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Commentary: Are laptops a new dead man's hand?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2009 - It had been just over three weeks since our last noteworthy mass shooting, so I guess we were about due. The Nov. 5 massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was followed by a shooting rampage the next day at an architectural firm in Orlando, Fla. We then enjoyed 22 days of relative tranquility until last Sunday's shootings in Lakewood, Wash., a suburb of Seattle.

To be sure, our brief reverie was interrupted by routine killed-the-family-then-did-the-Dutch-act multiple murders, but that sort of garden variety carnage has become so commonplace that it barely merits commentary. The Lakewood incident was different.

According to press reports, four police officers were in a coffee shop on Sunday morning when an armed felon -- on parole for numerous violent crimes with charges pending for several others -- entered the premises and opened fire, killing all four officers. Again according to the press, the officers were working on their laptop computers when the killer arrived.

The tragic loss of life notwithstanding, there are aspects of the case that are instructive regarding the current state of criminal justice in America.

What Was This Guy Doing There?

People like myself who advocate on behalf of capital punishment are often accused by our adversaries of being knuckle-dragging Neanderthals intent on brute revenge with little interest in the moral edification of society. Evolving ethical standards, the theory goes, have rendered the death penalty a retroactive violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

When asked what they would do with the most dangerous offenders, members of the sensitivity brigade invariably respond, "lock 'em up and throw away the key." That putative solution fails on two fronts:

  1. everybody's got to be someplace and
  2. it doesn't work.

Just because you've isolated a killer from society at large, it does not follow that you've removed him from contact with all of humankind. Setting aside the possibility of escape, even the confined convict interacts with other prisoners and the prison staff. What are you going to do with a murderer serving life without parole who kills a guard -- suspend his ice cream privileges?
For most of us, the prospect of perpetual incarceration of the offender provides a comfortable compromise to a moral quandary. For those who actually have to deal with the psychopath, however, the nightmare begins when the sentence is imposed.

A more urgent failing of the "throw away the key" approach is that the actual tenure of perpetual incarceration depends on one's definition of "perpetual." The Lakewood shootings are particularly enlightening in this regard.

The doer here has been identified by the cops as one Maurice Clemmons, a 37-year-old ex-con with an extensive history of violent crime. Because he was shot dead by the Seattle police in the course of his capture, he has not been -- nor will he ever be -- convicted of Sunday's murders. I will thus dispense with the normally obligatory "alleged" when referring to him, with the understanding that this is the guy that the cops claim is good for the bloodbath.

At the age of 17, Clemmons was convicted for a 1989 crime spree in Arkansas that included aggravated robbery, burglary and illegal possession of firearms. The trial court subsequently sentenced him to 95 years in prison. Though he was not eligible for the death penalty, the people who actually listened to the details of his crimes decided that it was in everybody's best interest that he should be confined until sometime around his 112th birthday.

In 2000, Mike Huckabee -- a professed born-again Christian who at the time was governor of Arkansas -- granted clemency and Clemmons was released. Huckabee was reportedly persuaded that Clemmons had found Jesus while in the penitentiary, thus providing yet another excellent argument in favor of the separation of church and state.

By 2001, Clemmons was back in the joint only to be re-paroled in 2004. At the time of Sunday's massacre, he was on bail for new charges involving the assault of a police officer and the second-degree rape of a child. In all, the Seattle Times reports that his criminal record reflects at least five felony convictions in Arkansas and an additional eight felony charges in Washington -- not including the murder of the four cops.

Question: the next time we throw away the key on a stone-cold killer, how can we be sure that some future mush-head like Huckabee won't find it?

What Were The Cops Doing There?

As a retired cop, I'm extremely reluctant to second-guess. Things go bad fast and, truth be told, there's no way for an officer to function effectively without making himself vulnerable at some point. There are simply too many rooftops, alcoves, blind alleys and unseen hazards for a cop to check all sources of potential danger before acting. If he tried to do so, he'd never catch anybody.

That said, I remain troubled by reports that the slain officers were working on their laptops when the killer arrived. Technology's wonderful, but the beat cop's most important tool is still holstered on his or her hip.

I entered the Police Academy 35 years ago. Since then, virtually every aspect of police training has undergone a profound transformation. The modern cop is better armed, better equipped and more exhaustively tutored in self-defense techniques that we ever dreamed of being.

In 1974, a St. Louis police officer was issued neither a bullet-proof vest nor a handheld radio -- a bull-barreled .38 revolver, an oaken night stick, handcuffs, a ball point pen and a notepad were the tools you took with you on a call. If you needed help, the police radio was back in the patrol car, bolted beneath the dash next to an 870 riot shotgun.

One advantage we did have, however, was a mindset. We understood that there were people trying to kills us and that our uniforms made us targets. In a public place, you sat with your back to the wall and your eye on the door. The street was a combat zone and every strange face represented a potential threat.

During the ensuing decades, the cop's role has morphed from centurion to armed social-worker. Responding to political pressures from people who know virtually nothing about the realities of law enforcement, police departments now encourage officers to take a kinder and gentler approach to society's misfits. Crime is but one of the many complex societal problems officers are expected to resolve.

In the public imagination, Dirty Harry has been transformed into Dr. Phil with a 9mm.

Frontier lawman James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was playing poker in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D., when he was gunned down from behind. Legend has it that he was holding aces and eights at the time -- a pairing that subsequently came to be known as the "the dead man's hand." Its modern equivalent just may be a laptop computer.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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