“Your Book Sucks!” or What I Learned at Thriller School

          So I’m talking to my new good buddy Grant Blackwood, international bestselling author and co-writer of the ongoing Tom Clancy novels (Clancy being dead, he needs a cowriter) and he says to me, “Your book sucks.”

          Well, maybe not in those exact words. And definitely not in that tone.  But the meaning was clear.  He might be right.

Last week I attended Thrillerfest, the annual five-day conference of International Thriller Writers, of which I am now a member despite, I learned, my book not exactly meeting the definition of a thriller. As Blackwood told me during a coaching session – all joking aside, he and every other writer, wannabee, agent and publisher there could not have been nicer, kinder to a newbee like me or more giving of their time and advice – thriller novels require a villain, a strong hero and a propelling event to kick-start the action.

No on all three counts.

My book does have a hero.  John Kelly is a good guy, not weak but just regular, a detective plowing through a tough week. Getting ready for a trial, he learns two things that will change his life:  (SPOILER ALERT) His girlfriend Rachel is pregnant, and the evidence he drunkenly destroyed  last year is now needed in a new case. But it’s more than just evidence.  And Rachel is the defense attorney in this week’s trial.  And his brother hates him because… I’ll stop here and leave some plots unearthed.  No earth-shattering cataclysm occurs, just a pile of rocks falling on his head steadily for a week till he may or may not be able to take it.  (Spoiler of the spoiler:  even if I sell the book today, publishing’s pace is glacial and the earliest you might hold it in your hands would be a year. And you will surely have forgotten this by then.)

I wanted to write a novel about cops in which the cops don’t die. That’s too common, too easy a gimmick and too ugly for an ex-cop like me to enjoy.  In fact, I don’t even plan to shoot a cop till my third book. But let’s get through this first one first.  It’s not a breakneck rollercoaster of death-defying moments, it’s a paced, realistic run through a gantlet of street, bureaucratic and human challenges (not gauntlet, and if you knew that ten points to you!)

Thrillerfest was fun, fascinating and (you knew I’d do it) thrilling for this unpublished novelist.  I attended panels on topics like tightening up your first page, how to ensure your use of point of view is clear, five rookie mistakes to avoid, essentials of story structure. All the things successful published authors may still struggle to do, and new writers are learning to do.   And I learned my book is not quite as finished and ready as I want.

Rewrite.

And edit, and cut to fit, since I learned from agents that my current length of 101,000 words is too long for a debut author to likely sell to a publisher. More like 70,000 to 90,000 words. And selling to a publisher is key:  y’all don’t get it till they publish it, and they have to be reasonably certain it will sell before they buy it from me.  So it has to be pretty. A lot prettier than it is right now.  Since I got back from the conference whole characters and chapters have been eliminated, in most cases saved for the next books.  The time frame is adjusted for speedier flow.  Jokes, asides and divergences from the tightening path of the plot are gone.   I am very excited about this and, now that I can put my ego aside and tinker with my precious darling words, it seems to be improving. (No ego here.)

Plus, if I rewrite it, all my family and friends and beta-readers who have already read it have to buy it to see what I changed. That’s about a dozen sales right there.

Thrillerfest also taught me what to call it. The genre of my book has been tough to pin down.  It is mostly a police procedural (think step-by-step cop action) but it has courtroom drama in it.  It’s a mystery but not a whodunit.  As I wrote before, it’s not a thriller in the apparently accepted sense.

But what is it?  It’s hard-boiled, overcooked and scrambled.  It has a dark tone and a flawed hero, one whose motto might be, in the words of one of my new favorite authors E. A. Aymar, “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and weaker till you die.”

It’s noir. As in film noir:  dark with moral ambivalence, an antihero brought down by circumstance and a femme fatale.  I didn’t set out to write noir, it just came out that way. Like Jessica Rabbitt did (ten more points, maybe?)

And that’s what I learned at thriller school.

P.S. That beautiful poster I posted that my friend, photographer Jim Craige, made for me with a mockup book cover to get agents’ attention?  Lots of compliments from conference staff. Zero calls. Oh well.

Judge A Book By Its Cover

We find new successes to measure in this web age.  I recently had my highest response ever on a Facebook post.  My wife Ruth says this was because it is a picture, and people are visual.  I wonder if it is just timing, so a post on a weekend captures more idle surfers instead of being submerged into oblivion by the endless, oncoming pile of midweek information.

The post was my book cover. Rather, a mockup of a cover for my thriller novel APPREHENSION prepared as a sales tool for an upcoming writers’ conference. At Thrillerfest in Manhattan next month, I will spend four days with authors and wannabees learning writing, publishing and editing tips within the mystery genre. For a fee, I can hang the cover as a poster in a hallway to be seen by thousands, or at least dozens, attending the conference between classes.  Classes like Glock, Kevlar or Squirtgun: Kitting Out Your Character.  Or Cardiologist, Neurologist or Proctologist: Ask Your Medical Questions.   One class I won’t attend but typical at these is on what the Secret Service really does, designed for neophyte writers outside the law enforcement realm.  Not me.

Here is the mockup cover.

Photo by Jim Craige- www.jimprophoto.com
Photo by Jim Craige- http://www.jimprophoto.com

The most important part for me will be a speed-dating session with literary agents. They don’t actually call it speed dating, but for four hours one afternoon about 30 agents will sit in a big room, and we unsigned writers will line up for three-minute sessions with them (less if they cut you off because you’re boring.)  In the book world nowadays, writers no longer mail manuscripts directly to publishers.  They sign with agents who act as middlemen.  This is reportedly good for publishers no longer overwhelmed by a flood of unsolicited and unremarkable manuscripts, and good for agents because it makes work for them, picking out the ones they like and sending them along to publishers who may like them. Or not.

