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Too Blue To Be Black, Too Black To Be Blue

In a new book about the 2016 downtown Dallas shooting that left five officers dead, SWAT negotiator Larry Gordon straddles the thin blue line.
By Jamie Thompson |
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Larry Gordon portrait
Elizabeth Lavin

Too Blue To Be Black, Too Black To Be Blue

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Summer was always the busiest time for Dallas police. The heat would declare itself at sunrise and grow unbearable by noon, working on patience and nerves. People’s will to hold things together would fail. There would be a betrayal or grudge or heartbreak, and someone would start waving a gun or climb to some precipice.

That’s when Senior Cpl. Larry Gordon, a negotiator on the Dallas police SWAT team, would get a call. He’d be headed along one of the city’s looping highways, toward some air-conditioned assignment, and learn that another poor soul had let go of the rope, abandoning the notion that everything was OK or ever would be again. Gordon would turn the wheel and head toward another unraveling.

Over the years, he’d grown used to meeting people on their worst days. A call early in his negotiating career, one that would stick with him for years, took him downtown to one of the city’s oldest skyscrapers, a stone-paneled, 1920s-era former bank building. A young woman had climbed to its highest ledge, 20 stories above Main Street. Police barricaded a city block, and Gordon made his way to the roof. A crowd from Jason’s Deli gathered on the sidewalk, heads tilted back.

Gordon cut an imposing figure in his navy-blue uniform, at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, with bulging muscles. Although his body implied brute physicality, he moved with the agility of a high school quarterback, which he had been, and the coiled readiness of a kid who’d grown up in a rough neighborhood.

From the building’s roof, Gordon took in the immense blue Texas sky. It was surprisingly noisy; the wind whipped, and the sounds of traffic echoed. The knot of fear inside his chest was partly caused, he knew, by being up so high, but also because he still, at that point in his career, believed outcomes depended on whether he could find the right words.

One of Gordon’s teammates held a rope and looked around for a place to tie it. He settled on a large metal pole. Gordon fastened the rope to his harness and studied his teammate’s knot. That ain’t gonna hold me, he thought. The teammate was Black, like him. Gordon would have preferred one of his White partners tying him off—someone who’d grown up around boats and Boy Scouts. Most brothers, he thought, had not been schooled in the varieties of hitch knots.

He gave the rope a tug and hoped for the best. The men walked toward the edge of the roof, the rope unspooling as they went. Gordon stopped at a waist-high concrete wall, steadied his hands on it, and peered over the ledge. About 6 feet below sat the young woman, her delicate frame perched at the edge of the building. The sight made Gordon’s hands sweat. Any tiny nudge, shift of weight, or gust of wind could send her on a 300-foot free fall.

The woman looked to be in her mid-20s, with her knees pressed together girlishly, as if she were on a playground swing. She wore a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. Her brown hair fell across her face as she looked down. A pack of cigarettes and a wallet rested on the ledge beside her. The serious jumpers often emptied their pockets to leave identification behind.

Gordon called out to the woman, trying to sound friendly, casual. “I’m Officer Gordon with the Dallas Police. What’s going on today?” No response. He called out again, raising his voice. Still nothing. The woman was making what Gordon called “target glances” toward the street, as if she were thinking, Where am I going to jump? How am I going to miss that tree? Am I going to fall on that car? Gordon made his own plan for when she jumped. He knew his instinct would be to grab her. But she was too far away to safely catch. If he lost his balance, he’d fall until the rope caught him, probably about 10 feet, provided the knot held. Then he’d slam into the concrete building, maybe breaking a leg or his back. So he steeled himself. If the woman jumped, he’d let her go. He didn’t want to watch her fall or see what happened when her body hit the pavement. Just turn around and walk away.

Several long minutes dragged by as he kept shouting to the woman while she ignored him. Finally, in frustration, he shouted, “Why won’t you talk to me?”
That’s when he saw her lips move. He leaned in closer, straining to hear her over the wind. “Say it again?”

“I don’t want to live anymore,” she said.

“Why?” Gordon asked.

