Five Seconds That Changed Everything 

James Robinson's life was shattered by a police altercation that gave him bad nightmares and ended his 45-year marriage.

James Robinson built himself the second-prettiest house on the block, and that just about sums up the first 64 years of his life. He didn't write the Great American Novel or cure polio, but he raised five kids, worked as an Oakland electrician and a San Francisco cop, and lived with the same woman for 45 years. As an old country boy from Louisiana, he couldn't stay away from the land, and bought himself a small farm in Solano County, where he spent thirty years raising cattle, turkeys, and chickens. His youngest son put the roof on the house, learning as he worked.

Five seconds during the morning of December 7, 1995, destroyed everything he had. "I was inside in my bedroom and my wife asked me, she says, 'Look out your window,'" Robinson recalls. "I looked out the window and said, 'I don't see nothin'.' She said, 'Look out the window again.' I said, 'I don't see nothin'.' She said, 'Where are your chickens?' 'cause every time you look out my house, you're gonna see some chickens. And there was no sound, no rooster crowin', there was nothing going on."

A dog had snuck into Robinson's yard and was going to work on his birds. Robinson grabbed his shotgun and strode out into the yard, past feathers littering the grass and a flock of terrified chickens perched among the branches of his trees. When he saw the first dog with a chicken writhing in its maw, Robinson took aim and fired, but his shotgun was loaded with birdshot, and the dog raced off, trailing blood. "He took off into the back field, and I took off after him," he says. "And lo and behold, here was a black dog ripping the back out of one of my turkeys. And I shot him, and he took off too. I went and found the brown dog, and I killed him. Then I went to finish off the black dog, 'cause you don't leave an animal hurt like that."

As Robinson rooted through the bushes along the road, one of his neighbors ran toward him and shouted that he didn't have to kill her dogs. The two exchanged a few salty words, and Robinson went back to his house. Leaning his shotgun against the wall, he told his wife what had just happened. "I said, 'Maybe we should call the sheriff and let 'em know that I just dusted this dog, so we make an end of it,'" he says. "Right about this time, I hear sirens, it sounds like every siren in the county was coming. The neighbor called the police and said there's a black man out in the street with a gun. When I looked out the window, I saw sheriffs, police, security guards -- everything you can think of. So I said I guess I better tell 'em what happened."

Robinson never got that chance. As he walked up to the nearest car, a Solano county sheriff's deputy pointed his gun at Robinson's head and ordered him not to move. In that instant, Robinson says, he believed he was going to die. "That's when I saw my death," he says. "That's right, I saw me die. And there was nothing I could do. I turned to the left, because I didn't want him to shoot me in the face. And then he came up behind me, and I felt them put their hands on me. And then I felt relieved; I figured the fool wasn't gonna kill me with my back to him."

While Robinson sat, cuffed, in the back of a patrol car, the deputies checked out his story with his wife, determined that no one had committed any crimes, confiscated his shotgun, and let him go. According to Terence Cassidy, the attorney representing Solano County in Robinson's subsequent lawsuit, the cops were simply following procedure, given what they knew at the time. "From the officers' perspective, there's a report from dispatch that there's a hysterical woman who claims that there's a man with a shotgun outside her house, who's shot her dog and is not leaving," he says. "To any reasonable officer, that would send up red flags, to approach with caution."

As stories of police violence go, this one is fairly mild. No one got shot or beaten, and everyone walked away after twenty minutes. But those five seconds stuck with Robinson for the rest of his life. Media accounts and movies have exposed us to endless loops of acrobatic ultraviolence, inuring us to the visceral reality of a single man's fear and adrenaline. We have all watched countless depictions of operatic death, but almost none of us has ever experienced that gotta-shit instant when the barrel is right in your face. But as Robinson's story illustrates, the psyche is a lot more fragile than we care to remember, and even one brief encounter with mortality can reverberate long after the headlines fade.

Robinson learned that lesson the hard way. He's in his early seventies now, a man with a country honesty and easy vulnerability to him. He swears a little, in a gravelly, sad voice, but not too much, and mostly when he gets started about the joke fate played on him. He was never given to self-reflection, and didn't truck with psychobabble about post-traumatic stress disorder. But over the years, he has learned to properly mourn the life he lost, even as he leavens it with a little gallows humor.


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