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Recent Police Shootings Stir A Memory For A Former Philadelphia Officer


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we have three segments addressing the tensions surrounding police shootings of black men and police who were ambushed and killed. Our first guest knows how dangerous the job of policing is because he was shot on the job. Tom Gibbons was hit by three bullets that nearly killed him. That was back in 1970 when he was a 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer working on highway patrol.

Like today, it was a tense time. Six other officers were shot on the same weekend; one died. It was a time when the Philadelphia police were clashing with anti-war protesters and African-American activist groups. The day after Gibbons was shot, police raided three Black Panther offices in the city.

Gibbons had to retire from the police as a result of his injuries. He became a reporter and covered the police for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He knew the territory from his own experiences and from his father, who served as Philadelphia's police commissioner from 1952 to 1960 and became known for instituting reforms to clean up the department. After five police officers were shot to death by a sniper in Dallas this month, Gibbons wrote a front-page story for The Inquirer about his own experience being shot.

Tom Gibbons, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by talking about what happened to you in 1970. You stopped a car and asked the driver for his license and registration. Why did you stop the car?

TOM GIBBONS: It was a brand-new Eldorado. The trunk lock had been punched out, and that was always a prime indicator that something was amiss. And we decided to get a closer look. We were in an unmarked car, and I just gave the siren a little shot. They were surprised, and we just said pull over. And they seemed very - very relaxed.

And we, both my partner and I, got out of the unmarked car. We walked up. The driver had his window down. I asked for his driver's license and registration. And meanwhile, my partner had begun a little give and take with the passenger - very friendly.

And I took my eyes off the driver just to look into the back seat when suddenly my partner yelled over the roof of the car, look out, Tom, he's got a - and I never heard the word. All's I heard was a gunshot. And, Terry, when you're that close to gunfire, it's loud. And he was reeling backward. Blood was streaming out of the side of his head. And John's warning to me...

GROSS: This is your partner.

GIBBONS: John Nolan - may have saved my life because I instinctively turned sideways to make myself a smaller target. And I looked at my guy, the driver, and he had a gun pointing right at me. And he had a grin on his face, a big grin. Like, he knew he was ahead of me.

I started to draw my gun, and before I could bring my gun all the way up, he shot me. Now, the bullet did not hit my chest. It struck me in my right arm as I turned. The slug broke my right arm and severed my ulnar nerve. That's, like, your crazy bone...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

GIBBONS: ...Right by the elbow. My gun hand is dangling. Because I was so close to the driver, a mere several inches apart from the muzzle of his weapon, the force of the impact knocked me to the ground. And I turned around and I looked up at him, and he was leaning out of the car window. And now, he starts to shoot as I'm on the ground. I get shot in the wrist, a real deep graze.

I thought, this guy's trying to kill me. And I never look back at him again. I just crawled as fast as I could across 59th Street. And there was a truck, and I thought, if I can just get under this truck, I'll have some cover. And just before I make it, I get hit a third time, this one right by my spine, enters, ricochets off my pelvis.

And it's a shame it didn't keep right on going, but it came up then through the torso and lodges in the skin just outside the right lung as a small bulge. It never left my body, that one slug. At that moment, I'm now under the truck just about into the gutter, and I'm laying on my back, and I'm trying to figure what just happened.

GROSS: Did you or your partner call the police for backup?

GIBBONS: No. No, and at this point, in those days, we stopped so many cars, and there wasn't a procedure in place. Nowadays, when officers pull a car over, they give their location. They let headquarters know, in effect, and in addition, in those days, we didn't wear protective vests.

But as I laid in the gutter - and it's funny. Highway patrol cops are very aware of their uniforms. Every night at roll call, we had a strict procedure. You were inspected. Your shirts had to be - the creases razor sharp, your boots had to be spit-shined.

And that was one of the things, the crazy things that went through my mind. Boy, I wrecked this uniform. But then I worried, you know, it got silent. And I didn't know where my partner was. And I didn't know where the bad guys were because nothing was happening after this vicious barrage of gunfire.

GROSS: So you survived. Police - I don't know how they got there, but police came, took you to a nearby hospital...

GIBBONS: Well - and I can explain that, how that went down. Nolan was knocked unconscious by the...

GROSS: Your partner.

GIBBONS: ...By the part - by the shot, came to just as these two guys were jumping out of the stolen car on his side of the vehicle, on the passenger side. He's lying on the sidewalk. He opens fire on them, forces the driver back into the car. The passenger is running. He nicks him in the heel. That puts down a blood trail that eventually leads to his capture.

A footnote to all of this - John and I were dear friends. He was the best shot, or just about the best shot in our police academy class. We went through the academy together. And that paid off because he's shot in the head, had been knocked unconscious, opens fire and nicks this guy that put the blood trail down that led to him being caught hiding in a house a couple blocks away.

GROSS: So as somebody who was shot three times on the job and narrowly survived, what goes through your mind when you read about police who are shot now, like in Dallas, in Baton Rouge?