“He took my daughter.”

“Who is ‘he’ ?”

Larry Gordon
Gordon talking with a woman who was threatening to jump from a building.

Finally, Gordon had something to work with. He kept her talking and learned she’d lost custody of her child. Gordon told his partner to get the cops below to find the baby. He kept her talking about her daughter, about the man who’d betrayed her, about what she’d miss if she slipped off the ledge. They talked for what felt like an eternity, until a squad car arrived and parked a block away. “Your child is here,” Gordon told her. “I don’t want her to see you fall.”

He watched the woman’s every move. Now she began to fidget. She had her palms on the ledge and quickly pushed up, raising herself into a standing position. Fuck, here she goes, Gordon thought. He held his breath as the woman stood still for a moment, her back turned, her body swaying at the ledge.

Then she rotated and faced Gordon, lifting her arms into the air. It took Gordon a second to understand what was happening. She wanted to come up. He stretched his upper body over the wall as far as he could and reached toward her wrists. If she changed her mind and resisted, tried to pull him down, he’d overpower her. He was also nervous he would drop her. Once his grip was secure, he pulled as hard and fast as he could, fueled by a surge of adrenaline. He lifted her small body into the air and over the wall. The momentum sent them tumbling backward onto the roof, Gordon still clenching her wrists as she fell on top of him. Another police officer grabbed the sobbing woman as Gordon lay there on his back, breathing hard.

He never knew exactly who he needed to be until he got there. Hard or soft, commanding or gentle, deferential or aggressive. Every call was a new riddle. Sometimes he had hours to work, but often only minutes to decide what piece of himself to summon at the crucial moment, when someone had become the focus of a couple dozen heavily armed men dressed in black. Most of these troubled souls would emerge alive but some would not. If they let him, Larry Gordon would bring them out safe. Who did they need him to be?

Sometimes it was Larry from the hood, the Black kid who grew up with holes in his sneakers and had to sift through his Sugar Smacks to make sure he didn’t eat a roach. Other times he needed to be middle-class Larry, a professional with a college degree. He could spend hours discussing Bible passages, debating social influence theory, detailing the weaknesses of the Cowboys’ defensive line. He could be athlete Larry, husband Larry, father-of-three Larry, funny Larry, big mean Larry, or a soft teddy bear. Usually shrink Larry showed up at some point and called out one of his favorite lines: “Right now it’s a question of how much do you love yourself?” Cheesy, but he found it resonated. Most people did love themselves. Most did not want to die. He said it again and again, even though every single time it made his SWAT partners stifle laughter as they stared down the barrels of their M4s. Most days he was just rolling the dice, hoping his would not be the last voice in a stranger’s ear.

Sometimes it was Larry from the hood, the Black kid who grew up with holes in his sneakers. Other times he needed to be middle-class Larry, a professional with a college degree.

Gordon had joined Dallas SWAT in 2004, after nine years on the force. He took a typical path to the unit—a couple of years on patrol, then to narcotics, where he’d battled the crack trade, the same one that during his childhood had taken over his neighborhood and sent two older brothers to prison. He’d wanted to join SWAT for the same reason most other officers did, because men on the team were held in prestige as the city’s toughest. He was not the team’s fiercest warrior, nor its fastest runner, nor its best marksman. Gordon’s gift, the skill that made him indispensable, was that he could talk.

Each SWAT officer was assigned a specialty. The more cerebral were drawn to sniping. The more energetic liked busting through doors with steel rams and blasting through walls with explosives. Supervisors assigned Gordon to the crisis and hostage negotiating team, one of the less desirable posts. While others got to rush in with M4s, negotiators sat back in command posts, sipping coffee and talking into headsets. They had to be compassionate and empathetic. One officer begged his supervisors to assign him any job but negotiating. As he put it: “I don’t want to spend all day talking to shitheads on the phone.”

But Gordon did. He loved to talk. About politics and religion, children and wives, nothing and everything. About the Mavericks or The Big Bang Theory or race in America. Most of the cops Gordon knew were Republicans. He was the rare Democrat; he’d voted for Barack Obama. Teammates called him Liberal Larry.