For a new writer trying to break through, the trick is getting an agent’s attention, done almost always via the query. A query is a short letter, most often in email form, outlining what you wrote generally, a short synopsis and an author’s biography.  The agent, on his or her website, tells you (and of course, hundreds of others at any given time) what to put in the query.  The real trick, therefore, is rising to the top of the so-called slush pile of ten, 20, 30 queries an agent receives every day, by making your query shine in the pile which, if you fancy yourself a writer, should not be hard.  But it is. Whole conferences, books and on-line seminars are dedicated to writing killer queries and getting published. I attended one in Cleveland earlier this month (See my blog: Cut Off One Toe, right here on this website.)

Writers for whom the query/agent/publisher gateway remains closed have another way to go: self-publishing. No longer the “vanity press” last chance for losers it was when I grew up, self-publishing has grown in numbers and respectability with the rise of e-readers like Kindle and Nook, and the ubiquity of tablets and pads, “I” or otherwise.  I could have APPREHENSION in your hands in two days, and may go that route still. There is more money in it per book sold for the author, which is always good ( and since I’m giving ten percent of my profit to anti-police-suicide charities even better.) One problem is the Washington Post doesn’t review self-published work, and I admit, vainly, this matters. Libraries won’t shelve it, book stores won’t stock it, and it exists in a web netherworld generally unknown and unrecognized unless you find (read: pay) a way to advertise or a reader trips over it on the Amazon sales page or, as rarely but miraculously happens, it breaks through to bestseller-dom.  THE MARTIAN, FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY and OUTLANDER jump to mind. Three among thousands.

So self-publishing is my last resort, though the choice looms closer each month.  I began writing after stopping work at the police department in 2013 for cardiac  rehab after my heart attacks, wrote through my  actual retirement in March 2014, and finished in January 2015.  I naively gave myself a year to get an agent, and am six months overdue.  I console myself with the opportunity for rewrite.

But here is an unexpected thing.  I already knew self-publishing gives the author great control over production, pricing, advertising.  But envisioning my cover, contracting its creation, contributing to its look, all have been extremely satisfying.  Though my friend Jim Craige, a former police sergeant and now professional photographer, did the shoot, he depicted an idea of mine.  I think it looks good, and from the response on Facebook, others do too.   If readers don’t judge it, but notice it by the cover, I may do okay.

Here’s the (probably) final conference poster with the cover and some begging, if Jim and I don’t tinker too much more with it. Pretend it is on a two-foot by three-foot board.  Oh, and it has my first blurb, thank you Ken Howard, my former boss and creator of the Alexandria Police Street Crimes Unit, aka The Jumpout Boys, fictionally depicted in the book.

Photo by Jim Craige- www.jimprophoto.com
Photo by Jim Craige- http://www.jimprophoto.com

Wish me luck at the conference. It will probably be worth a blog, in three weeks.

Cut Off One Toe, or What I Learned at Writers’ Camp

I had lunch recently with Tom Young, a good novelist who lives in Alexandria and was gracious enough to meet with a fan.  Since I finished my novel I’ve learned that getting published no longer involves sending a full manuscript to publishing houses and waiting for their review and approval. It now requires sending “queries” to literary agents who act as the gatekeepers to the publishers, reviewing and vetting manuscripts and sending them on as they feel appropriate (read: profitable.) Young suggested a different path.

His advice on how to get an agent was to attend writers’ conferences and meet agents personally, rather than continue my so-far failed process of sending cold queries via email and hoping they rise to the top of the “slush pile,” the stack of hundreds of such queries agents receive every week.

Writers’ conferences? What manner of strange cult or coven could these be? Writing is a solitary sport, a narcissistic drive to pour your soul onto pages and force them on the purchasing public.  We writers hide in attics and lonely rooms while sticking pencils in our ears and stirring out words to be hammered into sentences and chapters and books. We do not have conferences.

Turns out we do.  So I attended a conference in Cleveland (Go Cavs!) on the topic of How to Get Published, part of which offered the opportunity to sit down with real, live agents and pitch my work.  A pitch is sometimes described as the “elevator talk.” It’s what you would say to an agent if they were trapped with you on a short elevator ride. (And, apparently, “Please, please, please help me sell my book, it’s the best you’ll ever read and we’ll make millions” is not proper form.) Prearranged, ten-minute agent talks.  Like speed dating.

The two I met with were most kind to this first-time pitcher, and their questions walked me through my awkward and shy stumbles trying to describe my 101,000-word masterpiece, er, manuscript in just a few sentences. I tried to tell the plot, themes and characters of a 400-page book in a paragraph or two. They nodded and smiled, their eyes didn’t glaze over and they asked me to send samples so I must not have failed.  But I learned, to my horror, that the rigid rules of the publishing houses decree that mysteries and thrillers are unsellable at lengths above 90,000 words. “They won’t even look at it, it won’t get on the shelves.”

“Go cut ten percent of your book.”

Sure, that’s easy. I’ll take my precious words, my blood poured out on the page and wipe it away.  I’ll delete the efforts of my intellect, my life’s work…to date.  I could easier cut off one of my ten toes.

Editing and cutting and the word count limits imposed by publishers were part of a lecture by Chuck Sambuchino, the god of agent issues who edits the annual Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.  (Read him at  guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog)  Main topics were: How to Get Published (my main target); Your Book Publishing Options Today (to include traditional paper and e-books); Everything You Need to Know About Agents (more on the inescapable need to query); and How To Market Your Books by, for example, hawking them in Facebook and blogs. (Do you feel hawked? You will.)  Or by linking your blog to others already well-established [see what I did with Sambuchino, above]).

