“Unarmed” and Alarmed

Another day, another dollar, another “unarmed” black male killed by police.  This week, Los Angeles officers scuffled with and shot a man during a robbery investigation.   Caught on camera, the event instantly flared into a national news media event with television talkers quoting sources calling for investigations of, yet again, police terror.

It matters.  But the truth does not.

“Unarmed” is in quotes here because the man wasn’t, despite the hints of outrage that slip past the news anchors’ lips.   Charly K. Keunang, 43 (AKA Charley S. Robinet , the false name under which he served 13 years for armed robbery)  was shot dead in front of a crowd of onlookers, one with a cellphone camera. He was shot because he had a gun in his hand.  That the gun was also held or holstered by one of the LAPD cops doesn’t alter the deadly threat the combative man posed to the cops – and the nearby public.  Like the other allegedly newsworthy deaths from police shooting that are clumped together by the pundits and rabble-rousers, this one was started and finished by the man who died trying to take a cop’s gun.  Keunang’s actions forced their hand.   His move dictated his ending.  His choice.

Hands up? Won’t shoot.

In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown chose to attack an officer and grab his gun, and was shot to death in self-defense.  In Cleveland, Ohio, Tamir Rice chose (as much as any preteen makes choices) to point a pistol at passersby, and was shot by police.  In Beavercreek, Ohio, John Crawford III chose to walk through a Walmart waving an assault rifle-lookalike, and was killed by responding officers.  People make unimaginably stupid choices – because they’re high, or young, or foolish or for no reason at all – and cops react according to their training, their experience.  And their mission.  The police actions were proper in all three cases.  In the brutal parlance of street police these were “good shoots,” reviewed by grand juries and, in the case of Ferguson, vetted and approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, which this week announced it had found significant systemic failures and race-based improprieties in the town of Ferguson and its police department.  (More on this in a future blog.)  And the DOJ report discredits any idea that Brown raised his hands to surrender. Didn’t happen.

Despite all the hand-raising by sincere street protestors, pro ball players and pandering Oscar performers, whether to taunt and insinuate that police are out-of-control aggressors or to honestly plead for an end to violence, the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement is a lie. The belief that police want to shoot, especially when the target is black, is offensive and so far beyond insulting that many cops I know can’t believe the news media continues to cover so-called Ferguson protests without a hint of fairness or examination – self or otherwise. The media adopts as factual the protestors’ unsubstantiated assumption that police are bad, so the story accelerates in high-gear into, what do we do about this “fact.”

But the fact is, no police officer wants to shoot. Are they prepared to shoot? Yes.    Ready?  Definitely.    Scared to death of the need to do so?  Likely.  Willing to risk their own life to avoid the need to take life?   Sometimes.  I was.

As a patrol officer in Alexandria, Virginia sometime in the late 90s I was sent for a report of a disorderly person yelling on Mount Vernon Avenue in the Arlandria neighborhood.  Before my backup arrived, a man ran at me swinging a silver baseball bat.  Much shouting and gun-pointing ensued before Kevin (last name available to sworn personnel) dropped what turned out to be a hollow plastic wiffle-ball bat.  “I was just messin’ with you, Bergin,” Kevin told me with no further explanation.

In 1988 I arrested Tyrone (you don’t need his last name, he’s in prison) for something minor. Walking him back to the car for a search with my Tactical Unit partners, we asked the standard, “Do you have any drugs or weapons on you.”  When he pulled a black and silver handgun and slapped it on the car hood, I dropped to the ground so I could shoot him upwards, hoping my bullets that might pass through him wouldn’t hit the cops close behind.  As I sighted in he stepped back, and I didn’t have to shoot.  The gun turned out to be a toy that Tyrone carried, he said, “because I’ll be into a lot of (stuff) out here, and you got to have something for protection.” (He later upgraded to a knife, killed a guy and is serving a life sentence.)

One afternoon in 2004 I left my driveway to respond for a report of a man running in the middle of Interstate 395.  I stopped in the highway fast lane, prayed my blue lights would protect us from traffic, and got out to confront him. He ran at me moving his hand inside his jacket, yelling, “Kill me, I’ll kill you.  Kill me.”  I didn’t.

I should have.  Should have shot each and every one of them.  But I didn’t, hesitating in desperate prayer or cowardly fear, gambling my life in the hope that I might – just might – resolve the deadly moment without causing death.  I regret those failures. But I was lucky.  Took risks I would never have asked of any officer who worked for me, and got away with them.

