The current controversy swirling around the federal program “Fast and Furious,” brings to mind a moment in law enforcement history documented in the timeless novel, “The Onion Field” written by Joseph Wambaugh. On March 9, 1963 Officer Ian Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger stopped two suspicious persons in Los Angeles. One of the occupants, Greg Powell, got the drop on Ian Campbell and Officer Hettinger drew his own revolver and ordered Powell to “drop the gun!”
Powell refused, threatening to kill Officer Campbell if Karl did not drop his gun. Karl could not get a shot at the suspect and reluctantly relinquished his weapon, putting their fate in the hands of two armed criminals.
Hettinger and Campbell were kidnapped by Powell and his partner Jimmy Lee Smith and transported at gun point out of Los Angeles to an onion field near Bakersfield. After leading the officers to believe they were going to be released, Powell and Smith suddenly shot Campbell and killed him. They tried to do the same to Officer Hettinger, but Karl ran, ducked and dodged the withering fire, escaping through an onion field cloaked by the dark of the night.
The Onion Field
Since the tragedy in “The Onion Field,” law enforcement was not only able to develop tactical strategies for this inevitability, but also recognize and seek treatment of post traumatic stress caused by critical incidents. Karl survived but he was severely psychologically wounded by the murder of his partner. Hettinger was haunted by the tragedy up until his own death in 1994.
Tactical training programs emphasize to neither give yourself up as a hostage nor use your weapon as a bargaining chip. The late SWAT Trainer FBI Special Agent Paul Roemer reinforced this message by stating, (paraphrased, from memory): “Do not negotiate to give them weapons. The weapons you give to criminals may be their only functional weapon. If you eventually have to use deadly force you will be asked later, ‘Why, in God’s name, did you arm them?’”
Fast and Furious
Now a program called “Fast and Furious” has led to a House Congressional Committee attempting to get an answer to the same question, “Why, in God’s name, did you arm them?”
According to ATF Special Agent John Dobson, 2,500 operational firearms were sold to “straw buyers,” who were allowed to “walk” so that they could in turn sell them to criminals. The stated purpose was to allow law enforcement to track the weapons.
Two of these 2,500 weapons were left at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Many others have ended up in the hands of the drug cartels. Mexican authorities report that these weapons have been responsible for the death or wounding of many.
As the facts trickle slowly out, there seems to be a lesson to be learned here for commanders and policy makers. When constructing a new and uniquely different program, it may be advisable to use a technique called “The Bell, The Book, and The Candle.”
The Bell — Say the plan out loud and see if it rings true to you and the people who are going to facilitate the plan. For example, in this case, “We are going to allow buyers who sell weapons to drug lords and killers, to purchase thousands of weapons to see if they end up in the hands of drug lords and killers.” How does that ring? KaWANG!
The Book — Ask the question, “Are all aspects of our plan we are about to implement legal?”
The Candle — Visualize all aspects of the operation on the ten o’clock news and ask yourself, “Will this plan be defensible when it is brought to light?”
It behooves subordinates to develop a rapport with your commanders so that, when the day arrives that it is necessary you are able to say, “Respectfully, sir (or ma’am), maybe we should reconsider this...” The field agents who facilitated “Fast and Furious” were following directives of individuals who are now loath to admit either responsibility for (or even knowledge of) the program.
This is not a surprise, for John F. Kennedy, while taking responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco said, “Failure is an orphan, but victory has a thousand fathers.”
The Wailing Pipes
Karl Hettinger turned one weapon over to a criminal, hoping to save his partner’s life. Despite Karl’s clear purpose and good intentions, within three days of that fateful decision, the soulful wailings of bag pipes were heard for the first time at a Los Angeles Police Officer’s funeral.
As a result of “Fast and Furious” 2,500 firearms were allowed to be turned over to criminals and killers. Now, one has to wonder, “How many times will the pipes wail?”
It’s a dangerous world. Treat everyone with respect, but trust no one, and... be careful out there.