More than 200 people just like me were at the conference – excited, wide-eyed and staring forward to absorb the expert advice that we pray will pull our works out of the pool of unpublished prose and slap it on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Some of us may get there, after we “murder our darlings.”  This is advice written by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916, a Britisher known, at least to me, less for his famous Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 than for being the namesake of novelist Adam Hall’s spy character Quiller. (If you’ve never read The Quiller Memorandum, you’ve never read.)   What he said was this:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Emphasis his.)

I had five hours to consider this heinous process driving home from Cleveland, envisioning what scenes or characters would expire under my editors’s knife. Whom would I kill? What would go unsaid? What detail, description or drama would go away.

Turns out, maybe none. During my slash-and-burn editing sessions this week I am finding dozens of words, phrases and passages that are not necessary and even in the way. Sure, they looked cute when they fell on the page but with a mandate to kill, I can see they are chaff that covers the real wheat of the book. My goodness, I can writer flowery. I can use ten-dollar words where dimes would do. I can repeat a point like nails holding on a bootheel. And I can cut this dross without losing a line I need. Not themes, nor characters, nor plot. So far, six chapters edited, and 2,000 words cut. This is easier than I thought.

And somewhat embarrassing.

A Modest Proposal, or The End of Policing As We Know It

A scene from our future…

Ring, ring… “Police Department, may I help you?”

“There are suspicious men on my sidewalk, maybe selling drugs, maybe gonna rob somebody.”

“Well, thank you for calling and good luck with that.”

“Aren’t you going to send somebody?”

“Sorry, ma’am.  We don’t do that anymore.  Call us back if they actually commit a crime. Have a nice day.”

Trial begins today in a case that may have serious effects on modern policing in the United States. It may prevent cops from doing their job, the job the public expects. The above scenario is fiction, but not unlikely.

Baltimore Police Officer Edward Nero is charged with illegally arresting Freddie Gray in April, 2015.  Gray subsequently was found to have a spinal injury that eventually proved fatal. No one knows – or is telling – how this happened, but the Baltimore States Attorney has charged six police officers in Gray’s death.

Nero, 30, at the time a three-year officer, is charged with assault and other things, not for breaking Gray’s spine himself but for making the arrest; essentially, for improperly touching Gray without legal justification. You can’t arrest someone without touching him, and Nero did, and theoretically he wasn’t supposed to.  After Gray was touched, and arrested, something terrible happened, and it’s allegedly Nero’s fault.

That’s it.

Baltimore States Attorney Marilyn Mosby argues the following:  that Nero and others should not have chased Gray when he bolted as officers came near him in a drug zone; that they did not have a reason to grab him to investigate why; that they did not have probable cause to place charges against him when they found a spring knife in his pocket.; and that the knife was legal, so the arrest was not.

That the U.S. Supreme Court disagrees, as does the Baltimore criminal code, doesn’t seem to matter in this politically correct prosecution.  Race riots followed Gray’s death, and the public, in between burning police cars, blocking highways and looting liquor stores, demanded justice. So Mosby gave them a version of justice that twists existing laws and may kneecap the effectiveness of police for years to come – or forever.

Mosby states, correctly, that Maryland law does not criminalize possession of a spring-assist folding knife of the type Gray carried.  Mosby, an elected official making a popular charge, ignores the fact that the Baltimore criminal code 59-22 states the following:  No person may sell, carry, or possess any knife with an automatic spring.  Reminder: Baltimore cops, bringing Baltimore charges. In Baltimore.

Mosby also disregards the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that police may chase and detain subjects who run from them unprovoked in high crime or high drug areas.  In  2000, in reviewing a similar unprovoked runner arrest, the Supremes wrote, in part: the stop occurred in a “high crime area”…Headlong flight–wherever it occurs–is the consummate act of evasion: it is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such…We conclude (the officer) was justified in suspecting that (the suspect) was involved in criminal activity, and, therefore, in investigating further. (For the full case finding, see Illinois v. Wardlow528 U.S. 119.)  Investigating Gray meant stopping him, by whatever reasonable means were necessary, which included tackling a runner in a concrete, urban environment. And this has not yet been ruled out as the moment of Gray’s injury, though prosecutors allege it occurred while Gray rode unsecured in a prisoner transport van.

So Officer Nero was okay, per the Supreme Court, to stop Gray.  And okay, per the criminal code, to charge him. So the judge will certainly find in his favor, find him not guilty, right?  The courts always do the right thing. Right?  What if they don’t?

Cops need probable cause to make an arrest. My law professor at the police academy (all right, 30 years ago but it still obtains, thanks Mr. Powell) defined probable cause as, “specific and articulable grounds to believe a specific crime has been committed and a specific person committed it.”  Take our caller, above. Cops arrive and see a guy drop silver packets that are consistent with street packaging for PCP, pick up and confirm the drugs, and arrest him. Specifically him, doing the specific thing of holding and dropping specific illegal drugs.  Good to go.

Short of seeing a crime occur, cops need reasonable suspicion to stop persons while conducting an investigation.  So, the caller calls and cops roll up on two men standing where she said they would be – in front of her house.  And it’s in a drug zone. And, just for fun, let’s make it 3 a.m. in a snow storm.  It is reasonable to suspect they are up to no good. So courts have allowed officers to make reasonable investigatory stops in circumstances like these. And that can include a pat down, touch search of pockets and beltlines for weapons if felony crimes are suspected, like drug possession or robbery.  (See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1.)

But in this politically critical case things may not go down logically, reasonably or in any way understandably. Remember, we’ve criminally charged an on-duty cop with making a lawful arrest.  So maybe down the road, police find themselves governed by Baltimore v. Nero, a potential 2019 Supreme Court case that says, well, who knows what right now. But maybe it will say that cops need warrants before making arrests.