Gordon once read a quote from a Hollywood actress who said she fell in love a little with each of her co-stars. That’s how he felt about the people he negotiated with. They were smart, Gordon thought, and could tell if you really cared about them. He called it “the music behind the words,” a concern that was genuine. Negotiating wasn’t like other jobs in the police department, where officers were expected to be dispassionate behind their badges and shields. Good negotiators had to lean in and connect.

This came naturally to Gordon. He’d grown up in one world and crossed over into another. He knew people were more than their worst moments. Everybody, when you got down to it, was a complicated mess of one sort or another. But inside every person was a relatable piece of humanity, Gordon believed, and his job on every call was to find it.

Gordon had been a negotiator for 11 years in 2015 when an unemployed mechanic with a cache of firearms unloaded on Dallas police headquarters, a call Gordon assumed would be the most memorable of his career. The man had bought a makeshift armored van on eBay, where it was advertised as a “Zombie Apocalypse Assault Vehicle.” One midsummer night, he sprayed the headquarters building with bullets, shattering the glass windows and sending cops ducking for cover. Officers fired back, and the man took off in his van. He made it to the highway, where an officer shredded his tires with spike strips, and he pulled off at a Jack in the Box. From its parking lot, he called 911 and let loose a tirade about how authorities had arrested him and taken away his son. “You took everything I worked for, everything I fucking loved, every goddamn thing,” he said. He claimed to have explosives with him. “If you come near this van, I’ll blow the fuck out of it. Do you understand me now?”

Gordon had been off duty, working a second job as security for a nightclub, when he heard the call. Soon he was crouched beside a building near the Jack in the Box with his M4, prepared for a shootout. Suspects occasionally fired at the SWAT team, but usually while barricaded inside a house and usually because they wanted officers to go away. This man had come for the cops.

Larry Gordon portrait
Larry Gordon.

A supervisor summoned Gordon to negotiate with the guy. He ran back to his Tahoe, pulled out his phone, and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to slow his heart rate. He dialed the number and began as he always did. “I’m Officer Gordon with the Dallas police. What’s going on today, man?”

When the guy first answered, he sounded so calm that Gordon thought he’d dialed the wrong number. Then the man launched into a litany of grievances. He told Gordon cops had arrested him for domestic violence, then a family court judge had taken away his 11-year-old son. He’d lost his job, his house, everything. This was payback. Gordon listened for an hour, then two, trying to empathize, working to make some connection. By this point in his career, he’d come to believe outcomes depended little on what he said. More than anything, what Gordon did was listen. He’d focus on the voice coming over the line, using minimal encouragers to keep people talking. “Uh-huh, tell me more,” he’d say. He’d reflect suspects’ emotions back to them: “So what I hear you saying is …” He gave them something they often couldn’t get from people in their own lives: sympathy, validation, compassion. “I understand,” Gordon said again and again.

The man vacillated between calm and rage. He said he had 20 pounds of C4 with him. He said he’d tried to tell them where Osama bin Laden had been hiding. Every so often, supervisors walked by Gordon’s Tahoe as the conversation played over its speakers. They told Gordon to keep talking; eventually, he’d wear the guy down. Gordon began to think that wasn’t going to happen. Most people can’t stay angry that long. They get tired. But crazy people are not on the same timeline as everyone else, Gordon knew. They could remain in high emotion for hours or days. “We’re not going to wear him down,” Gordon told his supervisors. “He’s going to wear us down.”

Back at headquarters, police found a duffel bag the man had left behind in the parking lot. Since he’d claimed to have C4, police cordoned it off and maneuvered a robot over to it. As the robot’s mechanical arm lifted the bag’s strap, it exploded. Screws, nails, and shrapnel flew through the air, burning the front of a nearby car. The guy wasn’t kidding.

