Uncommon Police Work on the Ranch
Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2006 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Uncommon Police Work on the Ranch
If it had been any shooter but Dick Cheney, there might have been real investigating in Texas
by David Simon

Good thing it was the vice president of the United States, and good thing it didn't happen in a city accustomed to its share of gunfire. Or some actual police work might have occurred.

Where I live, in Baltimore - one of the nation's most violent cities - we are admittedly unaccustomed to the occasional hunting accident. But stray rounds, accidental discharges and unintended woundings are fairly common.

And when they happen, invariably, a police investigator is called to the scene. And he begins to, well, investigate. Immediately. So that if Dick Cheney were, say, Jess Fowlkes of the 500 block of Whatcoat Street, his Saturday night would have gone a little something like this:

Detective No. 1: You Jess Fowlkes?

Fowlkes: Ummm ...

Detective No. 2: 'Cause your friend in the ER says you two were shooting semiautos at empty Clorox bottles an' you put a hot one in his shoulder.

Fowlkes: It was an accident.

Detective No. 1: Right. So he said.

Fowlkes: I feel bad, yo. Worst day of my life, in fact.

Detective No. 2: So you say. Where's the gun?

Fowlkes: Could we deal with this tomorrow? I'm upset.

Detective No. 1: Get the gun. Now. You're going downtown.

Fowlkes: Am I under arrest?

Detective No. 2: Do you wanna be?

Fowlkes: No.

Detective No. 1: Then give up the gun, show us where the shooting happened and get the #@*& in the #*&@#&*@ car.

It wouldn't matter that Fowkles didn't have a press officer with him, or that he had a proper weapons permit, or that the friend he shot agreed that it was accidental and had no hard feelings.

In America, when you shoot someone - regardless of how you say it happened and how others known to you say it happened - an independent investigator is supposed to be summoned immediately. Because absent the objective work of a trained investigator, who can say what is accidental and what is intentional, what is random misfortune and what is reckless endangerment?

Good thing they were on a 50,000-acre ranch in Texas and the Kenedy County sheriff's deputies were so darned polite. Good thing, too, I suppose, that we can take the Dick Cheneys of the world at their word.

Because nothing that is supposed to occur when a human being is dropped by gunfire in these United States actually happened in Texas. And while the entire Washington press corps whined and wailed about how and when it was appropriate for Cheney to inform them about his misadventure, the more fundamental lapse involves the corresponding lack of diligence by Texas authorities.

As any competent detective will tell you, the hours immediately after a shooting incident are the hours in which the following things can and do happen:

Witnesses consolidate and rehearse stories; people tramp, time and again, back across the shooting scene, adding their own foot tracks and obliterating others and otherwise destroying physical evidence; weapons are cleaned, modified or hidden; the use or abuse of alcohol or drugs is obscured; hands are cleaned of gunshot residue; clothing and other items with trace evidence are destroyed or cleaned; lawyers are brought into play, preventing investigators from achieving frank, immediate and detailed interviews.

Now in all probability, Cheney's account is truthful. More likely than not, there were no prior disputes between the vice president and his friend, and no doubt there wasn't enough alcohol involved to suggest a pattern of recklessness. It's unlikely that witnesses or the victim were - in the delay before any investigation progressed - coerced into omitting any unfavorable details.

But wouldn't it be better if the Kenedy County authorities - instead of agreeing to come back in the morning - had shown some backbone and treated this in the manner of any other shooting report? Wouldn't the incident be more easily put to rest if a functional police investigation were allowed to immediately corroborate the vice president's account using pristine physical evidence and timely witness statements? Wouldn't we all feel a little better knowing that Cheney, upon sending leaden projectiles into another human being, was subjected to the same basic oversight as every other American?

Until he's better able to distinguish human forms from avian ones, Cheney might want to give towns like mine, where we shoot each other all the time, a wide berth. We might not lock the vice president up for an accidental shooting, but chances are if a competent detective catches the call - and isn't shoved to the ground by a half dozen Secret Service agents - we're at least going to ruin his evening.

David Simon, a former police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of "Homicide," a nonfiction account of a year in a big-city homicide unit. He is now the executive producer of HBO's "The Wire".

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.