So obtain a warrant prior to grabbing someone, officer. At first glance that doesn’t sound so outrageous.  Making cops run their cases by a judge or magistrate before arrest is good, right? Tell that to the woman bleeding in the street as she, and her responding officers, watch a suspect run away because they can’t touch him.  Tell our lady caller above that police will respond when someone, presumably her, gets an arrest warrant for them.  Tell our patrol officers that the guy they see with a suspicious, gun-shaped bulge in his pants is untouchable.

Well, couldn’t the police just walk up and talk with the suspects, get information, put a case together that way?  Maybe, but maybe not in towns like, for example, Alexandria, Virginia.  In 1988 two cops, let’s call them Bergin and Chiotta, walked up to a man in an alley, let’s call him Richard T.  Richard was hunched over picking up and examining small, light-colored objects that could have been pebbles but were in fact, crack cocaine discarded in the street by dealers during police drug operations the night before (operations performed by the afore-mentioned Bergin and Chiotta, among others.)  We suspected Richard T. was a “chicken” – what we called the habitual crack-pickers after police jumps – but even in our close approach couldn’t tell crack from street junk. So I said, “Hi there.”

Richard T., who hadn’t noticed two uniformed police officers walking up to him despite daylight and an otherwise empty neighborhood, popped his eyes, stood up and said, “Hi.”

“How you doing?”

“Okay.”

“What’cha doing?”

“Nothing.”

“What’cha got in your hand, Richard?”

And he opened his hand, admitted the objects were crack cocaine and we took him to jail.  Subsequently, his attorney persuaded a judge that Richard was too stupid – his words – to know Richard didn’t have to reveal his crime to police.

The judge took it further. In finding Richard not guilty of possessing the cocaine we found in his hand, the judge, let’s call him Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Donald M.  Haddock Sr., quipped that “the mere presence of uniformed police is coercive,” and thus would compel persons to admit all kinds of things against their own best interests.

So… a future in which police may not stop, question or even approach suspects on the street, or risk arrest themselves. Try proposing that set of rules to your community’s new police force. The new one that replaces the existing department, all of whose members resigned to get better-paying, easier, safer and, now, legally-possible jobs that don’t present them with daily opportunities not just to get shot or stabbed, but arrested and convicted.

Arrested while following the law as set by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Like Edward Nero.

Have a nice day.

-30-

Some Thoughts on Gun Violence

(Note:  this blog was written by a friend who prefers to remain nameless, as he works in a sensitive job in a sensitive state. I may not agree with all of his points, but they are carefully considered and well written.  MB)

I’m a former law enforcement officer – both a National Park Ranger and a city cop.  That means that for a while I carried a firearm as part of my working toolkit (along with a radio, handcuffs, side-handle baton, expandable baton, and another firearm – a shotgun).

I hear many who would restrict gun ownership claim that firearms are seldom used to defend oneself, and more often lead to the death of innocent people.  There is truth to the fact that innocent people die from firearms, far too many of them.  But those who cite the recent study by the Violence Policy Center that in over 8,000 gun deaths, less than 260 were used in justifiable self-defense (approximately 3% of all gun-related deaths in 2012) are missing an important fact; the number of times a firearm was used to prevent a violent crime, but not fired!  This is a huge distinction.

In my several years as a law enforcement officer I drew my handgun or pointed my shotgun numerous times.  There was a stretch when it seemed I drew my pistol every day.  It was a very violent time to be a cop (the height of the violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s).  Despite this, I never, ever shot anybody.  What I did do, though, was stop them from committing a violent act, or stopped them from hurting me.

This is important.  Think about this for a moment. I used a firearm, legally numerous times, but never a shot was fired.  Nobody was ever hurt by my use of a firearm.

This is the same situation facing America now.  Since the increased allowance of concealed carry, there has been a movement away from violent crime, and one toward non-violent crimes (a hypothesis first postulated by Professor John Lott in his groundbreaking work, “More Guns, Less Crime”).  Murders are down from over 24,700 in 1991 (when I was a cop) to less than 15,000 today, even while the population rose more than 60 million, and the number of gun owners has risen to an estimated 270 million firearms held in approximately 47 percent of households.  As most gun owners are now reluctant to admit they own firearms, the true number is unknown, but probably higher.

Actually, violent crime overall is down, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the talking heads or “if it bleeds it leads” reporters.  In the year I was born, there were 8,530 homicides and about 185 million people.  That’s about 5.1 homicides per 100,000 people.  At the height of the violent crime era in 1991, when there were over 252 million people, there were 24,700 homicides, a rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people.  In 2013 there were over 14,000 homicides and over 316 million people, a rate of 4.5 per 100,000.  Once again, more guns, more people, but the homicide rate has dropped.  You can see these same statistics on all violent crime – Rape went from 42.3 per 100,000 in 1991 down to 25.2 by 2013.  The same pattern exists for robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and larceny.

So, while we’re seeing a decline in crime, we’re also being deceived by the press, and by politicians and activists who wish to take advantage of every time some whackjob decides to commit a crime with a firearm.

But, despite the decline in violent crime, it still exists and people want things done to stop it, or lessen the carnage.  What to do?

First off, let’s look at the root causes of this violence.  It’s not just guns causing the deaths, it’s the person holding the gun.  Why?  Why are they doing it?  What is prompting Americans to kill their fellow citizens when we should be working together?   Here are a few of my thoughts.

First and foremost, we need to change the culture of violence in which we live.  Hollywood, the News Media, the general public and the Federal Government need to stop feeding the cycle.

Hollywood glorifies violence – the more noisy and gruesome it is, the better it is for their pocket book.  Look at the latest Jurassic Park and Terminator movies – lots of violence.   Numerous studies have shown that the more violent movies and TV shows that a child watches, the more violent they behave.  It’s a positive correlation.  While nobody will argue with Hollywood’s First Amendment Right to produce their products, perhaps it’s time to consider holding them accountable.

