I must have seen those words several hundred times during my time reading the Usenet group devoted to Homicide: Life on the Street. Within that community, it referred to a plot point so notorious that no further context was needed - the climax of season 5's "Deception." (Teleplay by Debbie Sarjeant; Story by Tom Fontana & Julie Martin & James Yoshimura.)
Today, that episode turns 20.
I've thought of that episode and its fallout a lot over the last few years, as we've seen more and more police-involved shootings gain prominence in the news. I can't help but reflect on how much those Usenet debates taught me about police procedure long before the larger zeitgeist was arguing when it should be legal for a cop to shoot someone.
The Homicide episode was the resolution to a subplot that had run through several episodes over the course of the prior year. Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Kellerman (Reed Diamond) had long been trying to get the goods on local drug kingpin Luther Mahoney (the fantastic Erik Todd Dellums), who'd managed to slither out of every attempt they made to nail him. In this episode, they finally crack the case when circumstances lead them to intercepting one of Mahoney's incoming heroin shipments. One swap of fake drugs for the real ones later, and Luthor's dealers face a lot of angry customers. Luther himself knows he had to have been betrayed by either his own lieutenant or his suppliers.
So he agrees to a meeting in a public place. Things go bad, Luthor kills two people and escapes to his penthouse. Lewis and Kellerman are separated and by the time Kellerman gets to Luther's penthouse, Luther has gotten ahold of Lewis's gun and is aiming it right at him.
Kellerman issues three warnings to drop the gun. Luthor turns to Kellerman, gun arm extended 45 degrees at his side and with a mocking laugh, says, "Go ahead Detective. Read me my rights." Kellerman, advancing on Luther, says "You have the right to remain silent" and then shoots him in the chest.
Debate: is this a clean shoot?
In the strictly legal sense, yes. So long as Luther has the gun, he can be considered an active threat. Kellerman has warned him twice to drop it. Law enforcement professionals who frequented the group confirmed that this factor pretty much makes Kellerman's actions defensible. (Despite the questionable act of beginning a Miranda reading before shooting the suspect.)
Here's where Homicide muddied the waters a bit. Before Kellerman arrives, Lewis is the first one to catch Luther. And when Lewis pulls a gun on him, Luther immediately puts his hands up and says "I'm unarmed. I'm surrendering."
Lewis responds by holstering his gun and giving Luther a beatdown for all the murders over the past year that he's escaped justice for. During this struggle, Luther gets Lewis's gun and that's the point where Kellerman enters.
Someone's in the wrong here, but it isn't Kellerman. As you might expect, though, the cops sanitize their statements to keep Lewis in the clear. It's an interesting bit of ethics coming from the characters we're expected to see as "the good guys."
Does what Lewis did change any of the facts about what Kellerman did? In terms of if Kellerman was right to do what he did, I say no.
And yet, this shooting would have repercussions through the following season. A new arrival to the squad, Falsone (Jon Seda, playing a character I so disliked it took a solid decade not to react with disgust to his appearance in any other series), kept picking at this scab, convinced that Kellerman was the dirty one. It didn't help that Kellerman wasn't in a good place. Prior to the Mahoney shooting, he'd been accused of corruption when he was in fact the only member of his old squad not taking payouts AND he'd come close to committing suicide over his distraught reaction to another of Luther's victims.
And Lewis ends their partnership, basically cutting Kellerman out of his life as much as he can. Kellerman takes none of this well, drinking heavily and is clearly compromised on the job. By the end of the season, when what's left of the Mahoney organization has more or less declared war on the squad, Kellerman finds himself being interrogated over the shooting by Falsone... and the squad's biggest gun and best interrogator in the box: Detective Pembleton (Andre Braugher.)
When the big interrogation goes down, Lewis doesn't directly implicate Kellerman, but more or less lets Pembleton know that going after Kellerman wouldn't necessarily be on the wrong track. Thus, Kellerman finds himself defending this shooting again a year after the fact, with Pembleton and Falsone seizing on Kellerman's reenactment of the scene where he shows Luther had the gun down. Kellerman continues to insist that the suspect had a gun, but the others act as if "but the gun was down" trumps that.
This ends Mike's career. His lieutenant says he'll toss the confession if Kellerman resigns. thereby sparing the unit from further scrutiny.
In the real world, it doesn't. And it's interesting to me that Homicide chose to tell the story in this way. There are three options:
1) straight up ignorance of police procedures - unlikely
2) disregard of real procedures in the name of dramatic license - possible, maybe even probable.
3) we're meant to look below the surface to understand WHY everyone as they do.
As 3 is the most interesting to debate, that's the line of thought we're gonna follow here.
At the end of this arc, arguably the most significant example of police conduct goes unpunished, and really not even acknowledged. Lewis beat up a surrendering suspect and put himself in a position where that suspect took his weapon. And to the bitter end, Lewis never acknowledges that or even gives the dramatically satisfying speech of telling Kellerman, "I'm sorry I put you in that position, Mikey." Hell, he never even acts grateful for what was done, instead, more or less gaslighting Kellerman into taking all the blame.
I used to hate how this ending sold out Kellerman. He was one of my favorites, and Reed Diamond was vastly underrated in that role. To this day, when he shows up on my TV, I'm excited to see him. Andre Braugher's departure that season sucked up most of the press, but Kellerman's exit also left a massive hole in the squad. I would moan about the "bad writing" of this ending and let myself get sucked into the "clean shoot" debate. It was years before I realized I wasn't giving the writers credit for the hidden depth of the story. Deep subtext wasn't often present in network drama, and certainly not when the characters assert something about the story that is actually directly antithetical to the meaning of that story.
And so we return to Mike Kellerman, the loyal friend, the good cop, the guy who wouldn't even rat on the dirty cops in his old arson squad despite the fact doing so would have instantly saved his skin. His reward for this was that the stink of being dirty hung over him so much that witnesses even recognized him as "the dirty cop" from the news. The guy who tried hard to do everything right, got punished for it at every turn. The way the Mahoney saga went is entirely keeping with that. Kellerman's tragic fall comes not from something awful he did, but from the corruption of others around him. It's his lot to wear the scarlet letter that belongs to others. He's not the guy to throw others into the fire and not even two corruption scandals will take that last bit of integrity from him.
It was a clean shoot. It could never be anything BUT that given the circumstances.
Kellerman doesn't go down because he's defending the shooting. He goes down taking the bullet that belongs to Lewis's sloppy takedown, because as long as the debate stays on the shooting, no one's really out for blood there.
Kellerman is the cop he was trained to be. And this is a story about how the system and society destroy him, while less noble "good guys" thrive for far longer.