We often herald individuals who are willing to enter a fray to help someone who is in distress but the reality is that it can in fact be dangerous to render aid without knowing the full situation. My grandfather loved to speak of his experiences as a young man. One oft told tale was about a time that he was in a bar. Grandpa eventually became a teetotaler but in his youth he liked to imbibe after a long day of construction work. He didn’t marry until he was in his forties so going out for a little bit of the hair of the dog was a way to scare away his loneliness. He often sat by himself just enjoying the company of strangers and observing the goings on.
One evening he watched as an argument between a man and a woman grew from irritated gestures to yelling to an outright boxing match. The physical abuse began when the woman slapped her companion’s face and then all hell broke lose. The man proceeded to punch her in the face, stomach, and on the arms. The woman was crying and pleading with him to stop, unable to escape the brutality of a man who was twice her size. Most of the other customers in the bar watched in horror but my grandfather decided that it was time to do something to stop the abuse. He rushed over and pulled the offensive man away from the cowering woman. He got a strong hold on the basher so that he was unable to use his arms, which Grandpa had penned behind the man’s back. The woman seemed surprised by my grandfather’s intervention. At first she just stood in a kind of stupefied state but as she slowly began to realize what was happening to Grandpa she flew into a rage and started pummeling him with her fists and cursing him for restraining her lover. When my grandfather was no longer able to confine the man due to the blows that he was receiving from the woman, both members of the quarreling couple turned on him and literally beat him to a pulp. Grandpa often told us that he was lucky to get out of the situation without serious injury and were it not for eye witness accounts of the affair he might have gone to jail with the crazy pair once the police showed up to quell the riot.
Grandpa cautioned us to never get in between two people who had decided to fight one another. Mostly we listened to his wisdom but a time came when one of my brothers was assigned to driving an ambulance for the Houston Fire Department. His route was in a high crime area so he saw a lot more violence than he wanted to witness. On one occasion he encountered a man had shot his “friend” in the belly with a high powered rifle. Neighbors called 911 for an ambulance and of course my brother and his crew responded quickly. The injured man was in dire need of medical services but each time that the paramedics attempted to place him on a stretcher to transport him to the hospital the individual who had shot him waved his gun at the emergency personnel and threatened to kill them if they did not leave. The fire fighters were forced to call the police to quell the disturbance before they were able to finally load the injured man into the ambulance and rush him to the hospital. Luckily he made it and nobody else was hurt but it might have turned into an even more dire situation had the police officers not handled things so well.
I thought of my grandfather’s warnings when I learned that a young man who had attended my high school had been killed in an horrific way. He had served a tour of duty in Vietnam and returned home happy to be back with his family and friends once again. He and his buddies went out together one evening to celebrate. Like my grandfather had so many years before they found themselves witnessing a brawl between two people who had no doubt had more than their fair share of alcoholic beverages that evening. My high school friend was a person with a very sweet nature but he had also been taught by his parents, his school, and his country to defend those who were in trouble. Without thinking about himself or the possibility that he might be harmed, he intervened in the fight, attempting to stop the violence. He wasn’t as lucky as my grandfather had been in a similar situation. One of the angry fighters picked up a metal bar stool and slammed it into the good man’s head. The graduate from my school who had managed to evade death in a faraway war lay dead on the floor of a Houston bar.
When people are out of control they are incredibly difficult to handle. It takes a great deal of training and common sense to keep the situation from escalating. I’ve seen such things firsthand in my long career as an educator. Sometimes the offenders were students. Other times it was parents who did some very scary things. One thing for certain is that I always followed my grandfather’s sage advice and backed away from fights. Even though the students were younger than I was they were often much bigger and stronger and frankly I didn’t want to be hurt. I usually called for help while commanding the offenders to stop. Sometimes the kids listened. Sometimes they did not. Only once did I actually step in front of a young man who was about to deck a member of a rival gang. He stopped the movement of his arm mid-swing and just stared at me. When I thanked him for deferring to my request to stop he asked why I had taken the chance of insinuating myself into the argument. He wondered how I had known that he would never want to hit me. The fact is that I only had a hunch and luckily it paid off. The student actually chastised me for taking such a risk and like my grandfather insisted that I never try such a thing again.