The news media is worse – they pick up on a mass murderer and hold 24/7 coverage on the whackjob.  I know, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  News media outlets are always trying to gain ratings, and they do so by putting out as much sensational material as possible.  Often when they do so, copycat killers emerge.

So, the question remains, how to get the news media to act like responsible adults?  My first recommendation is to stop focusing on the murderer and focus on the victims.  Don’t even mention the murderer’s name – call him “a nut job”, “a whackjob”, or something similarly denigrating, but don’t mention his name, his past, his manifesto, or anything about him.  Leave the audience with nothing more than the fact that some whackjob did something horrible to all these innocent victims.  Make it so that future murderers recognize that they will not get the notoriety that they crave.

Also, the media should start treating the Second Amendment like all other amendments to the Bill of Rights (ahem, First Amendment anyone?).  Rather than being against the one amendment that protects the amendment in which they make their living, they should become educated in it and firearms (see my third point below).

If the news media won’t act like mature adults, then maybe it’s time the public did.  Any time the news media broadcast information on the killer, turn off the TV or radio.  Contact the station and tell them exactly what you think about glorifying a whackjob, and tell them to grow up and do some constructive reporting.  Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper explaining how you will no longer watch a specific TV station because of how they glorify murderers.

Now, about the federal government.  I’m sure you’re surprised that I threw this in here.  Well, guess who does the most killing in the name of “national security”?  Yep, the federal government.  Doesn’t matter which of the two major parties is in control, they both wage war willy-nilly.  Did we really have to invade Iraq?  Twice?  Did we have to invade Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.?  Did we really have to bomb Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc.?  How can we expect the public to put aside their violent actions when our federal government is constantly using force against foreign peoples in our name?  Here’s a tip to future administrations – look at the Swiss model of international relations as it relates to war.  Oh, yeah, the Swiss have one of the highest rates of firearms ownership in the world, with a murder rate lower than ours (which, by the way, is 111th according to Wikipedia).

Second, end the War on Drugs. As with Prohibition in the 1920s and ‘30s, it has led to violence and turf wars.  Most of these turf wars take place in minority communities, and guess what, it’s mostly minorities killing minorities. Half of all murder victims are black, and more than half of all murderers are black, despite constituting less than 15 percent of the population. By eliminating the War on Drugs, we take away the incentive for people to fight, kill, and die for what is really nothing more than economic purposes – making money.  Perhaps, just perhaps, people will turn to other venues of making money.

Toward this end I recommend providing amnesty to anyone convicted of a drug related crime, regardless of whether it was possession, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute (the amnesty would not apply to other crimes, though).  Wipe those convictions of their record and allow them to start life anew.  Provide them with the possibility of a real life, not the one they’ve wound up in.  Right now, if you’re convicted of a drug crime, you can forget about any possibility of getting financial aid for college.  What future does somebody like this have in this country without an education?

Another fact to consider in the War on Drugs is that it detracts from policing against other crimes, crimes that involve actual victims (unlike the victimless crime of using or selling illicit drugs).  Legalizing the drug trade will free up vast quantities of resources that are otherwise dedicated to fighting an endless, unwinnable war and direct them elsewhere in manners more suitable to protecting the public and the helping our country.  As Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”  Our War on Drugs is doing exactly that.

Third on my list (and it should probably be first) is education- if it’s good enough for sex ed and birth control, shouldn’t it be good enough for firearms safety?  When I was 11 I went through a NRA firearms safety course and my first sex ed class.  In the 9th grade, we were required to sit through a hunter safety course in our public high school, and, yet again, a sex ed class.  The lessons learned – mishandling firearms can lead to death or injury while mishandling other things could lead to an unwanted pregnancy.  My two children were also required to watch the Eddie Eagle video put out by the NRA on firearms safety (they also have had extensive sex ed classes).  My eldest passed the State hunter safety course at the age of 8! My youngest had no interest in hunting, but still handles a firearm safely (and shoots better than her karate black belt uncle).

It’s about time we brought firearms safety back into the schools, ramping it up each year (or every 2 or 3 years) to the point where it’s commonplace for students to say “watch where you’re pointing that thing” or “Is there a round in chamber?  Let me check.”  Rifle teams should be a part of school extracurricular activities.  Familiarity with firearms doesn’t breed contempt, rather it generally breeds respect.  Firearms are tools. They should be treated as such, not as toys or scary killing machines.

Fourth, let’s recognize that the Second Amendment is in the Bill of Rights for a reason.  Take some time to learn a bit about the history of the Second Amendment and read up on the recent Supreme Court decisions about the Second Amendment.  Face the fact that it recognizes the natural right that an individual may own firearms, and that those firearms may be used.  It is not a “National Guard” clause, so stop acting like it is. So, what is a natural right?  Well, it’s something that you are born with, that does not detract from another, and one that can only be taken away by the use of force against you.  The natural right inherent in firearms ownership is that of personal defense, and by extension, defense of the family, community, and state.  Notice how this natural right doesn’t take away from anybody, but actually enhances?

Now, here comes the crux of the matter.  According to the Supreme Court, the Second Amendment, much like the first, has some restrictions (despite the wording “shall not be infringed”).  This means that there is some wiggle room for regulations.  Most anti-gun people advocate background checks for all firearm transfers and waiting periods to purchase firearms.  There is no evidence to support their assertion that these measures do anything to prevent firearms violence, despite numerous studies, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that waiting periods can lead to the deaths of innocent people.

Are background checks necessary? It’s debatable.  Do they work? Not really.  Criminals don’t go through background checks – they buy stolen guns. Doh!  So, the only thing a background check does is informs the government that one is exercising a recognized natural right.  Those that get caught violating the law are generally those unaware that they are barred from exercising their natural right.  So, stop all the gabbling about something that doesn’t work and let’s focus on things that do work to reduce violence or accidental deaths.  See my above points regarding this.

