Officer down: Shots echo through history

You’d think from the breathless, oh-my-god coverage of the shooting in Dallas that cops in the United States had never before been mercilessly gunned down.

I’m not suggesting the five deaths in Dallas are insignificant, or don’t rate the media attention they’ve been afforded. Or lacked the requisite elements of a big story: major city-center under siege for hours; shootout and standoff; gunman expressing black rage through the barrel of a high-powered weapon.

But police officers were taking bullets before the advent of 24-hour cable news and cellphone videos posted on social media, before Americans could pick up assault rifles and a trunkful of ammo at the corner store.

A lot more lawmen were shot down in the Wild West of the 19th century and throughout the 20th, especially during the Prohibition era, the heyday of gangsters with Tommy guns. And again in the late 1960s and ’70s, when American cities were rotting, when black rage was first rising.

That’s when I was a reporter in New York, and covered the shooting death of a police officer and the near-riot that ensued. More on that later.

But first, some stats from one organization that keeps the grim tab across the U.S., the Officer Down Memorial Page:

  • The deaths in Dallas bring this year’s total of officers shot dead to 26.
  • Last year, it was 39.
  • In 2013, it was 33, the lowest total since 1887 – that’s not a typo – 126 years.
  • The count was mostly in triple figures every year from 1910 to 1940.
  • It topped 100 again in 1969, and stayed there through 1980, before beginning a steady decline.

But, since 1981, the numbers still add up – 2,259 officers shot dead.

(In Canada, where I live, there have been 23 this century.)

Like other gun deaths – Virginia Tech, then Orlando – one superlative can drive the headline: most.

The news from Dallas has focused on the most cops killed in one day since 72 died on 9/11.

But, just sticking to shootings, the five dead in Dallas are the most since 1932, when six Missouri lawmen were killed in a shootout with two murder suspects at a farmhouse in the Ozarks.

The most in U.S. history were seven Chicago cops killed when they tried to break up a labor protest in Haymarket Square.

Never mind that the Haymarket “riot” began when someone, possibly an agent provocateur, exploded dynamite in the crowd, or that the casualties were probably shot by other cops.

The bloodbath was blamed on immigrants, socialists and anarchists with a radical idea – an eight-hour workday. Four labor leaders were hanged.

Politicians across the country used the Haymarket carnage to execute a tough law-and-order agenda. Just as Nixon did in 1968 to win the presidency, exploiting a backlash against antiwar and black-power militants.

(Stay tuned for Trump and the GOP ramping up the fear machine post-Dallas.)

Which brings me to April 14, 1972, when I was a reporter for UPI in New York.

The news was that a cop had been shot at 116th Street at Lennox Avenue in Harlem.

I arrived to find a huge crowd gathered outside a Nation of Islam mosque, surrounded by dozens of jittery cops. There were also a lot of TV cameras for the assemblage to play to.

And that’s what it seemed like at first – a theatrical production, with all of us playing our parts: the menacing Black Muslims on the steps, guarding the mosque; the cops trying to shield their anger after one of their own took a bullet; the gathering storm of mainly young blacks filling the street; the mainly white press hoping to get the story and get the hell out of there.

The main character in this drama, Officer Philip Cardillo, was already dead, having been shot inside the mosque and whisked away.

He and three other cops had rushed into the building, responding to a call – it turned out to be bogus – of an officer in peril.

What they found instead were men who took offense at having their house of worship invaded by the enemy, responding with fists and the bullet that killed Cardillo.

I stood on the sidewalk, between the Muslims on the steps and the commotion in the street. It was early afternoon, a beautiful spring day, unseasonably warm and sunny. I wondered why all the kids in the crowd weren’t in school.

Then I heard a gunshot and watched the crowd compress, not running away but toward the sound of the shot. It turned out a lone cop had been pinned in the mass, fell to one knee, raised his revolver, and accidentally fired into the air.

But the crowd was in a fury. So were the cops, running around shouting.

Next thing I knew, the men in blue were pulling out and a little kid who couldn’t have been more than twelve walked up to me, smirked, hoisted his T-shirt, showed me a big gun stuck in his belt, nodded toward the cops and said: “When they’re gone, you better be gone too.”

He melted back into the mob. And an angel appeared at my side.

“You look a little nervous,” said Leon Pitt, the only black reporter I worked with at UPI.

“Did you hear what that kid said?”

“What kid?”

“The little kid with the big gun – he threatened to kill me when the cops leave.”

“So, I guess I better get you out of here,” said Leon.

And he did.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.


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