We never know when we will need the help of someone who is willing to risk personal harm to themselves to keep us safe. That’s why I am particularly disturbed by a kind of generalized indictment of the police by the media and much of society. I understand that there are rogue cops just as there are less than sterling teachers who shouldn’t be in the profession. Virtually every occupation has its share of so-called bad apples. What worries me is that in today’s supercharged environment it must now be very frightening for all peace keeping officers each and every time that they answer a call. They have to be aware that every word that they utter and every action that they take is now under a microscope. The level of stress for them has to be almost unbearable.
Ours is a huge country and on any given day hundreds of thousands of distress calls are answered by the operators at 911 call centers. Law enforcement officers respond to those calls for help without really knowing what kind of situation they will encounter. We’ve seen occasions when some policemen have demonstrated a lack of common sense in their dealings with various individuals. A few of those occasions have resulted in the death of black men. Evidence has pointed to the possibility that such a dire consequence was unnecessary and even egregious. Those who perpetrate such travesties in the name of the law should be held to the standards of justice. There is no more room for them in the ranks of policing than there would be for arsonists in the fire department or child predators in the teaching profession. We must root them out when we find them. Still we should be wary of branding every single breech of protocol as a purposely evil act. The fact is that sometimes we humans make terrible mistakes. In cases where nobody is actually hurt but the potential was there we need to look at the circumstances and decide what forms of discipline for the offending officers are the most appropriate.
I think that I have spoken before of a melee that took place in the halls of one of the schools where I once worked. It was a frightening situation and I followed the voice of my grandfather that whispered inside my head as it unfolded. I backed away and called for help. I knew that I would be of little use in breaking up a fight between two rival gangs. One of my colleagues bravely entered the fray. He had once worked as a guard at the prison in Huntsville. He had often joked that he had dealt with much scarier and more brutal individuals inside the prison walls. He pointed out that the one advantage of his old job had was that when the guys got out of hand he had a great big gun to point at them. Nonetheless he was generally highly effective in dealing with our tough population of students on a day to day basis. He had little fear about controlling a fight no matter how extreme it became.
He managed to get most of the offenders to comply with his demands that they cease and desist but one student was in an extreme state of anger. He maliciously cursed the teacher and swung at him with the intent of landing a blow. The prison guard turned educator lost his cool and went into defense mode. He was stronger and better trained than the boy and it took little time or effort to pin the unsuspecting trouble maker’s hands behind his back. I winced when the student let out a few more choice insults because I saw the anger rising ever higher in the teacher’s face. That’s when the teacher lost control of his emotions. He slammed the boy’s head, face first, into the lockers. Then he pushed the boy to the floor, sat on top of him, and purposely banged his head on the floor multiple times all the while announcing his disgust for the youngster. Those of us watching were unnerved by what we were seeing and we understood that we were witnessing an incident that would not go well for the teacher.
To the principal’s credit he took care of the situation all the way around. Every single student who had been involved was severely punished as they should have been. The boy who had attacked the teacher was sent to the district’s learning center for students whose crimes were more serious than everyday misdemeanors. We would not see him for the remainder of the school year. The teacher was given the choice of resigning or being fired. The administrator explained that there was no room in his school for individuals who were unable to control their tempers. The teacher chose to resign.
Everyone who had witnessed the incident felt satisfied that justice had been done. The students who had started all of the trouble were not suddenly exempt from responsibility simply because one teacher had stepped over the line. The teacher decided to return to prison work as an instructor. He understood that his temperament was not suited for working with kids. Things settled back down and there were no more riots in the hallways for the remainder of that school year. All of us, students and teachers alike, had learned lessons from the incident, namely that there is a line of propriety over which none of us should ever cross.
I believe that most of our citizens and our police officers understand that their are certain rules that keep our society from devolving into anarchy. Each of us has a role to play in assuring that there will be law, order, and justice in our midst. Overreacting by indicting an entire profession is not the way to go. One day we may need to call the police in the middle of the night. We must know that they will come to defend us. If we are not careful in our societal treatment of law enforcement the officers may become so frightened of the consequences of even their most innocent actions that they will begin to hesitate when we need them most. Let’s be certain that we don’t get there.