Better silent than sorry…

I’ve observed a lot of strange behavior while writing about criminal justice in S’lano County during the past 30 years, but there’s one recurring peccadillo among folks hereabouts that I’ve never been able to fully understand.

This involves otherwise sapient human beings, who readily admit that they have little or no knowledge of firearms, arbitrarily deciding that the gun barrel they’re looking down during a crime in progress isn’t a “real” gun barrel.

Hey, everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but these folks frequently turn a simple criminal encounter into a disaster by sharing their opinion of the gunman’s weapon with the twitchy guy who’s holding it.

Not good.

Here’s a guy threatening to blow your head off if you don’t hand over your wallet or stop broadcasting microwaves into his meth lab and you decide to disrespect the guy’s choice of firearms.

“Har-de-har-har-har, buddy! You can’t fool me – that ain’t a real gun!”

Now we have a guy who’s already nervous, possibly coming down from a weekend of drugs, alcohol and bad country music, and you decide to disparage him and his weapon.

Hell, why not go for the triple crown and poke rude fun at his mother, too?

The logical response from any self-respecting felon whose firearm has been disrespected is painfully obvious – pull the trigger. This action provides positive reinforcement for any gunman whose motives have been questioned and it proves that the firearm in question actually is real.

Unfortunately, the same action can have an immediate and deleterious effect on your well-being if you’re standing in front of the firearm.

This whole scenario wouldn’t really trouble me if I’d only heard about it once or twice, but it happens with alarming frequency and sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Do yourself a favor – if you don’t think some crook’s firearm is real, keep your opinion to yourself. You’ll thereby avoid unnecessarily hurting the gunman’s feelings and possibly escape an unpleasant encounter with a bullet.

Police officers – professionally familiar with a variety of firearms – rarely make this blunder. If someone charges up to a law enforcement officer brandishing what appears to be a firearm, the officer is not going to debate the weapon’s reality. He – or she – will immediately react to disarm, disable or dispatch the gunman. Unless the weapon in question has a bright orange barrel or is made of clear plastic with water sloshing around inside, the lawman is going to behave as if he is facing a deadly weapon.

Many replica firearms look real and many genuine firearms – particularly those offered in designer colors or with goofy-looking stocks – don’t look particularly authentic. But, as unfair as it may seem, a gun doesn’t have to look particularly genuine to kill you.

When facing a felon with a firearm, it’s always best to assume that you’re looking down the barrel of a real gun. Gently surrender your wallet and report the encounter to police at your earliest opportunity.

Better safe than sorry, amigos…

Originally published November 5, 2006

This just isn’t good business

I’ve got to admit that I was more than a little taken aback upon reading that a trio of Fairfield drug dealers had recently opened fire on a potential customer when he seemed reluctant to make a purchase.

A hard sell to be sure…

According to Fairfield police, the spirited sidewalk solicitors approached a Berkeley tourist on Phoenix Drive last month and offered to sell him drugs.

(Somehow I get the feeling that we’re not talking Extra Strength Tylenol here…)

The visitor declined and the eager entrepreneurs proceeded to chase him from Phoenix Drive to East Travis Boulevard and finally San Diego Street, apparently trying to convince him to purchase some illicit pharmaceuticals by repeatedly shooting at him.

The hapless tourist suffered a nonlethal flesh wound during the gunfire and later was treated at NorthBay Medical Center for his injuries.

Let’s face it, this is not the way to build a strong consumer base and it’s quite unlikely that this fellow will ever be a repeat customer. It’s also pretty obvious to me that these would-be business people have never bothered to attend a Fairfield-Suisun Chamber of Commerce sales seminar (nor an NRA firearms safety course).

Remember, the most successful business people follow the tried-and-true principle of sales that says, “The customer is always right.” There is no known corollary that says “If he isn’t, shoot him.”

It would make a lot more sense for these guys to, like, offer a free toaster or compact disc to every customer who buys at least a half-gram of product.

Free key chains, T-shirts or ballpoint pens – preferably engraved with one’s pager number – also make for satisfied customers and repeat business.

Offering samples also is a good idea. This time-honored practice says, “We like you and you’re going to like us.”

And remember to diversify. Not everybody wants to buy crack cocaine. Some customers may prefer marijuana, ecstasy, heroin or just a soupcon of methamphetamines. This is, after all, California. You never know when you’re going to encounter a picky customer who wants Lebanese hashish, only Lebanese hashish and nothing but Lebanese hashish.

Admittedly, good Lebanese hashish isn’t always that easy to obtain these days, but if you’ve got a gram or two stashed away, think how impressed your new customer will be when you produce it.

