Going from zero to gunfight in fractions of a second

Officers Erin Thomas and Brandon Savage of the Middlefield (Ohio) Police Department were suddenly ambushed at a traffic stop, but they said “Not Today!” and prevailed in the firefight


As was reported by WKYC-TV, two Ohio cops conducted a traffic stop in March that quickly turned deadly. James Gilkerson sprang from his car and fired on Officers Brandon Savage and Erin Thomas with a semi-automatic rifle.

Hell-bent on suicide, Gilkerson remained a deadly threat, intermittently firing at the officers and shouting “Kill me! Kill me!” Those two heroes were forced to oblige his suicidal wish. 

What can we learn from this rapidly-unfolding deadly-force encounter?

Check out the video, and pick back up below to read what I learned about this incident when I contacted Middlefield (Ohio) PD today...

Here’s ‘The Rest of the Story’
With Officer Savage at the wheel, the two cops pulled over the green Saturn sedan for failing to stop at an intersection. After they called in the tag numbers, Officer Thomas exited the squad — circling around the rear of the patrol car so she could approach the driver’s side of the violator’s vehicle.

Roughly eight seconds after the brake lights of the offender’s car switched off — and as Officer Thomas approached the left-front quarterpanel of the squad — the door of the violator’s car swung open and Gilkerson emerged, immediately opening fire. 

Even before the gunman had opened fire, Officer Thomas had identified the threat and warned her partner as she moved toward a position of cover behind the squad. Her movement is why you see Gilkerson move to his right — into the street — as he was looking for a better line of fire toward her.

Still in the driver’s seat, Officer Savage returned fire directly downrange through the squad’s windshield before himself exiting the car and making his way to the back bumper. In the TV news report there’s a brief image of that windscreen’s telltale signs of Officer Savage’s immediate action. 

I’m glad to report that although both officers were badly injured — Thomas was shot in the left hand and Savage was hit in the leg by shrapnel, both have been released from the hospital.

A document I obtained today from Middlefield Police Department stated that Gilkerson’s vehicle was chock full of evidence that he set out that day with truly evil intent in mind. 

On the floorboard of the car, investigators found eight (8) 40-round ammunition magazines for the FEG 7.62x39 AK-47-type semi-automatic rifle, a black ski mask, black leather gloves, and some form of web gear. In the trunk they found “military-style ammo cans” and a scoped .22 caliber rifle. 

They also discovered numerous instructional DVDs, books, and pamphlets with titles such as:

•    Acquiring New ID
•    Kitchen Approved Plastic Explosives
•    Big Book of Homemade Weapons
•    Advanced Close-Range Gunfighting 
•    Converting Model Rockets Into Explosive Missiles
•    Kitchen Improvised Fertilizer Explosives
•    Be Your Own Undertaker

That last one is my personal favorite — Gilkerson seems to have pretty-well completed that curriculum cover-to-cover. 

Training, and a ‘Not Today’ Attitude...
Ironically, when this incident occurred, Officer Thomas was completing her “last day” of training with Officer Savage. I’m willing to bet that given their performance that day, they’d both say their training has never stopped (and never will). 

What else can we take away from this incident? I think we can all agree that:

1.) A so-called “routine stop” can quickly turn deadly.
2.) You may never know what crimes you’ll prevent.

We may one day find out what Gilkerson’s original target had been on that Sunday evening in March.

Then again, we may not. 

What we know for sure is that Officers Erin Thomas and Brandon Savage were ready to meet that challenge, stop that threat, and go home safely to their loved ones.

I’ve never liked the term “expect the unexpected” — it’s both a linguistic predicament and practical impossibility — so I like to say “prepare for the unexpected.”

That preparation takes several forms, including a practice of constantly updating your 360-degree situational awareness and your when/then analysis. 

Importantly, though, I want to call out two other very specific things to consider:

•    Doing your positive self talk — “Not Today!”
•    Training, training, training, and more training

My good friends (and PoliceOne Columnists) Dave Smith and Betsy Brantner Smith first coined the “Not Today” mantra a couple of years ago, and it’s rapidly spread across the country as a way in which you can keep your mindset both positive and prepared. 

I’ve written about the “Not Today” mantra in the past, as have they. If you want to learn more about it, I encourage you to read their PoliceOne columns, and to check out all the upcoming training seminars from Dave Smith & Associates by clicking here

One last word about training... There are myriad videos like the one from Middlefield in March — officers spend a lot of their time in (and around) vehicles, so getting into gunfights near cars is pretty common. This should serve as ample impetus for you to do as much live-fire training from within and around vehicles as you possibly can. You may get some of that type of training from the PD, but if so, it probably isn’t a lot. 

I’m practicing what I preach: Later this month, I’ll be taking (yet another) live-fire vehicle tactics course from my good friend (and PoliceOne Columnist) Ken Hardesty.

The LE-only class takes place near San Jose (Calif.) on Sunday May 26, and I am certain this incident will be discussed. Only a few slots remain in the class, so if you’re a Bay Area cop and you want to come out and do some training with Ken and the guys from Spartan Concepts and Consulting, click here.

Stay safe out there my friends.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.

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