While I disagree with the Supreme Court (in my mind, a natural right is not something that can or should be regulated), in an effort to compromise in a manner that makes things safer, here are my thoughts.

Not only should education be about firearms, but it should be about recognizing and reporting those who might fit the profile of a mass murderer.  Clues and signs have abounded about all past mass murderers, so we’ve got a pretty good idea on what to look for (start with racial profiling – a young white male is the usual suspect).  We just need to make it public enough that people will know the red flags and respond accordingly.

While I’m opposed to any type of regulation regarding firearms, I’m willing to live with a modest amount.  If a state requires a permit to carry (in other words, if they wish to regulate your natural right), then the state should require adequate training to ensure the permitted person is aware of the rights and responsibilities, along with safe handling techniques and safe and proper use techniques, along with an annual refresher course.  The state should also pay for this.  The person requesting the permit should not.  Why?  Because every trained individual reduces crime (see my earlier reference to John Lott), and that, in turn, reduces the expense of the state (law enforcement, courts, and incarceration).

Stop limiting what type of firearms people can own, or how many rounds a magazine can hold! This has done little to prevent mass shootings. Repeal all current federal and state firearms laws and replace them with simpler laws that allow people to own what they want, but also require them to be responsible for their ownership.  This means that if you own a firearm, you should have (and use) some method to prevent others from having access to it without your permission.

We should eliminate gun free zones.  All they do is provide the opportunity for whackjobs to open fire on unarmed people who actually follow the law.  And when I say eliminate gun free zones, I also mean on every federal and state real property.  There is no reason why the federal government should restrict a law abiding citizen from exercising their constitutional rights.  Businesses should encourage concealed carry persons, rather than prohibit them – they’re a cheap form of insurance.

Consider the impact of certain prescription drugs on individuals and seek to restrict their access to firearms while on those drugs.  It appear many lone gunmen who enter soft target zones (er, I mean gun free zones) are also taking some type of medication.  Restricting can be as simple as ensuring that the family members living with the person on prescription drugs secure their firearms (see my third point above) or the individual voluntarily (or forcibly, if deemed such) surrender them while on the prescription and for a pre-determined time after the prescription period is over.  I recognize that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act pretty much makes everything private, but, like any law, it can be changed.  In this specific instance, to allow physicians, psychiatrists, or pharmacists to notify local law enforcement who can then do a safety check (but in a manner that doesn’t violate the patient’s constitutional rights).

People talk about common sense gun laws; a common saying, though is “common sense is not all that common.”  That applies to many of the proposed “common sense laws.”  I put forth Will Roger’s infamous line – “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

“Be Proud You’re a Nazi”

I’ve never understood “The South.”

Born in Philadelphia, raised there and in Massachusetts (except for a tiny stint as a tiny infant in Florida where, legend has it, I was kissed by a campaigning Richard Nixon)  I found myself landing in Virginia and marrying a girl from a little further south – a land where I first learned the term “The War of Northern Aggression” and was treated as the Yankee come down to date  our Ruthie.  Love conquers all.

But I never got the dedication of some of my southern stock to the Confederacy.  And never believed the dodge that loyalty to Southern history involved dedication to states’ rights and resistance to federal power.   “Heritage, not Hate” I heard then, and it is the current term of defense of the flying of the Confederate battle flag, inaccurately referred to now as the Stars and Bars but usually called by its first users – the Army of Virginia – the Southern Cross.

Fortunately my immediate family is above bigotry, but out just beyond the edges…  Folks would work up to it, slip in a camouflaged reference to “them people” and “you know who” before graduating to the apparently careless but charged use of “nigger” and a sidelong but careful look to see how I took it.  And I took it, to my shame. Didn’t speak out, didn’t make an issue of its use down there.  I did when I was working as a police officer, chastising folks who used it when I was on calls for service, the overwhelming majority of its users black themselves. From self-hatred, cultural habit, social challenge?  I didn’t know but behind the badge I had the power to make things work my way, at least for tiny moments.

But the users drew a distinction, defending, arguing and maybe truly believing themselves that” not all blacks were niggers,” that the word connoted some lawless and worthless subgroup and so was okay to use because it specified specific people, not a race as a whole.   Not that racism was new to me, or limited to my newly-adopted capital-S Southern locale. I grew up taught that Philadelphia was the only major east coast city spared a major race riot in the 1960s because “any time more than three niggers got together on a corner, cops with sticks waded in and busted ‘em up.”  For that reason, I never considered being a cop myself until I came to Alexandria and got to know officers personally, to see they weren’t infected that way.  Racism may have been present, but it wasn’t a requirement.  And, oddly, our uniforms were both blue and gray.

The first officer I rode along with taught me a lot, and continued to do so throughout his and my career.  Rickie knew his stuff, and wouldn’t hesitate to tell you all he knew, not self- aggrandizement but to keep awake on a slow midnight shift.  But Rickie had a Confederate flag license plate on his pickup, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I thought it was funny, both funny-haha and funny-odd. I mean, they lost, right?  Why align yourself with losers?

Country singer Charlie Daniels sang a song that went:

“Be proud you’re a rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again!”

What, lose?  That’s when I found out, these people are serious. They really believe “The South” is a thing to be loyal to. They construct elaborate historical rewrites to get around southern state’s secessionist declarations at the time that firmly laid out support of slavery as a reason to fight.  (Re-Reconstruction?  That’s a history joke. No?)  We play along too, in little ways.  We laugh at Bo and Luke Duke of Hazzard with the Southern Cross atop their orange Dodge Charger, itself called The General Lee. (Hmmm, maybe watching Daisy Duke is why I now drive a Jeep Wrangler, though Dasiy looks better in short shorts.)