And if you don’t have that special item on hand, always be prepared to offer a reasonable substitute at a slightly discounted price. Or, if there’s no immediacy involved, offer to special order your customer’s request at your earliest opportunity. Being flexible always pays off in the long run.

The one thing you don’t want to do is start shooting at a new customer.

That’s like saying, “I’m armed, I’m whacked and I don’t belong to the Better Business Bureau.”

Read my lips: No return business – particularly if you manage to hit your would-be patron with one or more rounds…

Originally published May 5, 2002

The double cappuccino: threat or menace?

What with artificial energy shortages, growing corporate sleaze and an unexpected proliferation of killer dogs, these United States have been rolling down a decidedly bumpy road in recent weeks.

I firmly believe we can survive all these difficulties. What I’m worried about, though, is our ability to survive our morning coffee.

I used to bemoan the fact that the average American appeared to be losing such basic skills as the ability to safely pick up a firearm or start a chainsaw.

As the 1980s began to melt into the 1990s, it seemed like more and more suburbanites were lopping off limbs and shooting themselves in the feet for no apparent reason. Even seasoned gang members were having trouble hitting their rivals during drive-by shootings.

Then one day a motorist ordered a cup of hot coffee from a fast food restaurant and the hot coffee actually turned out to be, er, hot, and the unsuspecting motorist was scalded during a series of events which are still somewhat unclear to me.

Fortunately there was an attorney nearby to render assistance and the case of the hot coffee that actually was hot and therefore dangerous to people ordering hot coffee was entered in the annals of civil law.

And suddenly everybody was being victimized by coffee. For awhile there it seemed like bands of malevolent restaurant employees were prowling the streets just looking for hapless citizens to sadistically scald with vats of seething java.

(“Hey, buddy – warm that up for ya? Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!”)

What it all comes down to is the fact that Americans have somehow lost their ability to recognize hot coffee and to safely handle it once they’ve got their mitts around a cup.

It would seem a simple enough intellectual process to receive one’s steaming cup of coffee and think “Aha! Here’s the hot cup of coffee I ordered. I didn’t order iced coffee, therefore this must be hot. It’s radiating warmth and there’s vapor rising from it. Whoa! Must be really hot. I should exercise reasonable caution because hot liquids are quite capable of causing first- and second-degree burns if one is not careful.”

Instead, your average consumer today grabs that cup of hot coffee, swerves back into traffic, reaches for his or her cell phone and begins directing an imaginary orchestra with both hands.

This delirious dance invariably ends with a prolonged shriek of agony, the hissing of scalded flesh and “Hel-loooo, law offices?”

The latest wrinkle in this national debacle is consumer concern about recycled coffee cup caddies.

These little cardboard holders are designed to keep the unwary from searing their fingers on – you guessed it! – hot coffee containers that, presumably, contain hot coffee.

Unfortunately, some folks in Berkeley have discovered to their dismay that many of these disposable coffee caddies are being reused.

Apparently fearing the transmission of ebola and breakbone fever, health conscious coffee consumers are crying foul and calling for one-use cup caddies. Their environmentally-conscious brethren, though, point out the importance of recycling the little carriers. And everybody else continues rolling around on the sidewalk with first-degree burns.

Sorry, amigos, but it may just be time to kiss civilization good-bye…

Originally published April 7, 2002

Activities: Don’t ya just love ’em?

Summertime fun just keeps on coming – whether you want it to or not.

Welcome to California 2000, the state where each and every incorporated municipality is required by law to celebrate roughly 70 festivals annually or be forcibly uprooted and dumped in Iowa.


For newcomers to California, the state’s official motto is “Wheeee!”

Whether it’s Suisun City gleefully celebrating the fact that it has water along its waterfront or Castroville paying festive homage to the action-packed artichoke, this is the any-excuse-for-a-festival state.

Unfortunately, California’s endless cavalcade of zany festivals can only do so much before they all begin to seem the same. Eventually, the thrill of face painting, deep-fried zucchini dogs and creaking Tilt-a-Whirls begins to wear thin.

After the 25th face painting, you and the kids are probably looking for some quality time in the nearest shower stall or automated car wash…

(“Daaaaaaad! It won’t come off! It wooooon’t! I’m gonna have Barrrrney on my forehead forrrrever!”)

Festival promoters used to try luring patrons with promises of “Face painting and much, much more!”

Of course, these clever festival fellows never said what “Much, much more!” actually meant and many of us interpreted that to mean “Much, much more face painting!” or, worse, “Much, much more zucchini!”

This year, resourceful promoters changed their tactics by avoiding a lot of detail and simply offering “Activities!” to potential funseekers.

