Before most officers who are reading this page were even born, there was a television game show called, "You Bet Your Life." Groucho Marx was the host and the first sponsor was Desoto, a car that the same young officers have never seen, except maybe at an antique car show. Desotos were made by Chrysler and were generally sold at Desoto-Plymouth dealers.
The fact is, I'm barely old enough to remember "You Bet Your Life," which eventually became "The Groucho Show" after a cheating scandal cast a dark shadow over games shows. Mostly, the action consisted of banter between Groucho and his semi-famous guests. The show was known for gorgeous women, scantily attired for the times, and Groucho's leering remarks, which would be socially unacceptable on network television today.
Several months ago, I thought about the old "You Bet Your Life Show" after a shooting incident involving the Knoxville Police Department, which patrols within the city limits of Knox County, Tennessee, where I spent my career with the Knox County Sheriff's Department.
Cutting straight to chase, KPD officers were dispatched to the scene of a disturbance where a suspect was brandishing, what the complainant thought was a replica or toy gun. The man had also told people that he intended to force the police to kill him. When the first officer arrived on the scene, the suspect pointed his weapon at the officer and the officer, of course, shot him.
As it turned out, the weapon, which was a dead-ringer for a real pistol, wasn't. Also, the suicide by cop failed and the suspect survived.
In the area where my newspaper column is read, probably an eighty to a hundred mile radius, taking in parts of three or four states, I have become somewhat of a symbol of law enforcement, the only police officer a lot of folks know -- or feel as if they know me because they regularly read my columns and my books.
The people within the geographic area where my column appears, are probably divided pretty much as the rest of the country in how they feel about cops. Some people are diehard supporters, most are fairly neutral and a few rabidly despise all law enforcement officers for their own reasons.
When the cop-haters in my region become outraged with police officers, I very often become the focus of their anger -- especially if I have just written a column defending whatever incident outraged the anti-law enforcement crowd to begin with. So when the man with the authentic-looking pistol was shot, I knew the mail would start coming in and I would eventually
be accosted on the street by someone or challenged by an audience member in one of the groups to which I frequently speak.
Over the next two weeks, I got the indignant mail and e-mail right on schedule but I began to think maybe I would miss the angry citizen -- just that once. It wasn't to be, though. I walked into an auditorium a little over two weeks after incident and spotted my man right off the bat. These people have a look to them, an angry intense stare that I've learned to identify through the years.
He managed to contain himself until the question and answer session at the end of my talk, though he was obviously squirming in anticipation. I let him sweat for a while longer, picking other people, until I knew he was primed. I pointed at him politely and said, "Do you have a question, Sir?"
Without hesitation he was on feet. "Yes. I would like to know how you justify the shooting of a man armed only with a toy pistol by an officer who knew it was a toy?" He waited for an answer, seeming immensely pleased with himself.
"Well, to start with, I don't have to justify anything personally, because I wasn't there. However, if you had been there, would you have been willing to bet your life that an obviously deranged and suicidal man had not switched weapons after the first call was made or that the person who called in the original complaint might have been mistaken about whether the weapon was real?"
"Absolutely," he said. "I'd take the risk before I'd chance shooting an unarmed man." His voice was rising in pitch and his face was becoming very red.
"Would you take the same risk if a possibly lethal weapon was pointed at your wife or one of your children?" I asked.
Before the man could answer, two of the members of the club to which I was speaking, stepped up and spoke quietly to my inquisitor. I don't know what they said but he quickly took his seat and I moved on to another question. The man made a hasty exit when I finished answering questions.
I knew I'd see him again, though. Or somebody just like him. If not next week, then the week after.
David Hunter is a retired detective and the author of several books. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org