In risky field, suspicion is key tool, officers say

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / July 25, 2009

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The most terrifying confrontations often erupt out of the most mundane scenarios. An Arlington patrolman working a construction detail is suddenly confronted by a suicidal man who lunges for the officer’s gun. A Quincy sergeant trying to help a troubled man becomes his victim when the sergeant is pinned against a wall. A Wellesley officer is tackled by two men after he walked to their stopped car to see if they needed help.

Race has been the prevailing theme in the wake of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest at his Cambridge home, an incident that has triggered a national debate about whether the officer overreacted when he placed the prominent Harvard University professor in handcuffs. But for many police officers, the encounter highlights a difficult balancing act they must perform each day as they try to bring the appropriate level of force to bear on inherently unpredictable situations.

Underestimating a seemingly routine call can be deadly. Overreacting can lead to accusations of civil rights violations, litigation, and physical harm to an innocent person.

From the busiest departments to the sleepiest towns, patrol officers, sergeants, and lieutenants all had similar stories of the times they relaxed too quickly around a suspect or after defusing a tense situation. Officers also spoke of the fear that can strike even veteran police officers when they respond to a domestic violence call or pull a vehicle over in a traffic stop. In an FBI analysis, 19 percent of the 57 officers killed by criminals in 2007 had either just pulled someone to the side of the road or were trying to.

“There is always that feeling of, ‘Is this going to be more than the soccer mom late for practice?’ ’’ said Walpole police Officer Jaclyn Hazeldine. “You don’t know who’s got what in the car, and you can’t let your guard down.’’

Terrence Cunningham was a young sergeant in Wellesley in 1995 when he spotted a stopped car on Route 9 about 2 in the morning. He saw two men inside and, thinking they had car trouble, pulled up behind them and began to walk to the vehicle. Immediately, they ran out of the car and grabbed him, punching and kicking at him. It turns out that they were the look-out guys for a third man stealing car parts from a nearby Dodge dealership. An off-duty Boston police officer rescued the sergeant, but Cunningham, now the department’s police chief, was reminded of one of the job’s most painful realities.

“You never know what’s going to happen,’’ he said. “You always have to have a plan. If this thing goes upside down, what are you going to do?’’

One evening in 1994, Deputy Superintendent William Gross of the Boston police and another officer drove to a Dorchester street to quell a parking dispute between two neighbors. The fight was quickly resolved, the two drivers shook hands, and Gross, then a patrolman, and his fellow officer struck up a conversation with gang unit officers who drove up to the scene. Seconds later, the new peace was shattered when shots rang out from an apartment building across the street. Gross rushed to the building, and, as he tried to get inside, he saw the gunman on the other side of the glass door, pointing a gun at him. Gross fired at him.

“You have seconds to react, just seconds,’’ said Gross. “That’s often what happens.’’

Gross missed the gunman, but when he dashed inside, through the smoke and haze, he saw a mortally wounded man slumped on the floor. Fifteen years later, Gross remains shaken by how that quiet night grew so violent so quickly.

“We had no idea we’d be involved in a police shooting,’’ Gross said. “We had no idea that once we gained access in the building, there would be a dead body in the hallway.’’

Police officers often have more to fear when they are pulling people over or responding to routine calls than when they are investigating a suspected bank robber or a killer, said Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University and a former Boston police officer.

“You just don’t know how something is going to affect someone or what the reaction is going to be from someone who is thrust into a situation,’’ Nolan said. “The frustration, the anger, the sentiment that ‘I’m being oppressed and discriminated against by this police officer.’ ’’

For their own safety, police must be suspicious of everyone, a quality that often rubs civilians the wrong way, many of the police officers said.

Hazeldine recalled going to a house after a security alarm went off. The homeowner was not there, but a concerned neighbor kept following Hazeldine around as she checked the house.

Worried that he might actually be the burglar, Hazeldine told the man to go home.

The alarm turned out to be false, and Hazeldine returned to the station, but soon afterward, the neighbor sent a letter to the department, complaining that the officer was out of line when she ordered him away.

A few days after the incident, a police officer in Shrewsbury responded to an alarm at a house and was accidentally shot by the homeowner. The officer survived the injuries, but Hazeldine was startled by the similarities to her own case.

“That’s why I did what I did,’’ she said of her reaction to the neighbor, who may have looked harmless but could have been a deadly threat for all she knew.

“There isn’t a look,’’ Hazeldine said, adding that criminals “don’t have a brand on their foreheads.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at