An increasing number of festival promotions, including the painstakingly written press releases we receive here at the newspaper, are trumpeting “kids’ activities” or “fun activities” or good ol’ “family activities” without explaining exactly what any of them might be.

This has got to mean trouble.

“Activity” leaves a lot open to interpretation and, let’s face it, the average beer-fueled California festival fanatic will usually interpret things to the absolute max.

“Yabba-dabba-dooooo!” was not a term coined by Fred Flintstone. Experts (including the bartender at the old Leaky Tiki Tavern in Lake County) believe it was first uttered in the late 1950s by a funloving group of rural zanies who were trying to water ski across Clear Lake on barrel staves. That was their “activity” and they were damned proud of it. It is unknown if any of them survived past 1960.

In Santa Clara County, activity-oriented teens used to climb up on a steep bluff overlooking the sleepy little village of Saratoga and dispose of their least favorite record albums by randomly hurling the discs into the darkness at about 3 o’clock in the morning.

This quickly prompted other “activities” among the townsfolk: turning on lots of lights, cursing in several languages and removing the shattered remnants of “Bobby Rydell’s Greatest Hits” from their rooftops.

I have it on good authority that there’s also a select group of trapshooters near Bodega Bay who delight in an “activity” that involves launching overripe crabs high into the air and then trying to blast them with shotguns.

Yes, here in the Golden State, one man’s chaos may very well be another’s “activity.”

Heads up, amigos – shotgunned shellfish are nothing to trifle with, no matter how festive you’re feeling…

Originally published August 27, 2000


Yeah, like this is going to sell a bunch of papers

The National Enquirer, apparently striving for mainstream reader acceptance after waning popularity in the nation’s supermarket check-out lines, is reaching out to a broader market with a more conservative approach to the news.

According to a recent issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, the Enquirer and its sister publication, the Star, are in the midst of a $50 million makeover to give the weekly tabloids more credibility with the American public.

They’ve even gone so far as to emblazon their delivery trucks with huge panels proclaiming “NO ELVIS. NO ALIENS. NO UFOS” above a tastefully understated Enquirer logo.

I have only one question:

Have these guys jettisoned their few remaining scraps of sanity?

Think about it – here’s an established publication that’s made its reputation with screaming headlines and in-depth investigations into such mysteries as Elvis Presley’s final, desperate battle with nail fungus. Now the Enquirer has abruptly turned around and is telling its hardcore readers that it’s going to be dumping all the good stuff.

What’s left – exciting excerpts from the Congressional Record? Ann Landers? The annual rainfall in Wenatchee?

If that old banner headline doesn’t read something like “Naked Fergie in Drunken Gun Battle with Cocaine Kingpins,” who’s going to bother with the new Enquirer?

Not I.

When I purchase a supermarket tabloid, I’m looking for the real news that the New York Times and San Francisco Examiner are afraid to print.

If the Enquirer starts dishing out bland helpings of journalistic oatmeal, those of us who want the truth about Elvis, space aliens and UFOs are simply going to look elsewhere – and it won’t be a real long trip, amigos.

Fortunately for discriminating readers everywhere, the Weekly World News is still out there walking point in a world populated by extraterrestrials, werewolves and Bigfoot.

The Enquirer didn’t warn America when the potentially ravenous Bat Child escaped from captivity. No, only the Weekly World News was willing to step out on the edge and let us know about the pointy-earred menace that was roaming our streets.

Just last week, the News scored a series of technical knockouts with thoroughly researched stories that not only predicted the return of Jesus Christ this fall, but advised readers what to say if they bump into him (“If you are lucky enough to meet Jesus in person, you want to make the best impression possible…”).

Other timely advice revealed how readers could direct their out-of-body travels to a specific location and how to use a startling new breed of dog as a household mop (“They’re great on tile and linoleum floors…”).

Also mentioned was the case of the killer trombone slide, tales of spontaneous human combustion and the Mexican border patrol’s new drug-sniffing iguanas.

Drug-sniffing iguanas?

With competition like that, I’d give the new National Enquirer about six more months before the editors there are back pounding the pavement in search of the space aliens who abducted Elvis..

Originally published July 16, 2000

Some suggestions for the LAPD…

I was gratified to discover that the embattled Los Angeles Police Department has decided to seek advice from an independent review panel about how to deal with its seemingly endless series of legal, moral and ethical problems.

Despite the fact that the LAPD has for decades touted itself as one of the best-organized, best-trained and most modern law enforcement agencies in the world, the sprawling department continues to be haunted by periodic charges of brutality, corruption and acts which clearly fall under California’s little known felony stupidity law.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the Los Angeles Police Commission has approved a special panel composed of attorneys, management consultants and criminal justice professionals to determine exactly why the city’s finest keep getting into trouble and to make recommendations about how best to correct the situation.

