By Massad Ayoob
When Gilbert and Sullivan wrote “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,” they spoke for all officers of all colors across the borders of land and time. In the Ayoob Files in this issue, you’ll find the story of frontier lawman Bass Reeves, who won more than a dozen gunfights in the wild territories he served under “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker. Today, a statue honoring him stands proudly in Fort Smith, Ark. In his time, though, there were folks who would rather have seen him under a tombstone than immortalized in bronze.
Some folks get upset when cops have to kill people, however righteously the force was used by those lawmen. When someone fakes going for a gun and is predictably shot by the officer, we always hear, “That trigger-happy cop should have waited to be sure he had a weapon.” Of course, the reality is if the officer does wait that long, he’s likely to soak up a few bullets.
Reeves did kill one man by accident, and went to trial for it. He was found not guilty, and went on with his career. This did not, however, stop accusations of murder from coming up against him.
Historian Art Burton writes, “Any incident where a felon was killed by a deputy marshal was thoroughly investigated by the Fort Smith court. Judge Isaac Parker did not tolerate cold-blooded murder on the side of law or outlaw. There were some deputies who were prosecuted and subsequently served time in prison for unjust killings.”
Burton adds “Nancy E. Pruitt, an early resident of the Creek Nation, also had some interesting comments concerning Reeves.” Among those comments, he reports this one:
“One time he (Reeves) went after two mean Negroes and knew when he left that if he didn’t kill them they would kill him for it would be impossible to bring them back alive. When he found them they were lying under a tree asleep but before he could get to them one awakened and got up. Bass started talking to him and gave him a letter to read. By that time the other one was up. When the first had read the letter Bass told him to let the other one read it. When he turned to give the letter to the other one, Bass shot him and then the second before he could draw. That looks like a cold blooded murder to us now but it was really quick thinking and bravery.”
Burton quotes another source, “Harve Lovelday, an early white homesteader” who said of Bass Reeves, “He brought his men before the court to be tried fairly but many times he never brought in all the criminals but would kill some of them. He didn’t want to spend so much time chasing down the man who resisted arrest so he would shoot him down in his tracks.”
Public Perception Street Reality
Today: a teenager swings an AK-47 toward a policeman, who shoots and kills him; the AK turns out to be a realistic airsoft copy with its orange tip removed. Cries of “Murder!” arise from the Monday morning quarterbacks who didn’t have to make the same split-second life or death decision as the officer. Now, go back in time to the Oklahoma territory of Bass Reeves’ day. News took the form of word of mouth, and was often wrong. But, once something 180 degrees from the truth found its way into a local newspaper, it became something close to archived history.
In 1891, a newspaper published Reeves had been shot to death by notorious outlaw Ned Christie. This came as a surprise to Reeves, who at the time was 150 miles away rounding up assorted bad guys. At least the papers in 1891 had the good taste to publish retractions. Some, of course, also had the bad taste to publish editorials excoriating the idea of a black Federal Marshal with gun and badge — arresting white people.
Alone to Decide
Some things don’t change. Alone on horseback, with a double barrel shotgun in a scabbard on the left side of his saddle, a lever-action Winchester rifle on the right and a Colt revolver on each hip, there were times Bass Reeves had only an instant to react or die. He made the right decisions, and he died at a ripe age for his time, at home in bed, honored for a long and successful career as a peace officer.
Alone in the patrol car, with a patrol rifle and a shotgun, a service pistol and perhaps a backup gun, today’s police officer is in much the same situation. Some things have changed: communication, for example, and a faster “steed.”
But some things don’t change … and the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” nature of police work is one of them.