But the Confederate flag was something I could ignore, slough off.  It didn’t matter, other than a warning of approaching stupid people or entry into weird-town.   Until a hate-filled kid killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina last week, his web identity proud under the same Southern Cross that I then learned flies above the capital grounds in South Carolina, just recently removed from atop the statehouse there.  That made me sick.

I used to jokingly mangle Charlie Daniels’s words to illustrate my point about losers.

Be proud you’re a Nazi, ‘cause the Krauts’re gonna do it again.”

                Not funny, but what’s the difference?  The Southern Cross signifies the legacy of hatred and dehumanization that allowed people to enslave, torture, sell other humans.  It is argued that that they weren’t evil for their time, that society’s morals and mores allowed or supported it,  that slaves were held by Northerners (thankfully not my family, traceable back only to our 1846 arrival in Philadelphia).  No, the Confederate flag symbolizes hatred and death as much as the Nazi swastika does.

How about we of German descent decide to boast of our heritage, leaving out the hate?  I mean, Adolph Hitler did imbue his people with renewed pride after the Treaty of Versailles ended the Great War and crushed German military and economic power.  He did manage to expand his country’s boundaries, and we didn’t care much about Poland and the Sudetenland back in 1939.

Yeah, let me go to the DMV and see if that swastika license plate is available yet.  Maybe that can replace the Confederate tags that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is recalling.   How would that look? Hard to applaud restrictions on free speech but Germany currently outlaws display of the swastika flag, so hate groups there wave the Confederate banner instead.

I could wrap my arms around my Jewish friends and say, “No, don’t feel threatened or oppressed, you misunderstand, I am only showing my loyalty to a dead image of personal power and identity. It’s no threat to you I’m a loser!”  Well, I can’t do that, because there aren’t public swastikas to wave or attach to our cars.  But there are other hate symbols, and I don’t want to have to hug away the hate they convey.

Kudos to McAuliffe, and South Carolina Governor Niki Haley for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds.   And darn her for doing it before I could get this blog written and so look good for calling for it first.    I’ve lost two friends so far (well, “un-friended” on Facebook, is that the same?) over their recent sharings of images of the Southern Cross.  I’ll probably unfriend more as this cultural crisis goes on, or be deleted myself because of the views shared here.  So be it.

Heritage not Hate is horseshit.

“Racist”

I’m a racist. I’m a bigot. I’m prejudiced, against black people probably. Or, at least, I must be.  Everybody tells me so.

I’m the little street crimes cop in Staten Island, grabbing the big man around the neck, not in a proscribed choke hold but in an attempt to control and arrest a combative man-mountain refusing me and my partners’ lawful commands. Because he was black.

I’m the injured, startled (I’ll never admit scared) patrolman in Ferguson, attacked and attacked again by an aggressive, drug-addled criminal and forced to take his life for mine. Because he was black

I’m the responding officer at an Ohio Walmart where a man with a rifle (alright, turned out to be a rifle-looking pellet gun) threatens shoppers and refuses my commands to drop it, so I drop him. Because he was black.

I’m one of six officers indicted in the death of a black Baltimore criminal who ran from police, got caught and died under suspicious circumstances in the back of a van.  Or, I’m one of the three white cops, the others are black so this case doesn’t easily fit in the narrative box.

Today, I’m a reviled policeman in Texas who manhandled a little girl at a pool party and pointed my pistol at her fellow partygoers.  Because they were black.

Actually, I’m a former police officer, sitting safe in retirement and fuming at all these cases, and others, where cops across the country are accused, no, convicted in the public or press eye of racism for their videotaped actions against individuals.  “Racist” white cops, as headlines imply and protest signs preach, with black “victims” as the national media easily calls them.

All of these cops, all of them “wrong.”

And I’d have done the same as they.

Eric Garner was told he was under arrest by Staten Island cops who’d arrested him before for the same thing – illegal cigarette sales – an admittedly minor offense but one that brought complaints from the neighborhood. He chose to fight.  Somehow what protesters classify as a chokehold didn’t prevent him from speaking. But if you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.

Michael Brown punched a cop who stopped him for jaywalking. How minor a moment, pushed over a cliff by the immature, unreasonable and unfortunately unstoppable actions of an angry and high teenager.  He grabbed a cop’s gun, defied lawful orders, and ran again to attack.  And was killed by a solo officer in fear of his life, who knew the only reason for a criminal to take your gun is to kill you.

John Crawford III picked up a rifle in a corner of an Ohio Walmart and walked around the store with it, pointing it randomly at shelves and items.  At people?  Hard to say, but reports of a man with a gun brought Beavercreek cops to the scene.  And to a quick confrontation with Crawford, who was shot when he refused to drop it.

Freddie Gray, awaiting trial on various charges, ran from Baltimore cops who approached him in a neighborhood marked for extra attention by the city prosecutor.  A civilian witness told investigators he heard Gray banging his head in the prisoner transport van.  When he was taken out, his neck may have been broken, according to press reports. We’ll know for sure when that same prosecutor releases the full autopsy report.

And this week, a police corporal in Texas found himself the first on the scene of a wild confrontation between a neighborhood and outsiders who defied private security, jumped fences to get into a private pool and got in at least one fight with at least one resident. Corporal David Eric Casebolt is seen on the ubiquitous video forcing kids to sit on the ground, a common police control tactic, then slamming a girl down when she defied him.  He also pulls a gun when confronted by others, said to be teens. Let’s read the Washington Post description in today’s paper, by Kathleen Parker:

“Video imagery doesn’t get much worse than a white police officer throwing an African     American girl in a bikini to the ground, kneeling on her back as she cries and drawing his gun on other teenagers. 