Guidelines from the Rampart Independent Review Panel are expected sometime in the fall.

This is quite obviously a commendable effort on the part of the Police Commission, but it looks like it’s going to take months for the panel to review the LAPD’s latest excesses and make some helpful recommendations for the future.

What can we do in the interim besides carefully avoiding the Los Angeles city limits?

There are, I believe, some fundamental, stop-gap methods that Los Angeles police officers can take to at least temporarily restore their department’s credibility (and keep them out of the hands of a grand jury).

These recommendations may seem absurdly simple to a lumberjack or professional hod carrier, but you have to remember that we’re talking about the Los Angeles Police Department.

Let’s start with some basics:

Never, ever shoot an unarmed, handcuffed suspect while he’s lying on the ground.

Never try to stroll out of the Evidence Room with a big sack of cocaine over your shoulder. This also goes for a big old sack of heroin, methamphetamines, valium, morphine, quaaludes, LSD, DMT, PCP or contraband cigars.

If you absolutely can’t resist walking off with a few free samples, don’t sign for the borrowed evidence with another officer’s name. This is a serious social gaffe within the law enforcement community and can result in significant irritation among your unsuspecting fellow officers.

(“Whaddya mean I checked out 16 bricks of heroin Sunday afternoon? I was in Barstow, Sarge, honest.”)

It’s also, like, forgery…

Whenever possible, avoid engaging in public, running gun battles with members of other law enforcement agencies no matter how angry they may have made you. Before you reach for your piece, take a moment to close your eyes and slowly count to 10. You’ll be glad you did.

(You may want to duck behind a Dumpster or something before you start counting, particularly if members of the other law enforcement agency are already shooting back at you…)

Admittedly, this advice may not be as comprehensive as what one would expect from an independent review panel, but we’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Originally published April 23, 2000

The fault is not in our stars but in our, er, never mind …

As a child of the psychedelic ’60s, I grew up bombarded with the importance of following one’s stars, scanning horoscopes, examining one’s karma and realizing with trepidation that Richard Nixon and I shared a somewhat mediocre astrological sign.

Even though Capricorns never get any respect and the advice we receive from most astrologers is something like “Things could be worse,” I still find myself drawn to the daily newspaper horoscope to find out whether I’m likely to be hit by a runaway bus in the shower or attacked by a swarm of carnivorous bats on my way to work.

A horoscope listing for Capricorns last month was typical of the genre and has left me in a bit of a quandary if I actually decide to pay any attention to it:

“You may have made a hasty decision that you’ll live to regret. Try to backtrack if at all possible.”

Yeah, sure. Let’s analyze this bit of advice, amigos.

First, there’s the presumption that we’re talking “may” as in perhaps, and “a” as in only one, single occurrence of hasty decision-making on the part of any number of hair-trigger Capricorns worldwide.

Sorry, if it’s one thing Capricorns do well – other than fret and toss fitfully in their sleep – it’s make hasty decisions (see above, former president Richard Milhous Nixon. What a zany!).

And now my helpful syndicated astrologer is suggesting that I “may have made a hasty decision” and that I should “backtrack” to get my stars back in line.

Backtrack …

Let’s see, there was the time I couldn’t wait to test the action on a new semi-automatic hunting rifle I’d hastily acquired, so I hastily snapped the bolt and hastily pulled the trigger (firmly believing that the firearm was unloaded).

The rifle hastily fired a round through the ceiling of my living room, through the floor of an upstairs bedroom and into a house guest’s suitcase. The owner of the luggage, although unhurt, was significantly unamused.

How, may I ask, does one backtrack on that inspired bit of hasty decision-making?

Then there was the time that I hastily consumed something like 18 beers at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and – I’m told by fairly reliable witnesses – hastily proposed marriage to a belly dancer, a nun and a comely, 6-foot-tall photographer named Maria.

C’mon, I’ve studiously avoided setting foot in Gilroy ever since and now I’m supposed to backtrack? This doesn’t sound like the smartest move I could make even after 15 years and I’m certain that plenty of upstanding citizens in Gilroy would agree with me.

From time to time, I also have been accused of making hasty automotive decisions, usually by flipping a coin and then acquiring the first piece of Detroit iron that caught my eye.

Ever bought a supercharged Thunderbird? I have. Purchased quite hastily, I might add. Ford doesn’t make them anymore. There’s a reason for that …

At least the aforementioned horoscope says I’ll probably live to regret whatever hasty decision I’ve made. And for Capricorns, simply living to regret one’s actions is a hugely positive thing.

Originally published April 16, 2000