A valuable life lesson from the field: "Denial" can kill
By Lt. Jim Glennon, Lombard, IL (ret.)
Denial is a psychological reality for all people. Denial keeps us sane. It wards off unnecessary worrying. It provides us with a sense of security. If we didn't have the denial mechanism in our brains, we would go crazy thinking about all of the "what ifs" in life.
For those in the field of law enforcement, however, denial must not be allowed to take root as we conduct even the most mundane and routine aspects of our jobs. In fact, law enforcement officers must remind themselves of all the things that can go wrong during an encounter before they even respond to a call.
In the cop world, this is called When/Then Thinking, something the Street Survival Seminar has advocated for years.
The premise of this philosophy is that police officers cannot afford the luxury of denial when it comes to the likelihood that they will be attacked. Therefore, they must prepare for the when both physically and mentally because, as the theory espouses, it's not a matter of if you will be attacked, but rather when. For me and two officers on my shift, the when occurred in September 2004.
Like most officers, I have decades of experience, but I had never been in a true deadly-force encounter involving a firearm. And, I have to admit that at this stage of my career, part of my brain believed that I never would be.
At some level I unconsciously believed I was past the point of being attacked. I don't make many traffic stops anymore, and as a Lieutenant, I go on fewer calls than ever. So no matter what I know from an officer safety perspective, part of my brain was still in denial, at least until approximately 3 p.m. last Sept. 2 when a 55-year-old, 5' 10" man with a drinking problem strolled into the liquor department of a local grocery store and brazenly walked out with an $8 bottle of vodka. He was stopped by a store employee and told to pay for the bottle or face the police, and the thief told the interloper that he was not about to "go to jail," a comment that was not known to the responding officers until later.
Joe, a young officer fresh out of field training was assigned the call. The employee who witnessed the theft gave Joe the plate number off the car that the thief used to flee from the store.
Joe was able to determine the suspect's name and his last known address from our in-house computer records system. The alleged thief had a very minor criminal history that included no history of violence.
However, there were alcohol-related arrests in his past, and the suspect committed a similar theft at the same store almost a year to the date of this incident.
Joe went to the suspect's apartment building, observed his car in the parking lot and requested permission to make contact with him. Jerry, a 13-year veteran, responded as back-up.
I happened to be on the street at the time, and decided to drive over to the apartment building to assist.
After riding the elevator to the sixth floor we found, much to our dismay, that the suspect's apartment was located near the end of a 100-foot-long, 5-foot-wide hallway. We all walked down the narrow corridor and when we reached the suspect's door, Joe walked past it and positioned himself just off of the door jam.
There was a door to another apartment located at the dead-end of the hallway approximately 20 feet behind Joe. Jerry and I positioned ourselves on the other side of the suspect's door. Our nearest cover, the corner of the hallway leading to the elevators, was 75 feet behind us, which didn't seem like a big deal since we were just trying to make contact with a "nonviolent" shoplifter.
We did use sound tactics--we didn't place ourselves in front of the door as we knocked and we hugged the hallway walls as best we could. Both Joe and Jerry attempted to contact the occupant of the apartment by knocking and banging on his door. We got no response, so I stepped forward and positioned myself in front of Jerry in order to make a verbal plea to the occupant.
I yelled to him, "We just want to talk in order to straighten the issue out."
I tried calling the phone number we had in our records, and then I knocked again and made another verbal plea.
We still got no response. Not a noise of any kind was coming from inside the apartment.
I resolved myself to the fact that our suspect was probably not going to answer the door, and I prepared to discuss our alternatives with the other officers.
At that moment, and without any warning at all, this misdemeanor retail theft suspect opened the door, pointed a five shot snub-nosed revolver at Jerry and me and fired away.
He was less than three feet away from us!
I was in front of Jerry, so I saw the gun first. I admit that there was probably a millisecond of denial as the gun was presented, but reality quickly set in and I screamed, "Oh shit--gun!"
With that utterance I spun my body hard to the left. As I did, I heard a shot. It was loud and unmistakable. I learned later that that first shot struck Jerry in the left shoulder as he was spinning to his right.
There was no thought about drawing and returning fire at that point. All I wanted was cover.
IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE, THE WILL TO SURVIVE KICKS IN
Both Jerry and I ran down the hallway attempting to get around the corner more than 75 feet away. Shots continued to ring out behind us, each one sounding like what I imagine cannon shots to sound like.
