5 lessons learned from a deadly encounter with an "unarmed" subject
In Waterloo, Iowa, a suspect is "unarmed" — but still very dangerous — in a textbook case for never underestimating a "weaponless" opponent
Editor’s Note: Senior Correspondent Chuck Remsberg and the rest of us at PoliceOne wish to thank our own colleague, Scott Buhrmaster, as well as Larry Hahn, administrator of the Hawkeye Community College Law Enforcement Academy, for their assistance with this report.
When Officer Steven Bose finished the fight with a round to his attacker’s chest, his throat was filling with blood and he thought his right eye had been gouged from his head. He was prone on the ground and screaming in pain, while his partner groped in the dark, trying to find his eyeball. Bose seemed a textbook example of “grievous bodily harm.”
But relatives of the suspect alleged in the media that it was Bose who really was the villain in the drama. His use of gunfire was “excessive force,” they claimed — and they played a card that often stirs deep doubts in the civilian mind: Their kinsman wasn’t even armed when the cop shot him dead.
Before the matter was resolved, Bose was exposed to the possibility of criminal charges. For pulling the trigger during the most desperate struggle of his career, he could have gone to prison for murder.
Bose and his acting chief, Captain John Beckman of the Waterloo (Iowa) PD, recently wanted to help PoliceOne reconstruct the ordeal as a cautionary case. But City Atty. James Walsh, leery of a possible civil suit, muzzled them.
Fortunately, the county attorney who handled a grand jury hearing of the shooting and a nationally recognized use-of-force expert who consulted on the incident see it as a teaching opportunity that can help other LEOs. In exclusive interviews, they have supplied the first public details of the late-shift nightmare that began, as life threats so often do, as a perfectly ordinary call.
The run was dispatched as a disorderly, says Black Hawk County Atty. Thomas Ferguson. At 0218 that Saturday last September, an exasperated wife told a 911 operator that she and her husband had earlier had “a big argument,” and now he’d come back home drunk. She’d locked him out, and he was sitting on the porch steps outside their side door. She wanted the cops to “remove him.”
There was no foreshadowing of violence, Ferguson says. “It wasn’t even dispatched as a domestic assault. She just wanted him to leave. It was a normal call like they’d been on hundreds of times before.”
Officers Bose and Jamie Sullivan arrived in separate units and headed up the driveway toward the porch, which was illuminated by a single bulb above the door. A ride-along accompanying Bose that night trailed behind and kept his distance.
At the porch, just beyond an SUV parked in the driveway of the modest, one-story house, they greeted the wife, her father whom she’d called for support before ringing 911, and, the biggest among them by far, the intoxicated husband — 6’4”, 260 lbs., a 31-year-old construction worker “accustomed to heaving around big chunks of concrete,” as a source familiar with the case put it later.
The “big argument,” as it turned out, was over BS: the husband had taken offense at their two young daughters wearing Packers jerseys. “It didn’t look like there were any real problems,” Ferguson says. But as the officers tried to sort things out, “the wife started getting more agitated, and they wanted to be sure nothing further happened.”
Sullivan stayed with her and her father. Bose, 29, with nearly seven years on the department, took the husband over behind the SUV, a few yards away.
There, the call went south in a hurry.
Bose and the man engaged in some discussion about his finding another place to stay. The man rejected that notion, saying he just wanted to go in the house and go to bed. With a curse, he started toward the side door. Bose put his left hand on the subject’s chest to stop him, and the night exploded.
BAM!!! The man smashed his fist into Bose’s face. Momentarily dazed, the officer woozily grabbed him and tried to hip-toss him “but underestimated his size,” Ferguson says. The two went down on the driveway, Bose landing on his hands and knees, with his attacker partially on the officer’s back, grappling his head and neck. Bose struggled desperately to free himself but couldn’t. He said afterward the assailant threatened to kill him as they fought.
Hearing the commotion, Sullivan rushed over from the porch and began hammering the atttacker on the head with his fists. The man “did not release his hold,” Ferguson says. Instead, he escalated the attack.
“Somehow,” the prosecutor says, “he got a hand inside Bose’s left cheek” and started fish-hooking it. He pulled on it so hard that “he actually ripped the cheek away from where it attaches to the jawbone. Bose’s mouth started filling with blood.”
With Sullivan continuing to strike him, the attacker moved his other hand to Bose’s face and pushed hard and relentlessly against his right eye, whipsawing the officer’s head as he simultaneously yanked on his cheek and gouged his eye. To Bose, it felt like his face was tearing apart and his eye popping out. He could scarcely breathe.
Reaching at what seemed like an impossible angle, he managed to wrest his TASER out of its holster and fired it up and back at his assailant. “The probes did not make sufficient contact to complete a circuit,” Ferguson says. The man “neither relented nor released.”
Sullivan fired his TASER, too. Again, no reaction. Sullivan then attempted a drive stun; the suspect still showed no evidence of relenting. Struggling against the pain and the suspect’s crushing weight, Bose was able eventually to reach and draw his Glock.
He fired twice into his assailant at point-blank range. “We believe the first round hit him in the thigh but did not stop him,” Ferguson says. “The second struck him in the chest. He finally released.” He was dead at the scene.
Bose thought his eye had been gouged from his head, Ferguson says. His anguished cries of pain led Sullivan to think so, too. The partner frantically searched the shadows nearby trying to find it.
Actually, Bose’s eye was lacerated but still in place. The agony was so intense it just felt like it had been ripped out.
