For more than a decade minority leaders have been reciting a growing litany of complaints against a police department they regard-to judge from some of the more extreme rhetoric-as a racist, occupying force in their community. Epithets like “insensitive,” “trigger-happy,” and “brutal” are hurled at police, particularly after infamous incidents like the shootings of Etta Collins (black, age seventy), David Hor-ton (black, eighty-one), and now Raymond Caspers Mendoza (Hispanic, sixty-two).
All these shootings have their peculiarities (in Collins’s case, the officer who shot her was fired), but the Mendoza incident may be the strangest of the three. In early November he sold undercover officers a six-pack of beer. They declined to make an arrest then, but later that week, officers of the vice squad and the tactical squad came to Mendoza’s house in the 1400 block of North Haskell around 10 o’clock at night. Police say that after using bullhorns to announce their presence in Spanish and English, the officers broke into the house. A tactical squad officer carrying a 12-gauge shotgun forced his way into a bedroom, where he allegedly found Mendoza pointing a revolver at him. The officer fired, striking Mendoza in the torso and right arm. He died a few minutes later.
Mrs. Collins and Mr. Horton were law-abiding, model citizens. Mr. Mendoza, it appears, was a petty crook. Officers already had the evidence of the illegal six-pack, and inside the house they found three cases of beer, a couple of pints of whiskey, and a small bag of marijuana. The police noted that Mr. Mendoza had installed what was variously called an “elaborate” or “sophisticated” security system with outdoor microphones.
A few more things are known about Raymond Mendoza. He had lived in the house on Haskell for about ten years. Neighbors say he had been selling alcohol to people in the area for at least two years. He had no previous record with the Dallas police department.
According to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, the penalty for selling alcohol without a license, first offense, is a fine of $100-$1,000 and up to a year in jail. Had Mendoza been arrested, he might have paid a couple of hundred in fines and gone home with probation. This kind of wrist-slap would seem to reflect society’s belief that selling booze without a license should not be lumped in with kidnapping, grand larceny, or manslaughter.
Those who build their political reputations by constant, knee-jerk attacks on the police greatly damage society. If we believe that our officers are trigger-happy fascists who shoot first and say no comment later, we are morally bankrupt: we may as well teach our children that force, not reason, is the law of life, and that police exist to carry out the will of the racial majority,
Still, incidents like the Mendoza killing make you wonder. Looking at the facts, talking to police and council members, it’s hard to see why this particular death had to happen. Perhaps Etta Collins was a victim of tragic bad luck, shot on her darkened porch by the officer she had called. Perhaps David Horton, a befuddled old Crime Watch volunteer who fired a rifle at police, was an immediate menace who might have shot someone if police had tried to find a way to subdue him without killing him.
But the Mendoza case seems much harder to explain. Some city council members have serious questions about the matter, and they may go public with their concerns before this article sees print: why such a level of force to bust a two-bit beer peddler? Who authorized the raid, and why? Who decided that the city of Dallas was in such grave danger from a minor crook that a violent confrontation was warranted? Were there no options? Why not call the guy on the phone? Tell him he has an hour to get to the station and turn himself in. You wouldn’t do this for a rapist or a terrorist, but that’s the whole point; proportion, matching the firepower to the crime. If he doesn’t have a phone, leave a note on his door to the same effect. One hour, or one day, and then we come for you. Would he pour out the booze? Probably, but so what? The police had their evidence when Mendoza sold the six-pack. He’s lived in the house for ten years, so he’s probably not going anywhere. But if he flees, good riddance. We can live without his $200 fine, and the city loses a minor nuisance.
Granted, these questions seem strange, and there’s a reason for that. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that armed violence is a valid, if unfortunate conclusion to any police-citizen problem. We don’t want violence, but we accept it. If Mendoza is breaking the law, the police have a right to get him any way they can. If they have to shoot him-well, he was breaking the law. And no on doubts he was. But the victory won by police in this confrontation was certainly a Pyrrhi one, causing further erosion of public trust in the department.
Of course, Raymond Mendoza is partly responsible for his death. Pointing a gun at an officer is asking to die. We have to assume that Mendoza was suicidal, high-or that he just did not believe that the intruders were police. Officers say that Mendoza was known to be armed and dangerous, a curious label in these times. If everyone in this city who is armed is dangerous in the get-the-tactical-squad sense, we’re on the edge of our own holocaust.
As for that electronic security system, it could mean Mendoza wanted to keep an ear out for police. Or it could mean he was scared of a crime-ridden neighborhood. I used to live in the Haskell area, and I know why people in that neighborhood take precautions of all kinds.
Police, like teachers and other professionals, hate to be second-guessed by armchair quarterbacks sitting easy on the sidelines. The police do dangerous work for lousy pay. They see their critics as orbiting in a dream world, innocent of life in the trenches. This defensive reaction is understandable, but it’s not the end of the debate. Just as philosophy is too important to leave to philosophers, law enforcement is too important to leave to the enforcers. In a democracy, we empower certain people- the police and the military-to use violence, if necessary, to uphold the rule of law. But they take their legitimacy and their deadly privilege from the civilians they protect, and that means second-guessing goes with the job. That’s why citizen review boards with subpoena power are a good idea.
Bad cops who abuse their power have always been a tiny minority. The belligerent, vicious cop with the throw-down gun is a statistical blip. But if you are killed by an exception, you are still dead.
Speaking of statistics, the recent consultant’s study of police shootings in Dallas found no pattern of racial discrimination. That’s comforting news; it’s good to know that the shootings of Collins and Horton and Mendoza are not part of any vendetta against minorities. Still, looking at the Mendoza case, it’s hard to imagine this headline: “SMU Coed Shot in North Dallas Bootleg Raid; Suspect Sold Beer to Police.”