Lessons from the street: “I thought I was dead” Part 2
January 22nd, 2008 is a day Corporal Lancen Shipman will never forget. A car chase, a foot pursuit and a physical confrontation with 27 year old felon Ricky Powell had left the Moss Point, Mississippi police officer staring down the barrel of his own duty pistol while a crowd gathered around the two men shouting, “Shoot him Ricky! Kill the cop!”
Less than an hour later, Lancen was in the back of an ambulance, essentially unharmed but understandably shook up, heading for the local ER. Powell had been taken into custody after a brief standoff in his house and Lance’s duty pistol had been recovered from Powell’s freezer. Certainly the worst was over, but Lancen’s recovery was just beginning.
A cop since 1998, Shipman is a certified police trainer in several states. As a trainer, he was able to look at this incident and reflect on the many lessons to be learned, both tactically and emotionally. In the time since, Lancen has reflected on his own tactics and his mindset, highlighting the following points:
Don’t rush in: Cops tend to “rush in;” let’s face it, most of us live for the excitement, the adrenaline, the challenge of a good fight, and Lancen was no different. After a car chase culminating in a lengthy foot pursuit, it’s human nature (or at least a cop’s nature) to want to run in and finish the fight. However, this is actually the time to slow yourself down slightly and consider the subject, his potential weapons, the environment, how close is back up, and many other factors; then ask yourself “am I truly ready, mentally and physically, to “finish this fight?” Going hands on with Powell in the middle of his own neighborhood surrounded by a cop-hating crowd had disastrous potential for Shipman. To quote Lancen “I engaged too fast.”
Carry the proper tools: Like a lot of veteran cops, Lancen knew what worked and what didn’t work for him in most situations. Because he was frequently in foot pursuits, he had removed most of his less lethal tools to lighten his load and he’d stopped carry a back up pistol for fear of losing control of it while running. Lancen will now tell you that you can’t prepare for “most” situations, you have to try your best to prepare for any inevitability. Lancen now wears a tactical vest, a secondary handgun with extra magazines, an ASP, a small flashlight, and three magazines for the same Glock .45 given to him by Sgt. Smith outside of Powell’s house.
Can I “catch and clean?” It’s one thing to catch the bad guy, but are you going to have enough in you to safely control him and take him into custody after a lengthy foot pursuit? Shipman considered himself in “decent” physical condition, but he now spends 2-3 hours of each day off (he works a 2/3 rotation of 12 hour shifts) at the gym with workout partner and unofficial personal nutritionist Corporal Brandon Ashley, his MPPD supervisor and a big factor in Lancen’s recovery. The two crimefighters combine weightlifting and cardio for an intense, total body workout. In addition to some much needed stress relief, Lancen’s hours at the gym provide him with the confidence in knowing that he can, indeed, both “catch and clean” any suspect he encounters.
No equipment is foolproof. Lancen had a lot of confidence in his level three security holster; it had never occurred to him that someone could defeat it. He now carries a Safariland “Raptor” series security holster but strongly recommends that officers be prepared to deal with a gun-grab physically and mentally and have a plan in case their retention holster fails or is defeated.
Don’t be over confident. Shipman had been a cop for ten years at three different agencies. He had worked in the jail, on the beach, and in the projects. He had been in more foot pursuits and car chases than many 30 year veterans, he’d had a piece of his arm bit off by a jail inmate during a fight, and he’d already been in one shooting. Frankly, Lancen had never anticipated coming across someone who was “badder” than he was. Ricky Powell’s mindset was the same as Shipman’s: “I Will Win!” This was new to Lancen, and he was unpleasantly surprised. He now works hard to consistently combine his physical fitness with his mental preparation; as he says, “You have to have both to win!”
Don’t get used to a quick back up. Although he was a former county cop, Lancen had become accustomed to the city cop’s luxury of having back up moments away, most of the time. However, we all need to prepare for those times when we are a single officer squad with no back up immediately available. If “Plan A” is to call for cavalry to come storming in and most of the time they do, it’s still essential to have a “Plan B” in case other units are tied up on other incidents. Make sure you can finish the fight quickly, control the subject until back up does arrive or, and this is a tough one, disengage until you get reinforcements. Officers have to mentally rehearse disengagement because it’s not in our nature, but it certainly can save your life if you train to do it properly.
Assessing himself tactically was only half the battle. Lancen’s emotional recovery was also part of the journey back to full duty.
He had thought about his young daughters in those moments when he thought he might die, and now it was time to let his family know what had happened. This storm-ravaged area 25 miles east of Biloxi is a tight knit community, and Lancen knew he needed to get word to his wife Traci that he’d been in a critical incident but that he was okay. He asked close friend Officer Chris Caldwell, fellow MPPD officer and the guy who had convinced Lancen to leave Florida for Mississippi in 2007, to call Traci, who was home with the couple’s two daughters, Logan, 15 months, and Payton, 8 ½. When Chris and Lancen arrived at the hospital, Chris called Traci and told her Lancen was in the hospital but, “He’s OK, he’s not bleeding.” Chris then handed the phone to Lancen, who said cryptically, “I’ll tell you about it when I get home.”
