This is a plea from a career cop and security expert for one of our country’s core values, the presumption of innocence, to be accorded to everyone—everyone—in the recent emotionally-charged cases where police wrongdoing is alleged. Presuming anybody’s guilt is just not the American way, and we’re all worse off if it becomes the norm.
A shooting I worked many years ago for LAPD illustrates how it’s important to uphold the rule of law even where guilt seems obvious. My partner and I were on foot patrol in the heart of skid row along East 5th Street between Los Angeles Street and San Pedro Street. It’s not far from the Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army.
At that time back in 1985 there was a soup kitchen that would feed the homeless starting at 5pm each evening. Approaching through the parking lot, we could see about 50 tired, dirty and hungry folks either standing in line for their soup or milling about after they were finished eating.
We walked through the crowd, making sure to keep our eyes on the hands of the people closest to us. Five-inch locking blade Buck knives were the weapon of choice in skid row, and predators could slice a throat in the blink of an eye. We once handled three such homicides on that same street corner in a single week.
We were halfway through the crowd when gunshots rang out. North of us? Hard to tell, but as the panicked crowd started running south we had our clue. My partner and I responded based on our training. We drew our service revolvers and immediately separated along different sides of the parking lot.
We were now salmon swimming upstream through a sea of frightened humanity. As the crowd finally parted we saw a lone gunman standing near the alley that ran behind the businesses and fleabag hotels on the north side of 5th Street.
The blue steel 4-inch revolver that was in the suspect’s right hand was literally still smoking. There was a body lying at his feet. The suspect and I met eyes. He threw down the weapon and started running eastbound through the alley.
“I got him,” I shouted, and took off running after the suspect. I could hear my partner as he radioed out a “shots fired” call, requested backup, gave the direction of my chase, described the suspect, and asked for an ambulance—all in a few seconds. Guy was good at his job.
The suspect was about 20 yards in front of me and as he crossed over San Pedro Street and continued running down the alley on the other side, a big red Los Angeles City Fire Department truck slid by in between us. The driver slammed on his brakes and two of the firefighters riding on the back jumped off with their fire axes.
When we caught up to the suspect, he was spent—just dropped to the ground and gave up. I handcuffed the man and searched him for any additional weapons. You always assume there is another one if you want to stay alive.
As my partner stayed with the victim, I walked the suspect to our parked black and white and placed him in the back seat without incident. I had no intention of questioning him about the crime. That was for the homicide detectives to do when they were ready.
But while driving back to the station, I did quietly ask the suspect if he was okay. “You talk to me so calmly as if I’m a normal human being,” he raged at me. “I just shot that guy!”
“Well, you are a human being,” I replied, “so I’ll try to treat you with common courtesy and respect. But I am going to arrest you and write a very clear and concise report about what has happened here today. It will include the spontaneous statement you just made about shooting that poor gentleman.”
The suspect was handed over to the homicide detectives and eventually prosecuted for murder—after they had received his signed confession and done a thorough investigation to gather corroborating evidence.
Here’s the point: Even with the proverbial smoking gun, suspects are just that, suspects, under our system of law and justice. Everybody deserves his or her due process. In this country, everybody is innocent until proven guilty. No exceptions.
This is something the over-zealous prosecutors in Minneapolis and Atlanta would do well to remember right now. Don’t cut corners. Don’t. Every time a mob mentality takes over, presuming guilt and rushing to judgment, we’re all a little less safe.
And sadly, it’s our vulnerable populations, those most needing protection, who then suffer the most. No one wants that.