of police, ER docs, and others on the front-lines of urban mayhem. Here in Chicago, concern over the proliferation of high-powered weapons has produced calls to arm thousands of cops with M4 rifles. The argument doesn’t require elaborate explanation. Gangs are stashing heavy weapons. Although these weapons are virtually never turned on police, every officer knows that this string of good luck might end with the next traffic stop. In today’s world, policing has a paramilitary dimension to which attention must be paid.

Nonetheless, many community residents are horrified at the prospect of police patrolling with heavy weapons. Their argument requires equally little explanation. Militarized image of helmeted (mostly white) crew-cut officers in Kevlar, Ray-Bans, and heavy gloves, sporting M4s brings a huge downside.

On both sides of the thin blue line, people have reason to believe they are in danger, and that no one really has their back across the divide. There is really no villain to this piece, other than the criminals. (And they, too, often have poignant stories.) This is one of those cases in which the powerful daily lived experience of human beings slowly but surely narrows their worldview to exclude the worldviews of others.

Police are angry that residents of low-income communities are often ambivalent about underground or criminal economies. A small but sick minority of residents taunted police at the roadside location of the Oakland shooting . I’ll bet this will be duly noted in many station houses.

I spoke at one conference at which a grizzled veteran officer held us spellbound for almost an hour. He described the very first “shots fired” call of his twenty-year career. Then a young rookie officer, he got a radio call, “multiple shots fired” outside a funeral home. He raced over to find a body in the street, all shot up. He freaked out, called got an ambulance and backup. Then he got a better look. He was puzzled to see that the body looked very, very dead. Apparently, some guy had killed three members of a rival gang. Compatriots of the dead men then killed him, but that wasn’t enough to make the point. So they ambushed his funeral, removed his body from the casket, laid it out in the street and blasted away with shotguns and otherwise defaced the body, leaving it there in the street and running off before the police had come.

He told many more stories in this vein, more Quentin Tarantino than Michael Mann. He brought along dozens of makeshift weapons gangbangers had made in local jails and prisons. His Powerpoints interspersed pictures of gang leaders and huge tattooed guys weightlifting in the prison yard.

The stories and pictures were mesmerizing. Yet the cumulative effect was disturbing. These war stories provided a powerful claim for exclusive legitimacy compared, say, to the words of some comfortable liberal academic. The coarsening words and images reflected the emotional pulse of his daily war with these gangsā€”a war in which the broader community becomes, in some ways, peripheral to the story.

We heard rather different stories from the community perspective. Community people are afraid of the gangbangers, too. Yet they are a lot more concerned about the pliable 15-year-old kids who get sucked into the street end of the gang business. They feel the police don’t have THEIR back. They have their own stories about heavy-handed police tactics, and about simpler matters such as their difficulties in getting a patrol car stationed on the path home from the local school. By any reasonable account, too many young and not-so-young men from tough urban communities live under the control of the criminal justice system. Tough police tactics are sometimes necessary. We can’t forget their human cost.

Things would be better if American society could get a handle on the supply of powerful weapons. Mixom was armed with an AK-47 in the final shootout that ended with him and two officers killed. These weapons present the most obvious and scary challenge.

But Mixom killed the first two officers with a semiautomatic pistol. These are the weapons of choice in many urban homicides. In many ways, these pose a greater policy challenge than much more powerful weaponry. As Average Joe’s Handgun Reviews cheerily reports, a common model

zips along at a rate between 1350 and 1375 feet per second… If you want a little more sizzle you can slip in a 100 grain CorBon Powerball which smokes out of the barrel at 1600 feet per second with 568 foot pounds of energy…

Go to any big-city morgue, and you can see the lacerations such munitions inflict on the human body. Or just go to your keyboard. Google “semiautomatic pistol wounds autopsy report,” and see what comes up.

Things would also be better if pop culture did less to romanticize both the violence and its perpetrators. Pop culture reenacts and then embellishes the most violent crimes; criminals seem happy to return the favor. We spend our evenings watching charming gangsters go to the mattresses, Jack Bauer thwarting terrorism by torturing evildoers, Hannibal Lector outwitting the authorities and stalking his prey, many of whom are drawn as distinctly unlikable characters who rather deserve what they get. Al Capone and his various on-screen screen heirs dispense hard-edged ethnic wisdom while doing what must be done.

Real-life violence is infinitely more squalid and mundane. John Gregory Dunne wrote that violence is the way stupid people try to level the playing field. That’s about right. In John Dillinger’s era and Vito Corleone’s, Frank Soprano’s and Larry Hoover’s too, gangsters were vicious and limited thugs who damaged many lives, mostly within their own communities.

Around where I live, recent victims include the middle-schooler hit by a stray bullet while tying her blind little sister’s shoe, the husky doctoral student killed one block from my office by panicky teenage robbers, the beloved police officer killed by a deranged woman. Victims include unlucky bystanders in a crowd or on a city bus. These include spinal cord injury patients at local rehab hospitals, thousands of people living with PTSD, men and women who mourn loved ones lost. Violence is not a video game or a music video.

I know that violent entertainment is not the sole, or even the most important cause of real-life violence. Yet in too many ways, we send cultural messages that glorify the lone angry man who settles an injustice or a private grudge by firing a gun. We can’t be surprised when a few sick fellow citizens take this to heart.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.