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Late last week HPD inducted a new class of sergeants. Normally this is a routine thing, but not this time. One of the promotees was Officer Robert Allan, now Sergeant Allan. His promotion has prompted some anger in the African American community in the North end, and a sharply worded column in the Courant by Stan Simpson urging Allan to leave the force for another town. Normally I agree with Simpson's well-reasoned pieces on city government and politics, but not this one. I thought that it was worth reprising something I wrote two years ago when I met Rob Allan for the first time.

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5-8-03
Today I met the man who shot Aquan Salmon.1 It was a chance encounter — I was at Police headquarters for a meeting, and Officer Robert Allan was in the conference room talking with two of the people I was going to meet — and we were not introduced. He looked very young — at the moment I thought that he must be a rookie cop. He left after a minute of conversation, and the coworker I arrived with asked "that officer who was just in here, is he even old enough to drink?"

It turns out that there's at least one other person in this world who has my baby-face problem. Officer Allan is a new father, a seven-year veteran of the force, and a favorite of Rae Anne Palmer, HPD's top civilian administrator. Rae Anne said that she liked Robert Allan, perhaps because he reminds her so much of her own sixteen year-old son. Both Rae Anne and Sargent Jaffee said, with a note of protectiveness "he's a great cop". My coworker must have caught that note, because he gave Sgt. Jaffee and Rae Anne an inquisitive look. Rae Anne said, softly at first "he's the one that shot Aquan." He didn't hear her the first time, so Rae Anne said more loudly
"Aquan Salmon". He heard that. And so might have Officer Allan, who was walking past the open conference room door at that moment.

If he heard, Officer Allan gave no indication — at least not in the time it took him to move past the doorway. Several thoughts came to me all at once: that must be such a burden, knowing that you killed someone and hearing the name of the dead spoken behind you; he doesn't look like a monster — from the press you'd think that he was some hulking redneck brutalizer — he seems like a regular guy; he seems not unlike me.

The meeting got under way, and for the next two hours I didn't think at all about Officer Allan. He came up when my coworker and I were walking from the parking garage to our offices, but only briefly.

Later in the day, another coworker asked how my day was going. I told Peyton that it had been kind of odd. I related that I had met the officer who gunned down Aquan Salmon. Peyton, who by the accounts of others and his own quiet admissions, is a former Army special forces soldier, looked at me and said that killing another human being is something that is both huge and trivial. Peyton had to catch up with another group of people before we could continue the conversation. So, I was left to contemplate that statement on my own as I headed for the elevator.

I grew up with more of an acquaintance with death than most all of my age-mates. My family's nursery business had a local cemetery as one of its clients, so I know a lot about graves, caskets, and vaults. I've buried about a dozen people, and moved one. I have twice buried infants. Each burial was a terrible scene of raw undiluted grief consuming a man and a woman. Normally, at a grave-side service the family and friends crowd close around the bereaved, to show by mere presence their caring and concord in loss. With an infant interment, however, mother and father stand alone. The mourners keep their distance, as if afraid of some infanticidal contagion.

There was also an agricultural side to my upbringing. I have raised and slaughtered chickens. I also once was called upon to bury a horse. I was mostly prepared for that one though, I was not prepared for the delicate white moth sipping moisture from the edges of the dead horse's still-open eye. I am the person my mother calls when she needs something killed, like a skunk or an invading army of rabbits.

With these things in my history I am comfortable with the idea of a dead thing. I am comfortable, though thankfully not exactly eager, when it comes to killing other creatures. For example, I am reasonably sure that I would have no problem killing a deer that I was planning to eat. But a person. What a thing that must be. Peyton's words echo in my mind — something huge, and yet trivial — and they have the ring of truth. I suppose that I can see myself killing anther person if I needed to. And I can also see myself haunted by that moment for the rest of my life.

Humans have been killing other humans since the dawn of our species. Killers do not all automatically seem to be monsters. Though, that is what the press certainly spun Officer Allan to be after he killed Aquan Salmon. We have been trying to curb killing at least since the beginning of history — THOU SHALT NOT KILL — but never really succeeding: we keep making exceptions to sanction some, but not all, homicide. In the case of a sanctioned killing, what becomes of a killer's heart and soul? Do they stick the memory of the killing away in a mental box, like I do the memory of putting chickens to the axe? Or is it ever-present and waiting in the wings for an opportunity to torment anew, like an old grief?

I don't know the answer to this question, and I'm not looking to find out. Yet, I am inclined to wonder.




1 For those who don't know, or may have forgotten, Aquan Salmon was shot and killed by Officer Robert Allen at two AM on April 13, 1999. Salmon was fleeing a car that Officer Allen had pursued — the car matched the description of one that had earlier been involved an the drive-by mugging and pistol-whipping of a Hartford woman (it later turned out to be the car involved in the assault). Salmon refused to stop when ordered to by Officer Allan, and Allan shot him in the back when he thought that Salmon was pulling a gun.

The killing sparked months of anti-police protests in Hartford, and the media initially painted the incident as another case of a trigger-happy white cop blasting a poor unarmed black kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Officer Allan, however, was cleared of any wrong-doing by the ensuing investigations, and the picture that emerged of the life and death of Aquan Salmon depicted a teenager well on his way toward a criminal life. While the conclusions of the investigations have never been accepted by many in Hartford, there are no shortage of people in the North end who knew Aquan and will tell you that he was no angel.

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