03/16/05 — Discrimination: Among law enforcement agencies, it is needed

View Archive

Discrimination: Among law enforcement agencies, it is needed

With all deference to the good female law enforcement officers — and there are some fine ones right here in Wayne County — there is a vital lesson to be learned from the Atlanta courthouse case.

It is a lesson straight from Law Enforcement 101: A strong show of force discourages violence. Giving a perception of weakness encourages it.

The four people who were apparently shot and killed by rape suspect Brian Nichols would probably be alive today if the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department had assigned a more formidable deputy to guard him.

Instead, Nichols was taken to a holding area during a court recess by a five-foot-tall, 51-year-old grandmother. When she unfastened his handcuffs so he could change clothes, the six-foot-1, 200-pound ex-football linebacker clobbered her.

While she lay unconscious on the floor, he took her keys. With one of them he opened a wall box in which deputies keep their pistols, and he took one. Now free and armed, he began a murderous rampage that ended only when he encountered another woman, this one a calm, spiritual young mother who persuaded him to surrender and take his punishment.

In the meantime, four lives had been lost.

The deaths cannot be blamed solely on the fact that the deputy who allowed Nichols to escape was a female. There are male officers who might have been equally defenseless. This is especially true in light of the fact that Fulton County policy allowed deputies to remove handcuffs from prisoners in unsecured areas. In many jurisdictions, shackles are not removed until a prisoner is in a locked cell.

Blame for the crimes goes to whoever it was who assigned one petite deputy the custody of a hulking suspect who was on trial for the violent crime of rape. As all the nation now knows in hindsight, that was an egregious lapse in judgment.

It is good that more women are entering law enforcement, a vocation that is growing ever more professional. But putting on a uniform does not give a person, man or woman, the physical strength, speed and agility that may be needed for a particular set of circumstances.

Let other law enforcement agencies take heed. Agencies should discriminate on the basis of an officer’s probable ability to handle a situation.

Published in Editorials on March 16, 2005 11:49 AM