By Steve Walton, PoliceOne columnist
Reprinted in partnership with Law Officer magazine
In May 1981, I was an energetic young patrol officer with almost 2 1/2 years of street-policing experience under my belt. I was a member of a progressive agency policing a city of approximately 500,000. I have to admit, at that point in my career, I felt invincible and had never really addressed the concept of deadly force. A night tour on a long May weekend, however, abruptly changed that. My belief structure, training and survival instincts would be put to the ultimate test.
In Calgary, Alberta, the third weekend of May is a rite of passage. The long winter and sometimes-unkind spring begins to yield to long-anticipated warmer weather. My notebook entry for that shift indicates the temperature was 65 degrees F with clear skies. I had chosen not to wear my body armor because it made me hot and uncomfortable.
At approximately 0345 HRS, my partner and I received a "property damage in progress" call, a rather innocuous call. I was operating the marked patrol unit, and at the time we received the radio call, we were actually driving by the address the call came from. Right after my partner hung up the microphone, I was surprised to see two subjects dressed in dark clothes run in front of our unit. I came very close to running them down. Both were males, and one was carrying a baseball bat. Upon seeing us, the male with the bat dropped it and ran off into the darkness. The other suspect tried to flee on the sidewalk, but I blocked his flight with the patrol unit.
When my effort appeared to succeed, I exited the car thinking my clever maneuver had contained the individual. Unfortunately, while my attention was distracted, the subject obtained a more tactically sound position--I found him standing almost directly in front of me.
The subject closed the ground between us quickly and, when he was about 5 feet away, I saw him reach for his beltline with his left hand and produce a 10" butcher knife. My instincts and training took over. With my right hand still on the door of the police unit, I leaned back from the reach of the subject, withdrew my service revolver and fired one shot.
I simply pointed and fired the weapon one-handed, not using the sights. The culprit immediately dropped the knife and assumed a somewhat slouched stance. Although I didn't know it, the .38-caliber round had struck the assailant on the left side of his chest.
Due to his black shirt and the low-light conditions, I didn't know exactly where the round had hit him, but I knew he had dropped the knife and stopped his advance.
Once again my training kicked in and I immediately holstered my sidearm. I stood there in a relative state of shock, and it wasn't until my partner approached me and yelled at me that I came out of this frozen state.
When I became functional again, I realized the threat still stood in front of me, and, with a lot of adrenaline flowing, I initiated some subject-control tactics. With the assistance of my partner, I put the assailant on the ground. Once we had him under our control, we evaluated his gunshot wound. Calgary paramedics responded and provided emergency medical assistance. The single round had entered his chest just to the left of his left nipple. The man recovered from his injuries and faced criminal charges in court.
When this incident took place, critical incident debriefing was unheard of. The only information sharing that took place was informal between my partner and me. But in reviewing the events of that evening, I've learned a few things I'd like to share here.
As a result of a well-documented neuro-physiological phenomenon known as tachy-psyche, I experienced auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and time-space perceptual distortions during this incident. Tachy-psyche is essentially the reaction of the body to adrenaline, which can force unsuspecting individuals to act in a manner counterproductive to survival.
I know I experienced auditory exclusion because I never heard the report of my firearm when it discharged, and I did not hear my partner repeatedly calling out to me after shooting the assailant. In fact, my partner later said he first thought I had been shot. He was further convinced of this when I failed to respond to his verbal questions.
I remember feeling strangely emasculated when my service revolver was taken from me on scene. I also remember feeling strangely vindicated when a seasoned street veteran offered me his weapon until mine was returned. (A piece of advice to officers on scene at an officer-related shooting: The things you say and do can have deep meaning for the officer involved in the shooting.)
I also know I experienced tunnel vision. When I look back, I realize my point-of-aim was not center-mass but the knife itself. Everything else was blocked from my field of vision except for the knife. Immediately following the shooting, my eyesight focused on the image of coffee-colored frothing blood flowing from the mouth of my assailant. I also remember thinking, "I just killed someone."
I experienced a distortion in time perception as well-everything occurred in my mind's eye at an extreme rate of speed.
We now know we can mitigate the negative impact of adrenaline and maximize its positive attributes. The key, of course, is training, and I would like to say one thing to my brother and sister law enforcement officers: Take training seriously. A wise man once said to me, "Train the way you want to fight because you will fight the way you train."
This could not have been truer in my case. Example: During the shooting, my assailant stood no more than 3 feet away from me. At that time, the closest we conducted target practice was approximately 5 feet from the firing line. When engaging a paper target at that distance, we fired one round, holstered the weapon and waited for a verbal command from the range officer. On that morning of my shooting, I did exactly as I had been trained: I fired one round and holstered my weapon. I even waited for a verbal command from the range officer, which of course was not forthcoming.
One final training issue you cannot overemphasize: Always watch a subject's hands. As my deadly force encounter plays itself out and as I evaluate it for the 10,000th time, I realize I was looking in the subject's eyes right up to the very last second when he activated his weapon system. If I had looked at his hands earlier in the encounter, I may have noticed the knife sooner.
I was a very lucky young officer. I was attacked by an individual with the willingness and the means to end my life. I do not regret anything I did, but in hindsight I might have done things differently. Although I'm now retired, I think it's important to remind officers that training and preparedness remain extremely important to a survival mindset.
Steve Walton (retired) teaches close-quarter subject control and drug awareness to many policing agencies across North America. He is also the author of the popular "First Response Guide to Street Drugs" field guide series. Contact him at 877/255-1166 for training and book information.