Tales From The Blue Line #29

Few things are as demeaning to a modern day law enforcement officer than being called a “Wyatt Earp.” Depending upon the circumstances, the officer will laugh it off, or be a bit insulted. This is not news – it has long been a rib tickler thing for cops – but of course sometimes it’s true. That goes without saying. When an individual cop steps outside the law, he/she must face appropriate consequences. There is compelling information that the OK Corral incident and followup was not properly handled. That unauthorized gun slinging ruled the day.


The Gunfight at the OK Corral was a watershed moment for America’s police type authorities. An overall respected, even revered man, and his gang had marched off and killed some bad guys they’d been having trouble with for a while. As previously noted, Earp was vindicated, and I’m not going to re-analyze the investigation and succeeding court room proceedings, but questions were raised that resonate to this day. Actually, “police procedures” were looked at hard by upstanding, qualified people with first class resumes, and some favorite sons got off the hook, but things had to get started somehow.


The USA was growing super fast in all respects and by the 20th Century many previously inconceivable and wonderful inventions had been introduced. Ways of improving life were coming into existence by the day. Everyone had to change, like it or not. Some caught on quickly and changed as needed, others didn’t care and kept on a goin’ like the old days. They ended being dragged into changing.


But then, sometimes not. That has been going on since time immemorial.


At the top of the list were criminal and civil laws; behavior was being checked and balanced. The laws changed and new ones were quickly added, as needed. (The manner and legitimacy of those changes will forever be debated.) Declarations stamped in black and white onto paper are one thing. Human behavior is another.


That takes us from October of 1883, the time of the OK Corral episode, to February of 1974, the time of another, less well-known event that occurred between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That headline dominating splash was, technically at least, more of a doozy than the 19th Century deal in the Arizona desert


The course of life caused law enforcement and the courts et al to change – some say improve, others claim not so much – in mind bending ways. Constables On Patrol – cops – were trained better and more reliably held accountable for inappropriate actions. Most of the time, to be certain.


Wyatt Earp’s day was a fuzzy – even cozy in some ways – memory.


We can recount all the events and reasons for upgrades throughout the ages. We can name all the different law enforcement – and even include the military a bit – and the reasons for all the specialized, sophisticated training they’ve undergone. It’s a compelling, entertaining story, to be sure. But you have to pay particular attention to America’s Big Dog in the law enforcement field during the ultimate modernization: The FBI. And the guy who really, really made the organization famous: J. Edgar Hoover.


In some important ways, J. Edgar ran things to the point where he had the power to tell the President Of The United States how things were going to work. Literally. (The whole Kennedy family could tell you stories, if they were still around.)


It’s even been said on the down low that J. Edgar continued running the agency for years after his death, and that knee-jerk worshipers of the man did everything they could to make everyone pretend that he was still alive. I heard that story directly from a gleefully giggling FBI agent I’d come in contact with because of my job as a police detective.


This, however, is a story from the FBI’s past, not the current operation. The changes needed were quickly recognized and have been remarkable, and the cooperation between the Feds and the locals is almost unrecognizable with its improvements, I am quick to add.


Yes, Mr. Hoover had passed away two years before the investigation I’m about to describe, but at that time, it still didn’t make much difference. As some may have guessed, I’m saying that in some ways, it was as though Wyatt Earp was also still alive. A bit strong, I know, but there are fellow surviving officers of the day who would support me.


BL29In 1974 a man named Jacob Peter Cohen did a bank robbery in Chicago, Illinois, and in the process he shot and killed two Chicago police officers. He escaped from the scene and fled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now, bank robberies are the FBI’s “thing,” as it were, and perpetrators crossing state lines adds extremely more weight to the FBI’s interest and authority.


That was the problem I shall now address.


The suspect arrived at a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s East Side, and hid out in a residence for about a day. But the investigation could not have been more intense, and it was strongly assisted by citizens who’d heard and read reports about the incident. Mr. Cohen was located and the information was turned over to the law enforcement authorities.


And that’s where things went horribly wrong.


The FBI’s sources had come through for them, and the individuals who received the information didn’t think things through.


As it was later determined, the agents lacked the training necessary to properly handle things. You can’t just saddle up and go get a bad guy. But a couple of guys in suits and ties and pistols on their hips just weren’t enough to do the job. But that’s where some of them were at in 1974 Milwaukee.


Of course, they needed more people, the Milwaukee Police Department should have been met with before heading out to the OK Corral – oops! I mean the small East Side apartment in which Mr. Cohen was hiding.


In retrospect, a claim was allegedly made that the MPD had first been notified by the FBI, but it was never verified.


The small group of agents went to the apartment and walked single file up a narrow, outdoor stairway that led to Mr. Cohen’s hideout. Cohen saw them coming, opened the door and shot one of them. He was struck in the midsection and badly injured, but thankfully he survived his wound.


Mr. Cohen managed to flee, ran a few blocks and forced himself into the home of a local attorney. The attorney was not home, but his three underage children were. Cohen took them hostage, and in the intensely hysterical moment he actually spoke with someone at a local radio station, and demanded a vehicle for his escape. Several dozen police officers rushed to the scene, and Cohen shot a Milwaukee detective in the leg. He, too, survived his wound. The police Tactical Squad, armed with rifles and all other manner of high grade equipment and weaponry, zeroed in on the home.


A car was located and a savvy police officer who knew about cars manipulated the engine so that it would go no faster than 30 mph.


The car was brought to the house, the cop killer came out holding a gun to the head of a child hostage, and walked toward the car. The young boy slipped away from the murderer’s grasp and ran, and said murderer was instantly shot to death by the Tac Squad police officers.


The incident was given live, nationwide radio and TV coverage, while it was still in progress.


Someone quickly asked, “Why didn’t the FBI agents call the MPD before approaching Jacob Peter Cohen?”


Another asked, “Why were the agents not equipped with heavier assault equipment and armored protection?”


A fierce discussion and rounds of criticism regarding the FBI’s handling of the situation ensued. Veteran officers from major cities agreed that the agents had acted too quickly.


Later that year the FBI agent who’d been shot was given an award for meritorious service by the US government for his bravery and sacrifice.


Some officers said that if things had been properly handled, the agent would never have been wounded. But then he was only doing what his limited training had instructed him to do.


It serves as an example of how Wyatt Earp type thinking and acting can make things much worse. Negative opinions of J. Edgar Hoover had been expressed in many ways before, and of course he was no longer alive when Jacob Peter Cohen perpetrated his monstrous acts. But some old traditions had still been around, even within the most powerful law enforcement authority in the country.

Rob Riley

This is number 29 in an ongoing series from Rob.

He spent thirty-two years as a Milwaukee police officer: seven years doing undercover narcotics investigations and twenty-two years as a major crimes detective. Writing and reading have been lifelong passions, and he began by writing short stories more than thirty years ago.

Rob is published by Orange Hat Press

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