I distinctly remember that right after I made my turn something went by the right side of my head. That sensation forced me to drop my head as I fled from the shooter.
As we continued to run down what seemed now like a 750-foot hallway I was able to pull my .40 cal. Sig Sauer out of my holster. But as my brain began running faster than my 48-year- old legs would move, I fell face first onto the carpet while continuing to hear shots.
Suddenly Jerry fell to the ground, screaming, "I've been shot."
In my mind I thought Jerry was shot right at that point. I related his statement as the shots were still being fired and his falling all as one act. (It was only later I learned that he was hit with the first round as I spun away from the gunman.)
I reached for Jerry and the two of us fell around the corner of the hallway directly in front of the elevator.
My first thought was that the assailant was behind us and I knew I had to defend our position.
I looked down at my holster to grab my gun, and what I saw I will never forget. My holster was empty. It looked like the Grand Canyon, a vast emptiness.
I didn't really panic, at least I didn't panic to the point I couldn't think. I immediately reached over Jerry, who was on his knees in front of me at the time, and pulled his gun from his holster. I then thrust the gun around the corner ready to shoot the pursing shooter.
He was not there.
I scanned the hallway for Joe and spotted his hand sticking out of the doorway from that end apartment. He was holding his gun and pointing it towards the gunman's door.
I yelled to him from approximately 100 feet away (totally forgetting I had a radio at my disposal), "Joe, you OK?" He yelled back that he was.
"Shots fired, officer down!" went out over the airwaves. I believe all three of us broadcast the alert, probably simultaneously and multiple times.
I screamed towards Joe's position, telling him to watch the suspect's door. I then went back to check on Jerry.
During the next several seconds I assessed Jerry's injuries. I saw the blood on his shoulder. I noticed that it was pooling on the floor next to him and I remember thinking that it was more blood than I would have expected.
I could see he was in pain as he started going pale. I'm sure he was scared, but as he and I made eye contact, he didn't say a thing about his injury or his pain.
I helped Jerry put pressure on his wound and then I went back to the corner of the hallway.
As I glanced down towards the offender's apartment, I saw the suspect's arm sticking out in the hallway pointing a gun towards my position. He yelled towards Jerry's and my location. He said, using particularly profane language, that he wanted to continue the fight and to "kill" the police officers.
I wanted desperately to end the fight but I couldn't take a shot from my position. The distance, the lack of a target, and Joe being in such close proximity to the shooter's door made it impossible for me to take the shot.
However, from my perspective Joe could take a shot. So I yelled to him to do so immediately after the shooter shouted his intentions.
Joe fired two rounds at the suspect. I could see drywall and dust fly up from the wall of the hallway near the assailant's position. Though they missed, the proximity of the rounds to the suspect must have caused him to have a change of heart because he quickly threw the gun down onto the floor in the middle of the hallway.
Within seconds we had him proned out on the floor. Joe handcuffed him and I ran down the hallway back to Jerry.
As I knelt down beside him, I told him that we had secured the shooter. For the first time Jerry addressed his situation, saying, "Help me take my vest off; I'm sweating."
Moments later, the Cavalry arrived. Hordes of officers and paramedics appeared in the hallway. Some charged up the six flights while others crowded into the elevators and emerged as a group when the doors opened up.
Perhaps because of the adrenaline, I never really felt a conscious level of fear during the confrontation (that would come later). Panic maybe, but not fear.
But I do remember the feeling I experienced when I saw the face of the first police officer as he appeared in the hallway. It was a sense of safety.
Dan, one of the veteran officers on my shift, seemed to fall out of the elevator. There was an unmistakable look of intensity on his face. As we made eye contact I just remember feeling as though we were no longer alone.
Within seconds we were surrounded by an unbelievable number of our brother officers. It was one of the most overpowering moments of my life, and one of the most intense lessons in When/Then thinking I've ever experienced.
I can honestly say that complacency and denial can get you killed, and it's when you least expect it that tragedy rears its ugly head.
If my brother and sister officers take anything from my experience, I hope that they will continue to EXPECTED THE UNEXPECTED. Practice your When/Then thinking before you respond to any and every call to duty because that next call may be your turn to face an enemy with the intent to kill.