Spending last weekend with friends in Landrum, S.C., right on the North/South Carolina line, I found the death of the Smoaks' dogs was still very much on folks' minds, and not just because Saluda, N.C., where the Smoaks live, was just up Interstate 25 from Landrum, north toward Asheville, N.C. The public apprehension that cops are often border-line psychotic, hair-trigger ready to open fire on the slightest pretext and virtually immune for serious sanction is growing apace, fueled by this recent bout of dog killing.

James Smoak plus wife Pamela and son Brandon were traveling from Nashville along Interstate 40 to their Saluda home on New Year's Day when they noticed a trooper following them. In Cookeville, Tenn., about 90 miles east of Nashville, the Smoaks were pulled over by the trooper and three local police cars. The cops ordered them out of the car, made them kneel and handcuffed them.

At this point, the Smoaks family implored the police to shut the doors of their car so the two family dogs couldn't jump out. The cops did nothing. Out hopped Patton, a largish boxer-pit bull cross. A cop promptly raised his shotgun and blew its head off, amid the horrified screams of the Smoaks family.

Of course the cops later said Patton was acting in a threatening manner and that the uniformed shotgunner "took the only action he could to protect himself and gain control of the situation," but the film recorded by a police cruiser and featured on CNN seems to show Patton wagging his tail the moment before he was blown away. The people I ate dinner with in Landrum had followed the play-by-play on CNN closely and cited canine experts when pointing out that Patton had not attacked the officer nearest the car when he jumped out, which the dog most certainly would have done if he had been primed for battle.

Why were the Smoaks stopped by the four-car posse? Mr. Smoaks had left his wallet on the roof of his car at the filling station, and someone phoned in a report he'd seen the wallet fly out of a car and fall onto the highway with money spilling out. I guess Mr. Smoaks won't make that silly mistake again.

This uproar over Patton came just after the release of stats about the number of police killed in the line of duty in the United States last year. "Blue funerals," as they're called, are big in America. When a policeman gets killed in the course of duty, the obsequies are big news, and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of police travel from afar to attend the obsequies. The somber majesty of these blue funerals was deliberately fostered several decades ago, when police forces were unpopular and it was thought meet to emphasize the sacrifices, including the ultimate one, attendant on police protection of public safety.

The Associated Press reports that in 2002, 147 officers were killed. In the 1970s, an average of 220 officers died each year. In the 1980s, 185 officers were killed on average, with the average number dropping to 155. Craig Floyd, chairman of the memorial fund, commented that "law enforcement remains the most dangerous occupation in America today, and those who serve and make the ultimate sacrifice are true portraits in courage," Floyd said.

This is nonsense. Police work continues to be a relatively safe occupation, compared to the perils of being a retail clerk in a 7/11 or toiling on a construction site, let alone working on a trawler in the Gulf of Alaska, logging in the Pacific Northwest or working in a deep mine. More workers (most of them teenagers) were killed in fast food outlets across America than were police throughout the country in one recent year.

Scroll through some Middle America Web sites, and you'll find much fury about what happened to Patton, as an episode ripely indicative of how cops carry on these days. Here's "Police State In Progress" by Dorothy Anne Seese, writing in the sparky Sierra Times, which bills itself as "An Internet Publication for Real Americans," on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003:

"A couple of months ago, a woman was shot to death in her car at a drive-through Walgreens pharmacy for trying to get Soma by a forged prescription. The officer who shot the woman -- who had a 14-month old baby with her in the car -- claimed self-defense because the woman was trying to run over him. However, the medical examiner found she had been shot from an angle to the left and rear of her position in the driver's seat. Self defense? The officer is under investigation for second-degree murder and has been fired from the Chandler police department. However, a child is motherless, a man has been deprived of his wife and companion -- the mother of his child -- because his wife tried to get a drug with a phony prescription. Florida Governor Jeb Bush's daughter did the same thing and got a slap on the wrist. It seems the law now considers everyone guilty until proven innocent, with people in high places excepted. The number of horror stories increases daily in America."

There was a time when "America" was a word solely in left currency. Not anymore, if the conservative, populist Sierra Times is any guide. Check out its Whack 'n Stack feature about killings by cops, and you'll sense the temperature of outrage. Chiefs of police across the country had better start issuing advisories on how to deal with dogs.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.