Seizure by Gunshot: The Riddle of the Fleeing Felon


Imagine if you will, a cop named Charlie. He is a good cop, but reading Supreme Court opinions is not his idea of how to unwind after a busy tour in his high-crime sector. So, often Charlie just does what feels right and hopes it is legal.

When they gave Charlie his badge they also gave him a pair of handcuffs, a stick, and a big, ugly gun to be worn on his belt at all times. The instructions that came with this equipment were less than lucid, but Charlie soon got the idea that the cuffs were used to formalize the collar and to facilitate the transportation of the wearer. The stick, Charlie learned, was mainly for grip-ping in a strong, meaningful fist. When accompanied by a suitably stern frown, this had a wondrously calming effect upon boisterous patrons and inso-lent youths. The stick could also be used for poking at the midsections of slow movers. It is unseemly, Charlie gathered, actually to swing the stick at someone. The occasion rarely arises, and besides, cops, as he discovered, make decisive and authoritative moves; they don’t brawl.

The heavy, black .38 calibre revolver was more problematical. From what Charlie heard around the barracks, the way to stay out of trouble is to fire it only on the range. There are times, of course, when it is comforting to know the firepower is there if needed, perhaps to hold the gun in hand, fingers gently resting on the trigger guard, the barrel pointed at the ground for caution’s sake. But shooting the piece, actually aiming it at some living creature and pulling the trigger, that is something else. At the very least it would be an invitation to a departmental investigation, and very likely a ticket to the grand jury as well. He would be sweating, trying to explain his conduct to all those skeptical people -who needs it? And if he fired the weapon, there was always the chance – God forbid – that he might kill some innocent person. He would lose everything: job, pension, peace of mind. Of course, no cop wants to be killed in the line of duty, flag-draped coffin notwithstanding. Ashe had heard the veterans say, “Better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.” So, if he really had to shoot to save his own life, well, of course he would – anybody would.

Charlie does not like the idea of a mugger or a burglar getting away after Charlie loudly and firmly asserts his authority by telling him to halt, or that he is under arrest. But Charlie also knows he was not as fleet in his heavy black cop boots, with all his cop gear swinging from his belt, as some lean kid in running shoes. To be outrun, out jumped, out dodged by a guy who should be looking back at him through the bars of a holding pen is not only an insult; it is an unmistakable failure of duty. If he is not there to catch perpetrators, Charlie asks himself, what is he there for? The ultimate edge is at hand, securely snapped in its holster. The question Charlie struggles with as he tries to fall asleep at night is: When should he use it?

Suggested Reading

A deeply flawed eighty-six page legal memorandum revealed the rationale for the U.S. Justice Department’s March 2015 decision not to prosecute Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The Article rejects the Department’s contention that prosecution was not permitted by the governing