The “shots fired” call was logged at Waterloo PD at 0227, less than nine minutes after the wife’s initial complaint.
The suspect’s family wasted no time rallying their forces against the police. On Sunday, dozens of friends and relatives gathered in downtown Waterloo to protest what they said was unjustified and excessive action by officers.
“They shot an unarmed man twice,” his widow was quoted as saying. Her father complained, “They never said they were about to take him to the ground. They never warned him they were gonna’ ‘tase him and they never warned him they were about to shoot.”
The dead man was described as “a gentle giant and loving father…not a violent man,” and protesters told reporters that “officers did not have a legitimate reason to shoot him and [we] can’t understand how he ended up killed.” Records indicate he’d been arrested several times for public intoxication and had been convicted 12 years earlier for assaulting a peace officer, but “marriage and fatherhood changed him,” protesters insisted.
The county attorney’s office consulted on the case with the behavioral scientist Dr. Bill Lewinski, one of the nation’s premier experts on use-of-force dynamics and executive director of the Force Science Institute. Lewinski draws a vivid picture of what Bose and Sullivan were up against in their battle to control the “gentle giant.”
He characterizes the assailant during the incident as “an irrational person who was so distraught and so intensely focused on his own course of action that he couldn’t be influenced by the officers. He was dangerous without a knife or a gun. His empty hands alone could kill.
“Blows to the head, Tasering, a shot to the leg — his assault continued at the same level through all of them. People that determined have an astounding capacity to override pain. Nothing the officers could have done physically or verbally short of deadly force could have convinced him to stop. They had no choice other than to utterly defeat him — or give up.”
The choke hold/head lock he had on Bose threatened to crush the officer’s larynx, cut off his oxygen, trip his heart into fibrillation, and/or render him unconscious, Lewinski says. Gored deeply enough, the finger jammed in his eye could have penetrated beyond the eyeball into brain matter, with potentially fatal consequences. “Few things have as great a sensory consequence for a human being as a finger in the eye,” he says. “It’s not just a matter of physical pain, it’s a horrendous psychological assault that leads to a high state of desperation in most people.”
He says he considers Bose lucky to have survived the fight.
Ferguson says his office reviews officer-involved shootings on a case-by-case basis, with some going to a grand jury and some being ruled on internally as to whether deadly force was justified. In this case, largely because of controversy about the subject being “unarmed,” he felt that public confidence would best be assured if the matter was submitted to a grand jury.
Potentially this subjected Steve Bose to significant new risks. If the civilian jury decided his shooting was unwarranted, he could be indicted on counts as serious as murder. And the decision did not have to be unanimous. If five of the jury’s seven members believed he was culpable, he would stand criminally charged. “The stress on an officer in this situation is tremendous,” Ferguson says.
Fortunately, by the time Lewinski’s observations and other evidence in the case had been presented, the grand jurors understood the actions of that fateful night from Bose’s unique perspective. Just before Christmas, the panel returned a “no bill” and Bose was exonerated. He has also been cleared in a separate review by his department.
In January, Bose returned to street patrol, still working midnights and reportedly glad to be back on full duty. His injuries are said to have healed with no permanent major damage, except for thick scar tissue along the inside of his cheek at the base of his jaw, which he feels every time he chews.
Lessons learned? Ferguson and Lewinski combine to offer several:
1. Expect the unexpected. Realize how quickly and surprisingly “unremarkable” calls can turn into life-threatening events. No matter how commonplace a contact may appear, the potential for violence is always present, particularly when you’re dealing with a subject who’s in a chemically altered, emotionally charged state.
2. Don’t underestimate a “weaponless” threat. Hands, elbows, knees, feet, even the human head can inflict devastating damage, not just when you’re dealing with trained martial artists but also with amateurs who are driven by deadly intensity.
3. Recognize hot-button moments. “This situation went to hell when Officer Bose necessarily set limits on the suspect by putting his hand on the man’s chest to keep him from returning to the house and to his wife’s location,” says Lewinski. “When the suspect was touched, it was symbolic of the gates being shut on his options. That is always a moment—a tripping point—of great vulnerability that officers need to be cognizant of. Assaults frequently occur when an officer is either beginning to handcuff a subject or is laying hands on him. Any time you touch a suspect, be prepared for resistance.”
4. Document your calls. If you have portable audio or video equipment, use it. The officers that night were equipped with body mics, but they did not turn them on when they approached the scene. “Recordings could have been useful in confirming what happened,” Ferguson says. “Almost always, they will be helpful to you.”
5. Understand your force options. Typically, state laws sanction the use of deadly force when you reasonably believe you are in danger of serious bodily harm, not just when you fear your life is at risk. “You are not hired to be a blue punching bag,” Lewinski states. “You have a right to defend your life and your well-being, and to hesitate in emphatically ending a dangerous assault on yourself or a partner can be a fatal mistake. The longer a fight goes on, the greater your risk of losing your gun or losing your life.”
Meanwhile, County Attorney Ferguson has arranged for his community to become better educated about the realities of police use of force. Next September, just about on the anniversary of the shooting, he and the city of Waterloo have contracted with the Force Science Institute to present a two-day program for law enforcement personnel on the latest research findings related to human dynamics in force confrontations — followed by a special half-day in which Lewinski will brief more than 100 invited elected officials, reporters, human rights activists, and other influential civilians on the truths and myths of officer-involved shootings. For the rest of that day, the group will be exposed to simulator training at a local college law enforcement academy.
Ferguson says, “We hope to have them walk away with more reasonable expectations of police actions and a better understanding of why officers act as they do.”