Many cops can tell stories about the people he or she didn’t shoot, the morons whose actions were so threatening at first glance that deadly force was the obvious and justifiable choice.  Many of us are lucky that way.  Other officers, in recent cases made famous by cellphone video or angry community activists, are not so lucky.  And the press never questions the inflammatory and defamatory charge against police, piles on with innuendo, chooses buzzwords that insinuate misconduct and repeats the “big lie” assumption of a basic “truth” that is itself a lie.  National reporters and even local news anchors repeat the phrase “police killing of young black men” as if it were a thing, an established fact and not the politically-expedient creation of attention-seekers and axe-grinders.

Here is the question the press never asks.  When the public or the pundits or the professional publicity-hounds and race-baiters who show up at these events claim that police overreacted, why doesn’t the media  ask a simple question: “What else should police have done?” or, “ How else could they have handled it?”  Or, “What more could they do?”

Cops have a mission, a duty to their community and their oath.  Whether it starts with a call to 911, a shout from a victim or an observed offense, the cops have to solve the problem, whatever it is, as quickly as reasonably possible.  They are paid to uphold the law, to patrol for violations, to protect and serve.  While the activities of the Ferguson PD and the city as a whole are under a cloud for targeted enforcement against minorities, at the moment of contact between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, Wilson had a job to do. He couldn’t pass by a violator, even as minor a violator as the jaywalking teen.  Who attacked him.  Citizens reported Tamir Rice, 12, as a man with a gun. Could Cleveland PD ignore the call, tell the public, “Well, maybe it’s only a kid, not a real gun, your fears are groundless and we will ignore our duty to protect you”?   Should the cops summoned to Walmart have waited outside in the hope that Crawford might eventually wander out, or put down the gun he carried throughout the store? Can cops not act?

The night the I-395 thing happened, over poker and beer, I told a friend’s elderly father about it.  He cursed me out, saying I had failed because I did not protect the people around. I should have shot him, this man said, because the guy could have beaten me and taken my gun.  “Shoot him, it was the right thing to do.”


Brown robbed a convenience store and attacked a cop, grabbing his gun.  Rice had a pistol in a park.  Crawford had a rifle in a Walmart.  Keunang on Skid Row grabbed a cop’s gun.  Any of these were potential felonies, hazards to the people, crimes in progress.  Each could have ended safely but all of these fatal encounters were precipitated by the suspects.  What else could the cops on the scene do?  Let the thug beat him and take his gun?  Folks, bad guys don’t grab cops’ guns to sell them or for souvenirs. They use them to kill the cops.  Let the gunman in the park point a pistol at them, or at others nearby?  Allow the man with the rifle time to prepare himself for the arriving police, take cover, make a stand?  Walk away from the disruptive and combative robbery suspect and say, “Hey, talk you later when you calm down. Don’t rob anybody till we get back, okay?”

No. And hell no.  Grab a cop’s gun, wave a gun or what looks to everyone like a gun, and the cops will use lethal force against you, for their safety and that of the public. It’s what we pay them to do.  Again, what else would you have them do?

Hands up, don’t shoot is a myth.  Ask the Department of Justice.

And the guy on I-395?  Never noted his name.  I went back home off-duty, where I had been when this started, and on-duty officers took him for a mental evaluation. Doctors ruled he was not a danger to himself or others so he walked free.

Note:  As this is being sent out, another police-involved shooting is being reported from Wisconsin. No details beyond the race of the dead man: black.  Two other shootings by police occurred this week.  In Burbank, California, a robbery suspect described as Latino was killed after he rammed a police cruiser with his getaway car, and in Aurora, Colorado an undescribed male suspect was killed during a kidnapping investigation.  I saw no national media coverage of these.  What a shame that the only reason the Wisconsin case is “news” is the dead man’s race matches the story line.

Talk about profiling.

4 thoughts on ““Unarmed” and Alarmed

  1. Mark you’re so right. Late in my career I was keenly aware that even as a senior manager I might have to do “it” again and it bothered me a great deal. The media would dredge up my past incidents and probably make me out to be some sort of trigger happy cop when nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to the officer, the officer’s family gets vilified too. My name was in the paper and my neighbors looked at me funny. Our oldest daughter heard about it in school. It was one of the many things that helped me decide to retire.

    Police do need to be held accountable but the facts matter and the media is ducking its responsibility. Most of what happened in Ferguson was media driven, and the White House (WH) jumped in without bothering to consider that the officer might have been right in what he did. The “changes” that came out of the WH working group are nothing new. Just some warmed over stuff with new buzz words attached.


  2. Truer words have never been spoken: Folks, bad guys don’t grab cops’ guns to sell them or for souvenirs. They use them to kill the cops. People who think otherwise do so from the comfort of the armchairs in their toasty living rooms.


  3. I just finished reading the article and feel that you were right on target. I feel that the news has way too many outlets and not enough news to fill the slots available so they help the news with their own additions as well as several retired specialists that seem to know everything about everything. I worry a great deal about my son working under these conditions. Thanks for taking the time to write this article.


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