When word of the pipe bomb reached the SWAT team back at the Jack in the Box, they began debating options for taking him out. One was to put an explosive device on a robot, drive it under the van, and blow it up. They decided instead to position snipers, armed with powerful .50-caliber rifles, the kind soldiers used in war. Their bullets could penetrate the van’s thick windows. If the man’s head popped up, he was done. But so far he’d stayed crouched out of view.

In three hours of talking, Gordon developed little rapport. But he’d begun to feel a sort of affection for the guy. His name was James, and like many of the people Gordon negotiated with, he’d wrecked his life beyond repair. Gordon asked him to come out with his hands up. Didn’t he want to see his son again?

Gordon’s lieutenant was running out of patience. He suggested a different approach. What if they tried to piss the guy off? Maybe they could goad him into detonating his explosives and blowing himself up. They had a sniper take a shot at the van’s engine block. “What the fuck are you doing?” James said. “I’ve got a bomb in here!”

Gordon, switching gears, spoke to James like he’d never before talked to a suspect. “We just shot out your radiator, you stupid motherfucker. You’re a fucking pussy. You’re too much of a pussy to stick around for your son. Get your fucking ass out of the car, and be a fucking man.”

The result was near instantaneous. Instead of getting mad, James turned childlike, hurt and vulnerable.

“I’m not a pussy,” he said. “I love my son. I want to be here for him.”

I got him, Gordon thought. Finally, they’d connected. I can save him.

“Let’s end this,” Gordon said. “It’s time for you to come out.”

“All right,” James said. “Let me smoke a cigarette and think about it.”

LEFT TO RIGHT Gordon with his SWAT team: Kelvin Johnigan, Gerardo Huante, Tom Sible, Marshall Milligan, Chris Webb, Gordon, Robert Hamilton, Matt Banes, Darian Loera, and J.T. Curtis; Gordon with President Bill Clinton, circa 2015.

Gordon opened his car door. He needed to tell the lieutenant to get the snipers to stand down. He made it five steps before he heard the crack.

Gordon stopped, realizing instantly what had happened. The guy had felt it was safe to sit up. As soon as he’d lifted his head, a sniper pulled the trigger.

Gordon climbed into his Tahoe, leaned the seat back, and closed his eyes. He’d not only failed to save the guy, he’d talked him to his death. That was the sort of day when he heard his mother’s voice, repeating one of her favorite lines. You need to get yourself right with God, because time’s winding up.

On July 7, 2016, Gordon woke in the back bedroom of his brick home in Forney, a growing suburb 20 miles east of Dallas. He swung his feet off the bed, reached for the remote, and turned on SportsCenter.

Sports had always been Gordon’s escape, but lately even that arena had become infected. Politics, morning shows, Facebook—it seemed the whole country was talking about police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement. Even LeBron had weighed in. He’d been playing for the Miami Heat in 2012 when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin had left a gated townhouse community in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles at a 7-Eleven. On his way home, wearing a hoodie, Martin had been shot by a neighborhood watchman who thought he looked suspicious. LeBron and his teammates posed in hoodies in a photograph shared all over social media, joining in the national chorus of African Americans repeating the refrain “I am Trayvon.”

Gordon thought LeBron’s opinions were respectful and lacked the vitriol of other athletes and movie stars who, in Gordon’s view, had been fanning the flames. Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams had given a speech at the BET awards, in which he’d said: “We know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill White people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function, and ours.” The crowd roared, rising from their seats, and the speech went viral.

Sometimes it was Larry from the hood, the Black kid who grew up with holes in his sneakers. Other times he needed to be middle-class Larry, a professional with a college degree.

Williams’ words troubled Gordon. To him, it sounded like a call to arms against cops. His wife’s cousin posted a link to the speech on Facebook under the title “Awesomeness!” Gordon couldn’t resist engaging. “When people say stuff like that, it makes my job harder and a lot more dangerous,” he wrote beneath her post.

Gordon was 45 years old and felt that tensions between minorities and cops were reaching a level he hadn’t seen in 20 years on the force. He knew there were problems with how cops policed poor neighborhoods—he’d experienced them firsthand—but in recent years the conversation had been less about reform and more an all-out assault on the profession. Police had become the bad guys.

