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Wednesday, October 08, 2003  

Biography: A message from Moose

If Montgomery County Maryland officials were genuinely concerned that former police chief Charles Moose's book Three Months in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper represented a conflict of interest, they may lament having convinced him to resign. It doesn't. If any law enforcement personnel believe the narrative might jeopardize the prosecution of the snipers, they too can release their breaths. The book doesn't do that, either. It isn't the kind of production that threatens either civilians or cops.

What Moose's effort is is an autobiography that includes some information about the search for the Washington, D.C., area snipers this time last year. There is some new and some clarifying material about the investigation in the book.

  • The Chevrolet Caprice people often confuse with the alleged shooters' car was altogether different. It turned up burned out and abandoned early in the investigation.
  • There were scores of suspects investigated and cleared during the probe, despite the assumption the task force was largely without suspects during most of the period.
  • Richmond, Va., area law enforcement personnel arrested two illegal aliens at a Ponderosa Steak House where one of the shootings occurred after the task force told them the men had not called the hotline, the criterion for apprehension.
  • A major piece of evidence linking Lee Boyd Malvo and John Muhammad to the case, identification of Malvo's fingerprint, would not have occurred if Police Chief Charles Moose had not enlisted the help of federal authorities in the investigation.
  • Washington Post reporters attacked Moose for writing his book while writing a competitor that tells more about the sniper investigation than his does.
  • Other assumptions people made about Moose's agenda then and now may be inaccurate, as well. He describes the investigation as a shared responsibility, with three agencies taking the lead. He credits Agent Gary Bald of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Agent Michael Bouchard of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with having played as much of a role in the investigation as he did. Bald was able to expedite much of the investigating because the FBI is a much faster moving entity than local law enforcement. For example, the tree trunk in Tacoma, Washington, Muhammad had fired shots into was whisked to a national lab in hours under the FBI's auspices. The ATF both located the negligent gun seller who allowed the suspects to get access to the Bushmaster assault weapon and confirmed the match between the gun and recovered bullets and cartridges beyond a reasonable doubt within hours of recovery of the gun.

    Moose's major contribution to the probe was being the face of it and communicating with the suspects. I don't believe the latter role can be overestimated. But for Moose's ability to establish a rapport with the two, they would not have continued to send messages to the investigators. Indeed, they could have ended their spree and disappeared into the underbelly of America. The first message was the tarot card found near the school where a teenager was shot. When its existence was leaked, Moose was able to reassure the suspects by insisting the media, not the police, were responsible. That led to subsequent messages, letters left at two other sites of shootings. The suspects also increased their phone communications after Moose's responses, making important mistakes in the process, such as the slip about a shooting in Montgomery, Alabama. Those errors in their communication with the task force were ultimately their undoing.

    Charles Moose' other, and perhaps, more significant, reason for writing a book is to tell his own story of success and, sometimes, failure. That story is interesting because it chronicles both a society and an individual. Moose grew up in a part of North Carolina I know well. In many ways, his memories parallel those of my older brother and sister. Key to those memories are race. Moose remembers the segregated neighborhoods of the times, the signs telling people of color they could not eat in restaurants and an active Ku Klux Klan. Since I am younger than he is, I have no memory of segregation de jure. However, I do recall a cross-burning. The KKK burned a cross on the lawn of the dentist who lived down the street from us when I was in elementary school. The tensions left over from a few years previous were also still very much present when this native North Carolinian became cognizant of the world around her.

    Moose went on to predominantly white settings such as the University of North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, where he was a policeman for more than 20 years. However, the race problem didn't go away just because he moved from one part of the country to another. Incidents when he complained about discriminatory treatment would leave the only blemishes on his reputation as a police officer. In that odd way white people too often have of blaming people of color for daring to criticize any of them, Moose became the problem, not the persons who had treated him in racist ways.

    Moose was chief of police in Portland when I moved here. He had held the office since the summer of 1993. His greatest achievement has been to end the high rate of aggravated assaults and murders caused by gangs in the city. Seattle and Portland, and, to a lesser extent, Salem and Vancouver, had developed severe problems with the Bloods and the Crips when many families from southern California immigrated to the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s and 1990s. Through a combination of community policing and a special gang squad, Moose's department was able to eliminate the bloody footprints of the gangs, reducing Portland homicides by two-thirds. Only during the last year has the gang problem begun to recur, with some of those previously incarcerated now released and Hispanic gangs becoming larger and more active.

    No one works all the time. Charles Moose has been less successful in his personal life than in his public role. Despite growing up middle-class, he has suffered his share of family tragedy. His mother died in her early 40s and his father would succumb to Alzheimer's before he turned 60. His older brother, David, suffered some kind of psychiatric trauma that left him dysfunctional, and homeless much of the time, from his 20s until his own early death. Moose's sister, Dorothy, seems the most stable member of the family, though her homosexuality must have been quite a surprise to a straight arrow like him. His own first marriage became continuing grounds for acrimony. The initial Mrs. Moose, Linder, has never forgiven him for eventually wedding Sandy, the woman he carried on an affair with while they were married. Only as he neared adulthood did David, Moose's son, form a solid relationship with his father. Though the former chief says he is pleased with his current domestic situation, he regrets having missed most of his only child's childhood.

    I haven't said anything about Charles Fleming, Moose's co-author. That is because there is hardly anything to say. I expected him to contribute the abilities of an experienced writer to the project. But, despite his name being on the jacket, there is no evidence Fleming contributed anything to the book. The writing is that of a nonprofessional -- unpolished, repetitious and lacking in expressiveness. Moose could have written this book with no help. . . and I suspect he did.

    My opinion of Moose did change while reading Three Weeks in October. I realized that, despite having successfully completed two advanced degrees, he is no intellectual. Instead, he is a person who is able to combine an academic understanding of his subject area, law enforcement, with the nuts and bolts know-how to get things done. A consummate pragmatist. Consider one of Moose's achievements in Portland -- cleaning up a housing development that was festering with crime. He used funds he acquired by applying for a community development block grant. One of the things he did with the money was to set up a small community policing office in the development. However, his fellow cops refused to come by and he didn't have the power to force them. His response was to install a color television set in the community policing office. Policemen began to come by to watch football on the television set. There were soon enough officers on hand whenever they were needed in the neighborhood. An intellectual might have ended up frustrated when his plans were marred by a lack of cooperation from other cops. A street smart officer might not have gone through the mind numbing bureacratics of applying for the grant in the first place. But, the combination of willingness to jump through bureaucratic hoops and the moxie needed to get bodies into that community policing office worked wonders together.

    Portland's next police chief had a much bumpier ride than Moose. Some of the citizenry came to regret Moose's departure for the East Coast and asked him to reconsider the position. Obviously, even if the man decides to return to law enforcement, he can't be everywhere. However, I believe the strengths that have made him a better than average police chief can be cloned. Moose's blend of academic theory and real world practice are a combination that should be sought in leaders in law enforcement.

    Though Three Weeks in October is not an extraordinary book, I believe it is a fine introduction to both the realities of police work and the realities of what it means to be a proud, capable person of African descent in America.

    Note: I purposely did not read any reviews of Charles Moose's book until after I wrote my review two days ago. Since, I have browsed the responses at Amazon. The outpouring of hatred toward Moose shocked even me, not exactly a stranger to bigotry. I have seen similar material at white supremacist sites, but thought people would behave better at a general audience venue.

    1:24 PM