Last week, here in Fort Worth, a wealthy businessman in his seventies was killed by police in his own home in what appears to have been a tragic accident. Just a few days before that, however, another wealthy businessman in his seventies was killed by police in his own home - in affluent Ridgefield, Connecticut. That, too, is being described as a tragic accident.
In their respective communities, these cases are receiving considerable attention for their rarity. Let's face it: business executives in their private homes rarely get shot by the police, let alone killed.
In Fort Worth's case, 72-year-old Jerry Waller was responding to commotion in his manicured neighborhood after a neighbor's burglar alarm sounded in the middle of the night. Two white rookie Fort Worth police officers encountered Waller in his own garage, and somehow, felt threatened enough by him to shoot him multiple times. Waller was holding a handgun, and it has yet to be determined if the cops identified themselves in the darkness.
He owned a successful local company specializing in heavy-duty tires for the trucking industry, and lived in the prosperous, if not entirely desirable, subdivision of Woodhaven, populated by other prominent business leaders and politicians, but surrounded by low-income apartment complexes.
In Ridgefield, a far more prestigious community than Fort Worth's Woodhaven, John Valluzzo had made a small fortune in precision manufacturing. He owned a lush, gated estate there, plus a place in Palm Beach. He was 75 when police gunned him down as he reportedly stood in his kitchen, holding - what else? - a handgun. Cops said he wouldn't put it down, even after their repeated commands for him to do so.
In Valluzzo's case, he may have been drinking. Apparently, he was in the middle of an argument with his 53-year-old girlfriend, who became uncomfortable with the combination of his alcohol consumption and brandishment of a firearm. She called a friend, who, concerned with the situation, called Ridgefield police. Only Valluzzo's girlfriend hadn't asked for the police; neither she nor Valluzzo knew they were on their way. So when cops came around the back of the house - again, similar to how Fort Worth police encountered Waller in his rear-entry garage - both Valluzzo and his girlfriend were caught off-guard.
Adding to the irony is that Valluzzo was killed by the only minority member of lily-white Ridgefield's police force, a Hispanic who'd transferred to the department from another one in Connecticut's far more violent, blue-collar city of Bridgeport.
So, let's see: can you count the similarities?
- Both victims were male
- Both victims were white
- Both victims were successful (relatively speaking)
- Both victims were in their 70's
- Both victims were holding a handgun
- Cops encountered each victim at the rear of their homes
- Disorientation of some sort was involved. Waller may have been groggy because of the time of day, and perhaps unable to make out the figures of the two police officers in the dark. Valluzzo had been drinking.
- Cops had been dispatched by a third party - in Waller's case, by a neighbor's burglar alarm; in Valluzzo's case, unbeknownst to them by a friend. Neither homeowner had personally summoned the police to their residence.
- There may be contributing issues from complex socioeconomic realities. In Waller's case, Woodhaven is a paradox in an otherwise struggling part of town. In Valluzzo's case, the cop who shot him might have instinctively read a more sinister scenario into the confrontation, based on his previous patrolling of a less genteel community in another city.
- Police accounts of both incidents vary significantly from what family and friends say happened. Police said Waller was outside of his garage, but the medical examiner listed his place of death at an inside corner of his garage. Initial reports out of Ridgefield said Valluzzo was in his front yard, but a family friend said he was in a back kitchen.
But the real story, as I wrote when mulling the Waller case in Fort Worth, is the fact that we're talking about these two deaths at such length at all. When police kill black or Hispanic men at their homes, how often do we hear about it? And when we do, how quick are we to assume that there must have been some credible, rational reason for the cops to fire when - and how - they did. The thought that the cops overreacted doesn't really occur to us, does it?
It's not just white people who think that way. When I wrote about the Central Park Five, I noted that even New York City's middle-class minorities were resigned to believe what the cops were saying about the five teenaged ruffians they were branding as rapists. American crime statistics prove that percentage-wise, more blacks and Hispanics get in trouble with the law than whites, and statistics like that riskt becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. We almost expect blacks and Hispanics to have more trouble with the law.
This has helped create a subtle yet dangerous sort of racial profiling. For years, social scientists have accused our American citizenry of adopting a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" posture against blacks and Hispanics. In their inverse, do these police shootings in Texas and Connecticut help lend any credence to that assertion? When cops kill two upstanding white, wealthy citizens, don't we initially tend to side with the families of those upstanding, white, and wealthy citizens?
Maybe some cops within these two police departments are becoming trigger-happy. But if racism clouds the general public's view of these accounts of tragic shootings, how much might racism cloud the instant reactions cops have to make in situations they deem as urgent?
Granted, there are some major differences between the Waller and Valluzzo deaths. For example, Waller's death took place after midnight, while Valluzzo was shot late in a springtime afternoon, when there was plenty of daylight for all of the participants to see what was happening. In addtion, Waller was sober, whereas Valluzzo reportedly was drunk. Alcohol abuse tends to negate any differences one's personal wealth might otherwise make in a situation.
Indeed, there are differences between these shootings and those other shootings we rarely hear about; those shootings when cops claim to fire in self-defense in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Neither Waller nor Valluzzo, apparently in possession of valid permits, made a habit of agitating the police, nor were they likely ever harassed by the police. Even if, as in Valluzzo's case, their personal lives left something to be desired, both of these men obviously had far more to enjoy out of life than many poorer minorities. They had worked diligently their entire lives and had been rewarded well for that work. Had the cops not visited their homes in these two incidents, Waller and Valluzzo stood a decent chance of dying either of comfortable old age or too much good living.
Which brings us back to the uncomfortable role some sort of mistake on the part of the police appears to have played in the deaths of two otherwise upstanding, law-abiding, rules-playing white men in their seventies. And if police can make lethal mistakes in a country club neighborhood like Waller's, or a Connecticut estate like Valluzzo's, what kind of mistakes might they be making in neighborhoods where privilege, education, ambition, security, and achievement are in much shorter supply?
Update: On Wednesday, January 29, 2014, after hearing 25 hours of testimony, a grand jury in Fort Worth no-billed the officer who shot Waller.