Who was Walter Headley, whose 1967 ‘looting, shooting’ phrase was used in Trump tweet?

Who was Walter Headley, whose 1967 ‘looting, shooting’ phrase was used by Trump

A phrase used in a tweet by President Donald Trump, which was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence,” has a history that goes back 53 years.

Trump’s tweet early Friday referred to protesters in Minneapolis as “thugs” and warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The comment, made in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, echoed a statement made in December 1967 by Walter Headley, the longtime chief of police in Miami.

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Floyd, 46, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air and for his mother as a white police officer knelt on his neck Monday, died several hours later. The four officers involved were fired, and one of them -- Derek Chauvin -- was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Headley served as Miami’s police chief for 20 years and was 62 in 1967. Complex and controversial, Headley’s aggressive policies in the city’s black neighborhoods led to violence in the city during the late 1960s, the Miami Herald reported. Headley favored tactics that included “shotguns, dogs and a ‘get tough’ policy,” the newspaper reported.

The quote that Trump referenced was published in a front-page story in the Miami Herald on Dec. 17, 1967. Headley said, “We haven’t had any serious problems with civil uprising and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Earlier in the month, Headley “declared war” on crime and said his primary target was "aimed at young Negro males, from 15 to 21,” the Herald reported in 1967.

“Ninety percent of our Negro population is law-abiding and wants to eliminate our crime problems,” Headley said. “But 10% are young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign," the Herald reported.

Miami police Officer Norman Evans carried a shotgun as he began his shift Dec. 27, 1967.
Miami police Officer Norman Evans carried a shotgun as he began his shift Dec. 27, 1967. (Harold Valentine/Associated Press)

Trump told reporters Friday evening that he didn’t know the history behind the phrase, NPR reported.

“(Headley) had a long history of bigotry against the black community,” Howard University professor Clarence Lusane told NPR.

Headley had his share of critics through the years. The Herald described him as “an unperturbed Buddha," whose voice “rumbles up from under an Oliver Hardy moustache.”

“The chief appears to be mixing avocadoes with mangoes,” Miami News columnist Bill Baggs once wrote about one of Headley’s statements.

Walter Everett Headley Jr. was born May 11, 1905, in Philadelphia, and learned to ride horses at his grandfather’s farm in New Jersey. When he was 15, he dropped out of high school, lied about his age and joined the U.S. Cavalry.

Headley moved with his family to South Florida in 1923, and after working several jobs joined the Miami police force in 1937. He was appointed chief of police on Aug. 11, 1948, and declared, “There will be no liberal policy here.” For the next 20 years, he wielded power and fended off several attempts to have him fired.

When Robert King High, who was mayor of Miami from 1957 to 1967, tried to have him replaced, Headley retorted that no one was going to have him removed “because of the whim of a squirt.”

Even when his policies seemed enlightened, Headley managed to antagonize certain groups. He publicly favored gay bars because “it was better to let them congregate in a few places.”

“It was like localizing an infection, instead of spreading it all over,” Headley said.

In August 1968, during the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, the predominantly black neighborhood of Liberty City erupted in violence, the Herald reported. Miami police fatally shot two people in Liberty City and one person in Overton. Eighteen other people were injured and police made 222 arrests, according to The Washington Post.

Headley died Nov. 16, 1968, in Miami and was buried at Woodlawn Park North Cemetery and Mausoleum.

Judge J. Fritz Gordon eulogized Headley as a man who “embraced that rare attribute of men -- the admixture of tact, flavored with humanity, humility and fairness.”

Headley never backed down from criticism and insisted his “get tough” actions were not racially motived.

“I don’t plan to temper my statements until I get some results," Headley told the Miami City Commission in December. "I didn’t mention race and I never have. Everyone here knows I’m not a racist.”

Information from Newspaper.com archives were used in compiling this report

Miami police Chief Walter Headley, left, listened as Rev. Theodore Gibson, addressed the Miami City Commission on Dec. 29, 1967.
Miami police Chief Walter Headley, left, listened as Rev. Theodore Gibson, addressed the Miami City Commission on Dec. 29, 1967. (Jim Bourdier, Associated Press File)