Ask the average police officer if and when they would ever surrender their firearm and their answer will probably be short and to the point: “NEVER!”
The concept of never giving up your firearms goes back to the lessons learned in 1963 in an incident known as “The Onion Field.”
Two LAPD officers — Hettinger and Campbell — pulled over a vehicle because of suspicious activity. Unknown to the officers, the two occupants had been involved in a rash of armed robberies.
Campbell was taken hostage at gunpoint. Hettinger was ordered by the suspects (and his own partner) to surrender his weapon, which he did. He and Campbell were driven to an onion field near Bakersfield, where Campbell was murdered. Hettinger escaped into the darkness of the night.
Victim of Training... Or Lack Thereof
What he would not escape was the shame of having to go around and explain how he had “screwed up” and gotten his partner killed.
He was required to go from precinct to precinct on numerous occasions retelling the story. As a result, he suffered PTSD and eventually was fired.
He was a victim of his training — or lack thereof.
In law enforcement it is often said that first you take the test and then you learn the lesson. What law enforcement learned from that night in the onion field near Bakersfield was to:
• Carry back up weapons
• Have a pre-determined plan if a partner is taken hostage
• Remember that if you have a tactical advantage, keep it
• And to NEVER give up your gun
In a recent incident, an officer responded to a bank alarm by walking into the bank with his pistol drawn. What he found were two suspects, one armed with a rifle. He quickly exited the bank and took cover behind his squad.
Unfortunately, the suspects, rather than fleeing, followed him outside, cornering him. With the demand from two armed suspects for his pistol, outnumbered, outgunned and out of options he unloaded his sidearm and handed them his weapon.
No ‘Always’ and No ‘Never’
At this point I can hear the choruses of, “Well, he shoulda” and” Hey, he coulda” and “Well, what I woulda” to be joined by the NEVER advocates.
“There’s no ‘always’ and no ‘never’ in the real world,” said Harvey Hedden, Executive Director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, which organizes training for departments around the country.
“If those two guys definitely had the drop on him, then he might have had no choice. It’s generally not a favored tactic to give your gun away, but it sounds like a decent resolution.
“The suspects are on a hair trigger as well... A long gun like that has more accuracy and greater firepower.
“We normally encourage officers to maintain control of the gun and not rely on the bad guy’s mercy, but it’s very difficult to second-guess when someone has a microsecond to make that kind of decision.”
In this case the officer had no real options left. Obviously, setting up an outside perimeter and letting the suspects exit rather than walking in could have potentially avoided the situation. But that didn’t happen and we are left with the results.
The officer is alive, his name is not on a wall and he leaves no grieving wife and children. Are you mentally prepared to respond to this situation?
Are you ready, willing and able to refuse to give up your gun and possibly die in a fight for your life against multiple assailants? Are you prepared in a situation like this, when it seems there is no option, but surrender or die, to surrender?
There will be those who disagree with the officer’s choice. “He could not have won that battle,” Newport Police Chief Maurice Shults said. “He was overpowered and outgunned. It’s easy to second-guess when you don’t have a gun pointed at your head”
“He’s in good shape and back on duty. He did the right thing.”
In this particular case, the multiple suspects and high powered rifle must play a strong role in the decision making process. Change those variables and your choice may change.
In a third situation, officers were dealing with an armed suspect. An officer on scene decided that to build trust with the suspect during negotiating for their surrender to disarm, leave cover, approach the suspect, and kneel on the ground in front of them to show that they were not a threat.
The suspect’s response was to shoot the officer in the head.
Obviously, in this situation, giving up the tactical advantage of distance and cover and disarming yourself to approach an armed suspect to establish a trusting rapport is not — not now, nor will it ever be — a proper tactical response. We do not give up a tactical advantage and place ourselves at a disadvantage (that’s as near to the one ‘never’ we do actually have).
Sandblasting the Rules Written in Stone
In the fourth scenario, you have just interrupted an armed robbery. You are off duty and armed, having taken a position of cover. The situation poses a great enough threat that you choose to intervene. You have drawn your weapon and ordered the suspect to the ground and hold them at gunpoint.
From behind, you hear, “POLICE! Drop the weapon!”
Police officers are not trained to drop their weapons. They will set them down but they don’t drop them. This has caused the shooting of more than one off-duty officer by responding on duty officers.
Let’s revisit the rules of off-duty encounters. Uniform trumps off duty. Be prepared mentally and physically. Rehearse the action of dropping your gun in an off-duty encounter. It could save your life.
As you can see, there’s no ‘always’ and no ‘never’ in the real world.
Each situation poses a different set of problems and options. Any set of rules written in stone need to be sand blasted away.
In an untenable position of life and death, the officer I highlighted at the recent bank alarm response chose the only course of action that would keep him alive.
It’s not the Hollywood choice, it’s not the “heroic” choice, it won’t garner any medals but his mission is to go home alive at the end of the shift. I agree with the officer’s actions. I believe I would do the same thing in the same situation.
That isn’t easy for me to write and I hope I never have to make that choice, but law enforcement is about preparing to make tough decisions in tough situations.
Train, for the day will come.