Big happenings in our little town Monday night! We had rare [for us, anyway] live coverage of a real hostage/standoff drama on local TV [For some reason, this doesn't happen a lot around here. Not that we're complaining...].
Of course, we've seen action footage from other cities. Los Angeles TV, for instance, must look like a Cops marathon some days, what with all the car and foot chases that seem to be the main news fare. Living close to the Canadian metropolis of Toronto, we get to see the occasional police pursuit, live via helicopter, on their stations. But, since this is an unusual happening here, we're not jaded yet.
The news first broke towards the end of the 6 PM newscast. The anchors noted that a "breaking story" [and we all know what Polisicks says about breaking news] was in progress on one of this area's busiest roadways, just at the end of "rush hour" [another mildly foreign concept around here; most people have a less than 45 minute commute from work to home, even on heavy traffic days]. The screen quickly switched to a view of police cars surrounding a pickup truck. Traffic had been shut down in both directions, leaving more than a few cars and trucks stranded. Amazingly, people were getting out of their cars, and coming as close to the scene as police would allow! [This is one unfortunate effect of so much televised mayhem; like squirrels, we've lost all fear, and are likely to get knocked off by an act that simple caution would prevent. Then again, it thins out the herd...]
Details began to trickle out about the incident: someone [who called the TV station with his story] had seen the pickup truck's driver beating on a female passenger as he was about to drive out of Niagara Falls. The witness quickly called a friend of his, who happened to be a County sheriff's deputy. He was off-duty, but recommended that 911 [emergency services] be called. They were, and the pursuit was on. State Police officers eventually caught up with him in Buffalo. He pulled over to talk to the Troopers, which was when they realized that he was carrying a gun. The police quickly insulated him from the other drivers on the road, keeping him talking and awaiting more help.
During the talk, his passenger left the truck [with permission or not is uncertain at this hour] and was soon spotted in conversation with Buffalo's Police Commissioner [While I think it was nice that the Commissioner took the time to talk with the woman personally, shouldn't he have been more involved with the gunman? Someone else could certainly have gotten the poor woman's story]. Meanwhile, officers were quickly clearing the roadway of trapped drivers, escorting them to "entrance" ramps, which worked just as well, as it turned out, for exiting the highway. SWAT teams arrived, and the TV cameras showed them crouching down behind the concrete barrier that separated North- and South-bound traffic, guns drawn.
As all this was going on, several curious things happened. People began e-mailing the station camera phone photos of the gunman, or the police. A huge crowd gathered in a nearby park, that overlooked the scene. Police began ticketing and towing cars that stopped to watch the drama [this tactic did little good, though; as soon as one car was towed away, another parked in the opened space. It's that "loss of fear" thing again...]
Then everything went into "waiting" mode. Conversations with the gunman continued. He was shown, standing outside his truck, occasional gesturing wildly with his gun [it looked like a pistol, but I'm not really sure]. Finally, as darkness fell, a lone officer approached the truck from behind. Somehow, he got the drop on the driver [who had returned to his vehicle a little earlier]. Meanwhile, other police set off a "whiz-bang" device [a bag that sets off a bright flash of light, followed by a loud explosion]. Startled [and possibly stunned], the gunman was easy prey for a group of officers, who dragged him out of the truck, disarmed him, and put him in restraints. End of crisis, but only the beginning of the questions:
1. / How did all this start? (I could write a scenario involving the two [in a truck with out-of-state plates] visiting Niagara Falls, getting into an argument over losing their vacation money at one of the three casinos that serve this area, with it escalating to violence, and the police incident that followed. But I must emphasise that this is only a theory)
2. / What the Hell were the people in the park thinking? Did they learn nothing from First Manassas [For the uninformed; First Manassas (sometimes called First Bull Run) was an early battle in the US Civil War, fought near the village of Manassas, Virginia. Near to Washington, DC, it seemed to many in the Nation's Capitol an opportunity to spend a pleasant day, watching the Union Army crush the Confederate forces. Some people even brought picnic lunches. The Confederates thoroughly routed the Union side, forcing the spectators to flee for their lives as the Confederates charged the badly-broken Union line. More than a few picnic baskets were lost that day...]
3. / Semi-related to #2, What role does TV coverage of such incidents have on those viewing that coverage? Here in Buffalo, apparently, it leads to people coming out to watch a possibly gory spectacle [Fortunately, no shots were fired by anyone, and any injuries were minor]. More than once, younger people were trying to "get on camera" while the standoff continued. A disturbing response. Does a TV camera encourage bad behavior in spectators? [I don't think the gunman had access to TV] Where does the desire of citizens to know what's going on in their community butt up against the real possibility of injury to those emboldened to come out and watch the event, even at risk to themselves?
Now, remember, I'm sort of on the edge of this. I work for a local radio station [although we carried no special coverage of the standoff]. We play music, and try to take people's minds off the mayhem of the world. But, in fairness, it could be argued that I'm "part of the problem". However you come down on that question, ask yourself this one: what's the solution?
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Posted by Mike Riley at 1:52 AM