GIBBONS: It hurts, and I'll tell you why it hurts. I come from a police family. And once a month, my father on Saturday night would ride the city, with his aide, in plain clothes in an unmarked car. And when they left the house every - when this happened, my mother would be there. It was a routine. And I would hug my dad, and we would say, be careful. Be careful, Dad.

So - I mean, he was the boss. But he was going out there, too. And I worried and I would go to bed on Saturday night and I would hear him come home on Sunday morning 5 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning. And I would hear the door open and I - then I really felt at ease.

GROSS: So you know what it's like to worry about an officer.

GIBBONS: I know...

GROSS: You really feel for the officers and for the families of officers who are shot or attacked.

GIBBONS: Yes, who - officers who die, officers who are wounded. I was newly engaged when I was wounded. My wife went through a lot.

GROSS: You had to retire from the police after you were shot because...

GIBBONS: Yes. I was - I retired in the summer of '72. And I didn't know what I was going to do. My parents had given me a good education. And I felt I would fall into something decent. And I had - out of high school in the early '60s, I had worked at the Evening Bulletin as a copy boy. And that was the fast track to becoming a street reporter in those days. But it didn't pay a whole lot.

And the police department paid, like, four times as much. So I jumped over. My father was furious. We didn't speak for a year when I left the Bulletin and became a police officer. And it got even worse when I asked to be transferred into the highway patrol. He knew the dangers.

GROSS: Your father was a police commissioner who served in Philadelphia as commissioner from 1952 to 1960?

GIBBONS: Correct.

GROSS: And he was appointed by the first Democratic mayor in many years. And the mayor - Joe Clark - and the mayor wanted your father, Thomas Gibbons, Sr., to basically be a reform police commissioner.

GIBBONS: Correct.

GROSS: What were some of the reforms your father was responsible for?

GIBBONS: Well, he carried out that mandate. First of all, police corruption - there had been several grand jury investigations. The federal Kefauver Commission - Sen. Kefauver looked into police corruption in Philadelphia. So corruption had to be cleaned up. And my father started right away by firing officers that he thought were performing unsatisfactorily. The commissioner could do that in those days.

There also was a corruption - you would - instead of taking an exam - and you may have taken an exam. But you paid off your committee man to get into the police department. And my father ended that, I believe...

GROSS: You mean, kind of like bribed (laughter)?

GIBBONS: The committee man arranged.

GROSS: Yeah.

GIBBONS: You paid him. He arranged for you to become a cop. That was in the Republican administration, which had ruled for 67 1/2 years. So you have anything around that long - you're going to have a lot of corruption. So to combat that, my father forced a lot of the senior commanders out. As a result, he wasn't liked by the rank and file. And he didn't care. He wasn't liked by the FOP. And he did the multiplication one time. And he figured he fired 200 cops a year for nine years.

GROSS: When you decided to become a police officer, your father wasn't happy about that.

GIBBONS: Wasn't happy about that - a lot of...

GROSS: Why not? What was his problem with you?

GIBBONS: He didn't - well, he mainly thought - and as a kid, I couldn't - as a young cop, I couldn't understand it - now when I look back, I thought, geez. He thought that I would be set up - that somehow - he had a ton of enemies in the police department. He thought that somehow, I would be set up and trapped and fired and maybe arrested.

GROSS: By police who didn't like your father...

GIBBONS: Yes. Correct.

GROSS: Because of the reforms he instituted?

GIBBONS: And that was his - I think that was his main concern. He also was worried that I that I could get hurt.

GROSS: What kind of lasting impact do you think being shot has had on you?

GIBBONS: In the beginning, as a young reporter, it didn't bother me one bit. It greatly affected my partner John Nolen. He had a lot of trouble with it.

GROSS: Psychological trouble?

GIBBONS: Psychological trouble. But he...

GROSS: Maybe drinking, too - I think I read that.

GIBBONS: Drinking, too - but he - to his credit, he got over that. In fact, he even started an operation - a counseling operation - in New Jersey. And what better guy to council officers involved in shootings than somebody who had been in a shooting? Now every department has that kind of an operation. John was out there on his own. I give him a lot of credit with what he did.

GROSS: So the person who shot you...


GROSS: ...After robbing a bank and driving in a stolen Cadillac...


GROSS: ...Was found guilty. He was prosecuted. He was found guilty. He was sentenced to how many years?

GIBBONS: A maximum of 25 years.

GROSS: So it would mean he's out now.

GIBBONS: He's out. I don't know where he is. I never...

GROSS: Do you ever think about that?

GIBBONS: You know, I thought about it one time when an editor approached me. And he said, Tom, you know, this would make a great story - sort of like, you know, when the pope - when Pope John Paul II forgave his shooter - his assailant - if you tracked down your assailant and interviewed him. And I declined. I politely declined.

GROSS: Tom Gibbons, thank you so much for talking about this. It's probably not your favorite subject to talk about.

GIBBONS: Thank you for having me on.

GROSS: Thank you.

Tom Gibbons is a former Philadelphia police officer and a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he covered the police. After we take a short break, our contributor Mat Johnson considers the national conversation about officer-involved and officer-targeted killings from his perspective as a novelist and father of a black teenage son. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.