Officer Caldwell brought Lancen home after his release from the hospital. Traci met them outside, crying and a little miffed that no one would tell her what was going on. Lancen hugged her and then asked Chris to tell her what had happened while he walked inside, checked on the girls (hugging Payton and waking up the baby), and took a moment just to be alone. Going back outside, he could see Traci was still upset, so he, Chris and Traci prayed gratefully before Chris left so that the Shipman family could begin their recovery. Lancen went to bed and says, “It seems like I stayed there for about two weeks.” He dug out his Calibre Press Street Survival “self talk” card, which gives officers five tips to get through the first night after a critical incident, and he did make it through that first night alone, while Traci slept with the girls in the next room.
In the days following the incident, Lancen experienced some depression, but first came the anger. “The next day I decided for some reason that I was going to straighten out our banking.” Shipman went online, looked at the bank account, and started a fight with his wife that “didn’t need to be fought.” “I just wanted to fight with someone,” Lancen admitted, and his wife was an easy target. He stayed in his room, his meals brought to him by Traci. “I just didn’t want to deal with anyone or anything,” he claims, although he did interact with his daughters. Logan, at 15 months, was just happy to be with her daddy, but at age 8 ½, daughter Payton needed an explanation. Fortunately, Payton and her dad share a special bond when it comes to law enforcement and he is relatively open with her about his work. He told her what had happened and her primary question was: “Did you get the bad guy?” She was happy to know that the “bad guy” was in jail.
Lancen is lucky to share a similar bond with his own father, Howard County, Indiana, Sergeant Larry Shipman. As Lancen said, “I don’t hide things from Payton because my dad never hid things from me.” Both Lancen and Traci talked to the elder Shipman frequently over the next few days about Lancen’s incident. Sgt. Shipman knew only too well what his son was feeling; he too, had stared down the wrong end of a gun barrel early in his police career.
In the late 70’s, Larry Shipman was a Howard County deputy assigned to the jail. The jail was under renovation so it was not unusual to hear hammering, sawing and other construction noise in the lock up. One of the county’s “problem” inmates was segregated in a single cell next to the property room near the tiny infirmary and the trustees’ room. The trustees had slipped this solitary inmate a hammer and a screwdriver through the food chute, and every time the construction workers made noise, this inmate would use the forbidden tools to chisel his way through the wall into the property room, which he knew housed confiscated firearms and ammunition. The night the inmate finally breeched the wall, Larry had worked the 3-11 shift and the jail had been extremely busy. As he was on his way home, he remembered a promise he had made to an inmate to get him some envelopes. As Larry would later tell Lancen, “If you promise an inmate something, you’ve got to follow through,” so Larry turned around and went back to work to do just that.
On the usually spotless jail floor Larry noticed a piece of yellow paper on the floor near the property room. Moving closer, he saw that it was a yellow property tag. He looked up and saw the property room door was ajar. “I knew the inmates had guns,” Larry said, and thought, “I’ve got to load a gun,” but he knew digging through the property room mess to match a gun to some ammunition would take too long; he need to call for help and warn the other deputies. Since he was technically off duty, and he had no radio, he needed to get to a phone. His options were limited and he had no idea where the armed inmates were, so he decided to try and make it to the infirmary room. He knew he could lock himself in there and call for help. He made it to the hospital ward and pushed the door open.
As he entered he heard, “Don’t move Larry.” He found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle held by an inmate known as “Ricky C.” He locked eyes with Ricky (who ironically shared the same first name as Lancen’s attacker) and the two men began to talk. Larry doesn’t remember the conversation because “all I could think about was getting control of that rifle.” As Ricky moved around him, Shipman maintained steady eye contact. Serendipitously, an uninvolved inmate who was dozing in the infirmary suddenly awoke and yelled, “Ricky what are you doing!?” Ricky looked away and Larry made his move, grabbing the rifle and putting Ricky on the floor, his boot in the inmate’s throat, both hands on the confiscated rifle, now pointed in the other direction.
Larry called the dispatch center and asked for help. He knew three more guns are out there, somewhere in the jail, controlled by the trustees. Time seemed to stand still as Larry waited, and finally officers begin pouring into the jail from all the entrances. They quickly regained control of Howard County’s jail, and began their investigation. It was revealed that the inmates were going to escape and go out “out in a blaze of glory,” killing cops along the way.
“When it began, I had that sick feeling in my stomach, but I knew the only thing I could do is keep my head.” Larry Shipman is still on the job in Howard County, and talks to his son almost daily.
Lancen’s dad was instrumental in helping him understand that what he was feeling was normal and necessary. As Lancen had learned in the Street Survival Seminar in 2005, however you react in a critical incident is “normal;” no two officers react the same.
Lancen Shipman took three weeks off of work after his encounter with Ricky Powell. In addition to the support of family and friends, he found the volunteer assistance offered by police peer counselors from a neighboring agency to be especially helpful. These officers even rode along with him on his first night back at work. “It took me about two months to get back to my normal way of doing business,” Lancen has said. “This experience has made me a little more standoff-ish, a bit more careful. It made me grow up as a cop.” It also made him grow up as a husband and father. Although family has always been Lancen’s priority, he has changed his philosophy about time off. “Other than my workouts, when I’m off, it’s about the family, not about the job.” And that’s probably the most important lesson of all.
Lancen Shipman met recently with Dave Smith of PoliceOne TV and recreated this story for the camera. After the cameras left and he went back on patrol, Lance and I talked briefly on the phone. As he drove around with his patrol rifle in his lap looking for a drive-by shooter in the area, I could hear the smile in his voice. He’s been asked to become a peer counselor himself, and his excitement and enthusiasm for this job continues to inspire. Contact Lance Shipman at email@example.com.