A pair of aces, and a pair of eights – four simple cards known simply as the Dead Man’s Hand. For years, the symbolic meaning of these cards has been misconstrued and demonized. In our own department, the cards were seen by some administrators and investigators to mean that we are all too enthusiastic about killing people.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The true meaning of those four simple cards is so much more complex.

Wild Bill Hickok was a legendary law man who lived in the 1800s. He was cunning, devious, and manipulative – all the characteristics of a good police officer today. He carried two guns, made sure that they were well oiled no matter how new they were, and carried an overabundance of ammunition.  In terms of tactics, he was well beyond his years.

Wild Bill made it a habit, every time he walked into a saloon, to find a seat that gave him a clear view of the front and rear doors of the tavern. He made sure  his back was to the wall.  He was obsessed with safety and looked for danger around every corner.

He was almost demented in his appreciation of a good gunfight. To some, he had a death wish, to others he was simply overconfident. Nonetheless, the cards he held in his hand on the night that he died in 1876 are a reminder to us all that officer safety and tactics must always be of utmost importance.

“How,” you may ask, “can a hand of cards, held by a law man in the 1800s have any relevance to modern day police work?”

The answer is simple.

Despite his confidence, expert marksmanship, and superb tactics for his era, Wild Bill had a few vices, namely women, alcohol, and gambling. Many cops can relate. On the night he died, Wild Bill entered a saloon in the Dakota Territory. He wanted to join a low stakes card game some of the patrons were playing. He tried to find himself a seat at the table that gave him a view of the front and back door, where his back would face the wall, but none was available.  The only free seat available was one that allowed him a view of the front door, and that left his back unguarded.

Faced with a decision, Wild Bill chose to sacrifice his tactics and safety. Unbeknownst to Wild Bill, another man in the bar had taken notice of his poor decision. That man was none other than Jack McCall.

McCall was convinced that Wild Bill had killed his brother when he was a law man in Kansas, and Jack vowed revenge.

As Wild Bill got engrossed playing cards, McCall walked out of the saloon, only to return a short time later coming in through the back door.

Jack watched closely. Wild Bill played a few hands of cards and McCall inched closer to his backside.  When he was certain that the law  man was relaxed, he made his move. He drew his pistol and shot Wild Bill in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

As Hickok’s body slumped over the table, clenched tightly in his fist was the last hand he had been dealt – two aces and two eights. Those cards, from that day forward, became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”

So what do four cards, held by a law man in the Dakota Territory in the 1800s have to do with modern day law enforcement in the 21st Century?  The answer is everything.

We learn from the mistakes of those who have passed on before us.

Just as we critique the final moments of officers who have fought their final battle to learn from their mistakes, we should also remember the death of Wild Bill Hickok.

As you go through your day, think about how magnificent of a lawman Wild Bill was and how a poor decision caused his demise.

The lesson here is to never, ever sacrifice officer safety and tactics. Never give in to a vice at the expense of your safety, or you could be the next one to hold the “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Article written by/or information provided by tcamos

by Damian Velasco

Damian Velasco is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department. LAPD Sgt. George Hoopes contributed to this article.

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