Lately, Gordon felt caught between warring camps. At work, he defended Black people’s gripes with law enforcement, explaining how even he still got pulled over while off duty. To relatives and friends, Gordon was always defending cops, trying to explain the use of force and the dangers of the job. He was too Black to be blue, too blue to be Black.

Gordon and his wife, Shan, had grown up in rundown apartment complexes where many of their friends had graduated to selling dope on street corners. Nearly every man in their families had served time. When they bought their first house in the neighborhood as newlyweds—he a rookie cop, she a special-education teacher—Gordon parked his patrol car out front and ran 3 miles every morning through the same streets he’d grown up on; neighbors joked he was the only Black man they’d ever seen run without being chased. Shan’s brother sold crack out of her grandmother’s house next door. Every time Gordon put food on the grill, people showed up hungry. He felt as if everyone expected money, something he called the “Black tax.” Once you reached a certain economic status, the poor left behind expected you to share, to help pull them forward. Not doing so made you a sellout, an Uncle Tom. If a cousin needed $20 for gas, Gordon would gladly hand it over. But people wanted co-signatures on cars, $3,000 loans. He believed what the comedian Steve Harvey said: “The best thing you can do for poor people is not be one of them.”

Gordon and Shan bought a lot in a subdivision called Heather Hollow at Windmill Farms, selecting a floor plan with a castlelike turret, four bedrooms, and a two-car garage. It had beige walls, 10-foot ceilings, and granite countertops. Shan decorated with framed family photographs and her favorite sayings. Live well, laugh often, love much.

When they first moved in, Gordon kept walking outside, astonished by the quiet. He’d spent most of his life in crowded apartments, with neighbors yelling, bass bumping, guns going off. Heather Hollow was eerily quiet. No stray dogs, no cars on lawns, no duct-taped bumpers. Everywhere Gordon looked, he saw order and discipline. He loved putting a steak on the backyard grill, sipping a Blue Moon, and staring at his grass, which he paid people to mow. With its neatly spaced oaks and elms, Heather Hollow was what he’d grown up dreaming of. While off duty, driving his three kids to sports games and drill team practice on weekends, he stopped carrying his SIG Sauer.

The family still attended church in their hometown of Terrell, about 12 miles east, and visited regularly, but they told few where they lived. They joked they were in hiding from their families. Gordon bought a used white Mercedes and listened to old-school R&B while driving the kids to school. One morning, the kids asked him to turn on Taylor Swift. “Oh, you want to listen to White people music?” he joked. “Well, Daddy,” his teenage daughter said, “you didn’t raise us to be Black.”

Larry Gordon portrait
Family Guy: Gordon tried to raise his children to be culturally neutral. He sensed his presence made some neighbors uncomfortable.

Gordon didn’t like how it sounded, but she was right. He and Shan had purposely chosen a neighborhood that was at least half-White. They wanted to raise their children as “culturally neutral,” able to exist in either world. It was a tricky place to be. They didn’t quite fit in with the White families in Heather Hollow; Gordon sensed his presence made some neighbors uncomfortable, as if his family had stolen a key to their secret world. And they no longer fit in with the people they’d grown up with, who Gordon felt resented his Mercedes and the family’s Caribbean cruise vacations.

On this morning, as Gordon rose to shower and shave, Facebook buzzed with news of another fatal police shooting, Philando Castile shot in his Oldsmobile in Minnesota. The phone calls to Gordon started early, as they did every time a new video hit the news. Friends and relatives wanted to know what the hell was going on. Why were cops so intent on killing them?

Gordon stepped inside his walk-in closet to get dressed. Unlike many of his SWAT colleagues, he routinely had his department-issued cargo pants, called BDUs, dry-cleaned. Today he picked out an old pair because he knew he’d be lying in the dirt. His SWAT unit that day was holding its quarterly rifle qualification, a target-shooting exercise. Though his specialty was crisis and hostage negotiations, he still had to shoot. He picked up his gear and hurried out of the house, hoping not to be late.

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