            “What in God’s name is wrong with our cops?”

What’s wrong with me?   I’d have done much what Cpl. Casebolt did, maybe leaving out the profanity he uses in his verbal commands to the unruly group. (And profanity is sometimes the only way to get someone’s attention on the street, though the bosses don’t like it.)

Here’s what Casebolt did:  He responded to a police call that a group of kids  had trespassed in a private pool and fought with residents.  He tried to contain a group of potential, maybe even specifically identified suspects (the police haven’t said or the press hasn’t asked) by making them sit so they don’t wander or run away.  A girl who thrust herself into this activity was also detained.  Casebolt put her on the ground, overcoming her admittedly low-effect resistance but also overcoming the challenge of controlling a girl in a bathing suit. Jokes aside, what or where do you grab?  He didn’t beat or TASE or pepper-spray, he only tried to make her stay still.

Then he pulls his gun on unarmed teenagers, as the press reports tell.  A viewing of the tape tells differently:  He is confronted by a large male who takes an aggressive stance, squaring off on Casebolt and reaching into his waistband as if to pull a weapon.  Of course Casebolt draws his gun, and when the aggressor runs away empty handed, Casebolt deconflicts, holsters his gun and gets back to doingwhat he was sent there to do.

So Casebolt is a racist?

No.  He did his job.

As did I.  In my 28 years on the job I: threw a girl on the ground to control and arrest her; had two prisoners injure themselves in custody and blame me for beating them; aimed my gun at males carrying what turned out to be BB rifles (and who turned out to be smart enough to drop them); beat with my baton and hospitalized a suspect grabbing for my partner’s gun (and didn’t shoot him only because I couldn’t draw mine); grabbed combative suspects by the neck, throat, face, testicles, whatever worked in the deadly scrum of a street fight. All of these were black, except, oddly, the two self-injuries – both Hispanic during a time we later learned that community agitators were telling immigrants that the police will pay you if they beat you up. But they were brown, so maybe they fit the “racist” narrative too.

I arrested black people, often forcefully, sometimes from their point of view brutally.  So I must be prejudiced, a racist, a bigot. But in all my cases of use of force, I was investigated and cleared of wrongdoing. Yes, cleared by my own department, but who else is there?

And what else would the press, the public and the pols have any of us do instead?  Picture Cpl. Casebolt, first on the scene, telling a beating victim, “Nah, not gonna go get those kids, might have to embarrass them and put them onto the ground, wrestle with them, what if they don’t do what I ask? Sorry lady, but please don’t bleed on my car.”  Picture Casebolt and the aggressor:  “Um, hey kid, by chance are you thinking of producing a firearm from you waistband there?  ‘Cause I am kinda concerned about that, being a cop and all, you might be fixing to hurt me so I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna pull this service weapon here and, oh, you’re running?

“Have a nice day.”

Officers had to confront Eric Garner, and arrest him when they determined he was breaking the law, whether he liked it or not.  Michael Brown broke the law, and assaulted a cop, and never raised his hands to surrender, according to the US Department of Justice.  John Crawford?  Who knows what was on his mind as he wandered through a store using a rifle to push merchandise around on shelves.  Freddie Gray?  The jury isn’t even impanelled on that case.  But the cops had their job to do.  Stop illegal cigarette sales. Repel an  attack. Keep shoppers and the public safe.  Arrest and transport a weapons suspect (despite the Baltimore prosecutor’s politically-tainted accusations of false arrest against the six, the knife in the Freddie Gray case was illegal under Baltimore code, if not Maryland state law.)

Yes, there are other, clearer cases of police misconduct out there. Individual cops who step or are pushed over the line to falsely arrest, or injure, or kill. They embarrass and shame all the rest, the overwhelming majority of fine, lawful and professional officers who hold themselves and their partners to the highest standards, sometimes beyond what the public can imagine.  The dedication to law, to the protection of all, and the self-control needed to resist emotional overreaction are so impressive among police, but so unrecognized by the public who seize on moments, tiny but awful moments, to broad-brush all cops as thugs.   As Ms. Parker wrote in her Washington Post piece today, “…a police officer shouldn’t be just ‘anybody.’ Armed with a gun and the authority to use it, he should always be the exception to ordinary human behavior.”

Wow. So I was a racist, and Superman.

A friend, the son of friends, recently joined my old department in part on recommendations I made to him when I was still a lieutenant and before this cops-are-racist “Hands-Up, Don’t Shoot” nonsense began. Today, I might reconsider my advice to him.  Cops are under fire from all sides, by folks who don’t understand what they have to do.  Think sausages and laws are hard to watch being made?  Try arrests.

Bad guys, and not-bad-but-mouthy-and-defiant guys, don’t go quietly into the back of a patrol car. They curse, run, fight, spit. Shoot.  The greatest thing in the world of law enforcement will be the universal adoption of body cameras for officers. Then the public will see clearly the belligerence, resistance and violence that cops see every day.  But the costs will be staggering and borne by a taxed public.  Equipment purchase and upkeep, officer training and regulation, data storage, review and redaction, release. Who gets to see what, and how much.  A camera that could capture a beating also records a mother reporting her son’s sexual predation, a battered wife’s plea for protection, a naked stoned coed in someone else’s back yard.  Who edits these certainly private moments out of the public eye, and who pays for it?

As of this writing, Cpl.  Casebolt has resigned from the  McKinney, Texas Police Department. He was put on administrative leave right after the pool fight, and his chief, Greg Conley, was quoted the next day in the New York Times as saying, “Our policies, our training, our practice doesn’t support his actions… He came into the call out of control, and as the video shows was out of control during the incident.”

That’s not what I saw. But then again, I’m a racist.