About seven years into my career I was dispatched to a domestic, just before Christmas. The husband was reportedly armed with a handgun and was “suicidal.”
I was the first officer at the scene and I could hear screaming from the back of the house so I worked my way around the house. I could hear a man yelling, while a woman was screaming at him to drop the gun. There were children crying and a dog wildly barking.
This was before we had a SWAT Team and patrol handled these events, from beginning to end. I was there at the beginning.
I went to a back porch area and entered and I could see the kitchen door standing open. I worked my way to the door frame and did a quick peek saw what was going on and then dropped to a knee and covered the suspect. The suspect was directly across from me leaning against a counter with a pistol under his chin and his wife was blocking my view partially standing between him and me and screaming at him.
To my right was an entryway into the dining room living room area and I could see the tree lit up with gifts below. I do not know if I noticed it then, but from seeing it later my memory has somehow painted the complete picture in for me. Children in their pajamas were running around in that area crying and the family dog was barking constantly, excitedly in the door way to those rooms.
I called for the wife to get out of the kitchen and I called for the man to drop the gun. The wife stepped away then she backed away and exited out the doorway toward the children. She stayed in view and then began yelling, “Don’t shoot him!”
Throughout the standoff, the yelling, the barking, and the crying never ceased.
During the move of the woman, the man had lowered the gun from his chin and now was leaning back against the counter, with the pistol in his right hand, lowered at his side. I ordered him several times to “Drop the weapon!” and “Lay the weapon down!” but he said nothing initially and stared at me.
Then he said several times, “Shoot me!”
I took the time to sight my weapon, because it appeared he was either going to shoot me or make me shoot him. He was clearly gathering his nerve. I continued to call for the suspect to put the gun down and he just stood there — non-compliant — with the pistol in his hand.
After an unknown period of time his facial expression changed and he said, “Tom?”
It was as if he thought he knew me. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t Tom, but changed my tone of voice and just said something like, “Come on my friend, put the gun down.”
He turned away and set the gun on the counter and began walking toward me, hands empty. He did not respond to verbal commands and just kept walking unarmed toward me and then apparently as he leaned out to see me from behind my cover he said, “You’re not Tom.”
He turned to head back toward the counter and at this point I had holstered my weapon and took him to the floor and was assisted by another officer, who I didn’t even notice had arrived at the scene. We restrained the suspect and handcuffed him.
Clearly, throughout the incident, I could have shot him — even when he made his move back toward the gun.
The investigation revealed the suspect had never been in trouble before. He did not abuse his wife. He had discovered some bad news about their relationship and obtained and loaded his pistol with the intent to kill himself and she called the police and tried to intervene.
When I arrived he had planned on making me shoot him, but then saw parts of me from behind cover. He saw the leather jacket and the heavy brown mustache and he thought it was a police officer named “Tom,” who looked similar to me. Tom was his life-long hunting buddy.
He decided he did not want to make Tom shoot him, because he was a good friend and when he put the gun down and saw I was not Tom, he tried to make it back to his gun again, but was stopped.
Why I Didn’t Shoot
In this incident I knew as it was happening the justification to shoot was present, but in my perception at the time, right or wrong, I had not arrived at the “last resort.” The suspect appeared to possess the weapon, appeared to be building up his intent, but he was wavering. He appeared to be one movement away from activating the delivery system.
I learned a great deal from this incident. In doing a self-debrief I concluded that waiting for the movement that would cause me to shoot in this situation was in fact waiting for the “bang.” That was not good for my survival.
Even re-holstering and decentralizing the suspect, who was rushing back toward a weapon he had laid on the counter was a gamble.
In retrospect — with the Christmas Tree, the crying children, and the wife — I was doing everything I could, going right up to the line, to make certain one father would be able to enjoy Christmas with his family.
I succeeded in this effort, but I still wonder, “At what risk?”
There were two fathers at that scene.