HURRY! IT'S CONTAGIOUS!

Posted in Rants on May 31st, 2011 by Ed

On January 7, 1973 a young man named Mark Essex, who had shot and killed a police officer a week earlier, walked into a Howard Johnson's hotel in downtown New Orleans and went on a shooting rampage. By the end of the day he had killed 9 people (including 5 police officers) and wounded 13 more. Police from surrounding jurisdictions flooded into New Orleans during the long siege around the hotel. At one point a New Orleans police commander noted a group of cops from a small, rural town repeatedly firing their weapons toward the building from a few hundred feet away. "What are you shooting at?", the commander asked them. Their response: "The hotel." The incident ended with Essex going out action movie style, dying in a hail of bullets as he made a defiant charge at dozens of police. The coroner noted over 200 distinct bullet wounds during his autopsy.

These anecdotes illustrate a sociological phenomenon called contagious shooting. Each individual starts shooting because everyone else is shooting, irrespective of necessity and often without even knowing why. It tends to be a problem with police and less so in the military. Soldiers are trained extensively to combat this natural human tendency in a dangerous situation: identify the target, assess the threat, don't waste ammunition, and so on. Police, for reasons about which we could speculate all day, tend to be less judicious and more easily influenced by group dynamics.

On May 5 of this year, police from four different agencies participating in a raid of a home in Pima County, Arizona on a search warrant regarding a marijuana trafficking ring. They entered the home of 26 year old Jose Guerena, a two-tour Iraq War veteran. As people tend to do when armed home invaders burst through the doors and windows out of the blue, Guerena went for his personal firearm. Despite the fact that he did not fire, an officer fired at him. A half-dozen others joined in, firing more than 75 rounds in 7 seconds at one suspect from 10 feet away. He was hit 60 times. The police are now going to extensive, questionably constitutional lengths to seal the search warrants and nail down a story that keeps changing by the minute. By the time they finish they'll have turned Guerena into a terrifying mixture of Tony Montana, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Hillside Strangler.

No, this does not happen every day. Many police manage to work for decades without unloading on a suspect. But in the highly militarized, War on Drugs, no-knock warrant era of law enforcement it happens alarmingly often. Some cases are high profile: the fifty rounds fired at Sean Bell (including one officer who stopped to reload and emptied an entire second magazine), 41 at an unarmed food delivery man who reached for his wallet, and an 88 year old woman shot 39 times during a high-larious "Whoops! Wrong house!" no-knock warrant incident.

The War on Drugs has changed law enforcement in this country so fundamentally that there is no clear way to reverse the damage. Police recruits now enter a culture that has been highly militarized since the late 1970s; even the longest-serving veterans still at work today have never known any other way of doing things. Armored vehicles, military rifles, armor-piercing ammunition, no-knock warrants, tactical gear…it's just the way things are done. You blaze away at suspects like Bruce Willis in Die Hard because, well, everyone else is doing it and that's what being a cop is all about – breaking down doors, smashing through windows, and unloading your firearm at the Scum of the Earth on the other side. Sure, innocent people get gunned down every once in a while, but isn't that a risk we have to take if we have unsubstantiated tips from paid informants suggesting that there might be marijuana in a home?

On the plus side, maybe they'll start using less forceful methods now that we can't resist unlawful police entry into our homes. If it's wearing a badge, obey it.

I feel safer already.