Yesterday, two days short of the forty-ninth anniversary of the day the course of history took a quantum shift, one of the heroes of that day was honored at the spot where he gave his last full measure of devotion. See the story here.
I am not a fan of bombastic prose, especially my own, but Dallas Police Officer J D Tippit deserved more than faint praise for what he accomplished on November 22, 1963. Tippit, as the world knows, was the second man Lee Harvey Oswald killed that day, the first, of course was the President of the United States. Even though he was killed in the confrontation, Tippit’s alert police work undoubtedly led to Oswald’s quick arrest.
Although Officer Tippit’s memory has been honored in many ways, including the posthumous award of the rarely bestowed Dallas Police Medal of Honor, for one reason or another the location of his confrontation with Oswald and death went unmarked until now. It is certainly fitting that this has finally been done.
I am sure there are some who would downplay Tippit’s role. After all, the immediate event of his death was not the stuff of a Harrison Ford movie – no shootout, no high speed chase, no charge up the hill. It was just a chance confrontation with one of hundreds of men who met general description of the possible Presidential assassin. Well, not quite.
Police officers are trained, both formally, and by experience, to look for and recognize without conscious reflection, subtle patterns in circumstances and behavior that indicate something is wrong or that bears further inquiry. The ability to do this well is not achieved overnight. An article in Scientific American several years ago entitled “The Expert Mind” theorized that is takes a good deal of experience to fully develop such facility. Some become virtuosos; some merely competent. Arthur Conan Doyle, in his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, described the patten recognition ability as subconscious, and almost instinctive. While courts have demanded that law enforcement officer must have probable cause based upon articulated facts and circumstances before a citizen can arrested, an investigative detention can be based on reasonable suspicion, which includes the “something is not right” notion based on experience. (For the wonks out there, see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).)
By all accounts, J.D. Tippit was a competent and conscientious police officer, he had eleven years experience on the street. On the afternoon of the Kennedy assassination, he confronted the most dangerous situation a police officer can face – that of an investigative stop of an unknown person. Tippit knew something was not right when he attempted to stop Oswald; he did not know he was confronting what amounted to a professional gunfighter who had just killed a man with two shots fired in rapid succession at a moving target.
Delving into contra-factual history – the “what if?” exercise – is a fool’s errand. What we do know is that Oswald was on the run after committing one of the most momentous crimes of the 20th Century. Tippit’s attempted stop of Oswald was the result of good police work, and, though he lost that confrontation, in doing so he called the attention of other police officers who likewise pursued and quickly apprehended a Presidential assassin. The late author and local political consultant Judy Bonner wrote Investigation of a Homicide, a detailed account of the police investigation. She quotes one detective who said, “We don’t know how to investigate a Presidential assassination; probably nobody does. But we do know how to investigate a homicide, and we did a damn good job of it.”
Perhaps the most crucial contribution to the investigation was that of Officer J. D. Tippit, a policeman doing his job.
Personal note: I was a Dallas Police Officer from 1972 to 1978. I worked in the Criminal Investigation Division from 1974 until I left. My first watch commander as a patrol officer was Lt. Harry Thomas, who was married to J. D. Tippit’s widow, Marie. In CID, Nick McDonald, who arrested Oswald (and nearly became the assassin’s third victim that day, and like Tippit, received the Medal of Honor) was one of my detective colleagues. I became acquainted with many of the other department members who were directly or peripherally involved. I was able thereby to gain a rare perspective on what happened. Though not on the stage, or not exactly a front row seat, I am fortunate to have been at least in the orchestra of this fateful event in our history. One thing I am convinced of is that there was no grand conspiracy, or even a petit one. Oswald acted alone, and killed President Kennedy for reasons of his own.