Coming Soon to a Neighborhood Near You: Trigger-Happy Cops?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Norm Stamper 34-year veteran police officer who retired as Seattle's chief of police in 2000

Tucked into the foothills of Mount Rainier sits Pierce County's Tanwax Lake, a small resort and logging town. Its biggest problems, as reported by local residents, are duck and goose feces fouling the water and a family of pesky beavers that rebuilds its dam as volunteers clear it from the lake's outflow channel. But on December 21, the quiet community became known for something else: the murder of a sheriff's deputy and the wounding of another. The incident, combined with an astonishing spate of cop killings from Pittsburgh to Seattle, portends ominous changes in police behavior.

Deputy Kent Mundell Jr. and Sgt. Nick Hausner had responded to a domestic violence call. Once inside the home, they were shot by David E. Crable, a six-foot, 235-pound bully of a man who'd abused his daughter, brother, and mother. Hausner, first reported in critical condition, survived and was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve. His partner was not so lucky.

Forty-four, married, father of a 16-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, Walter Kent Mundell was removed from life support yesterday afternoon. He died at 5:04 p.m.

Though critically wounded, Mundell returned fire on that cold night, pumping several rounds into Crable, who was in the process of emptying his handgun into the bodies of the two cops. The suspect's 16-year-old daughter, Bryona, jumped her father, knocking him to the floor. She then helped her uncle drag Hausner out of range to shield him from further injury.

The deputies became the seventh and eighth Washington State cops shot in the line of duty since Halloween night.

Cops around here are wondering, who's next? They can be forgiven for believing a next armed attack is inevitable. But that's foolish and fatalistic thinking: Fearful, perpetually on-edge cops are a danger to themselves, and to others.

Still, unless we do something about these incidents they will inevitably trigger a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality in certain cops.

There are many things society can do to reduce violence, in general, and to make the work of our police officers safer.

We can end the absurd drug war, responsible for thousands of deaths a year. We can redouble our efforts to end emotional and physical violence in the home, violence that teaches children that the way to resolve disagreements and grievances is with fists, knives or guns. We can keep transparently dangerous people like David Crable and Maurice Clemmons behind bars where they belong. We can insist that our cops treat people with respect, thereby reducing animosity toward law enforcement. And we can demand that our lawmakers marshal the courage to stand up to the shrill, coercive tactics of the NRA (its leaders and lobbyists, less so its wiser membership; see E.J. Dionne Jr.'s recent piece) every time sensible gun measures are mentioned.

There are steps individual cops and individual citizens can take, as well.

Our uniformed police officers can stop congregating in public places, heads buried in laptops; they can presume that people in DV cases are armed and primed to kill, and that in every other situation they encounter there might well be a gun present. I'm talking alertness here, a readiness to pat down suspects (like Crable) and to act decisively if threatened--not a state of paranoid, hyper-vigilance that leads to itchy trigger fingers.

What can citizens do to reduce the carnage? Well, we can join efforts to pressure our craven Congress into passing drug-law reform as well as restrictions on gun ownership; would someone please tell me what the hell's wrong, really, with licensing firearms and registering owners?

And we can put an end to our passivity, our victimhood. We can observe and report, or jump into the fray. A suspicious car prowling the neighborhood? Get a plate number and call the cops. Someone nosing around your neighbor's house--or its residents beating the snot out of their kids? Call the cops. A suicidal terrorist lighting a lap fire on an Airbus A330? Jump him, and save 290 lives.

Public safety requires public involvement. It demands an informed citizenry willing to articulate and enforce standards of acceptable police behavior, including officer safety practices and the use of lethal force. It also means support for our cops in the form of rigorous screening, adequate equipment and thorough, ongoing training, all of which costs money.

The alternative, given the number of police officers slain in 2009, is for some of our cops to become gun-shy, or trigger-happy, neither of which is likely to produce anything other than tragedy.