Last Friday at 7:45 p.m., police arrived at a Southeast Washington row house to find one man stabbed and lying in a pool of blood and another shot. When emergency medical personnel tried to rescue the wounded men, they were fired upon from inside the house by a man who then barricaded himself in the house.
After calling in reinforcements, including an armored vehicle, police later dodged sniper bullets as they tried to talk to him through a bullhorn. When the sniper, later identified as a despondent Army veteran named Reginald Coleman, set two fires inside the house, police fired tear gas in an attempt to flush the man out and to allow firefighters to battle the blaze. The siege lasted for seven hours until police stormed the house at 3 a.m. and found Coleman dead of smoke inhalation and burns.
While that incident was tragic enough, a story told by the barricaded man's family was also disturbing. Arriving on the scene early in the siege, Coleman's mother and brother said they heard police make their relative the butt of several jokes, even as they tried unsuccessfully to persuade officials to let them talk to their family member.
"The police wouldn't let me cross the barricade," said Clarence Coleman. "Every time I said I wanted to talk to him, the police kept saying they were going to arrest me." At one point in the siege, Clarence Coleman said, he approached an officer and heard him laugh, " 'They got Rambo in there.' I told him, 'His name is Reginald Coleman, not no Rambo.' "
Moreover, Callie Coleman told of her efforts to get police to allow her and other relatives to try to talk her son into giving himself up. "I feel that if my son had known his family was out there, he wouldn't have thought he was alone." Three other family members also were present on the scene, but police did not let family members talk to Reginald Coleman.
For police professionals, there are standard procedures for handling incidents such as the one involving Reginald Coleman. They tried to reach Coleman by telephone and they talked to him through a bullhorn. They have declined to talk about their reasons for not involving the family in their efforts to talk to Coleman. However valid those reasons might have been, family members should not have been made to feel that no one on the scene really cared.
Barricade situations such as the one involving Coleman are chaotic, and it is not always easy to determine who's who and what's what. But perhaps the police could have segregated the family into a separate, cordoned-off area, which would have made the family more comfortable and also kept them available in case their help was needed. They didn't have to threaten to arrest family members who wanted to offer assistance. And no family member should have had to hear cracks like the reported "Rambo" remark, even if no malice was intended.
A central issue is that the family was kept in the dark. If there were good reasons they were not allowed to talk to Coleman, these reasons should have been explained to them. It is easy to see how the Colemans, distraught in a time of crisis, would regard their treatment as callous.
Police spokesman Joe Gentile said channels exist for the Colemans to redress any grievance they have, and he suggested that the family file a complaint if they heard such comments as the "Rambo" reference. But I think the problem goes beyond this one incident. Many District residents, particularly the poor, still see the police as insensitive, even cruel. The way the Coleman family was handled didn't help that image at all.
Police officers have a tough job. But outbursts of the kind described by the Coleman family only make it more difficult. In this case, it drives yet another wedge between themselves and people who already are suffering and under stress. In the end, police officials are not only keepers of the law, but keepers of humanity and compassion as well.