As a trainer, one of the most satisfying moments you can have is for a student to tell you that what you said or did helped them to win the day. Below is an account of a non-spontaneous lethal-force incident which occurred at an agency in the suburbs of the Columbus (Ohio) area. This led to one of those great moments.
To me, it is proof yet again that when the $h*t hits the fan you don’t rise to the occasion — you rely on your training. It also proves that what a trainer says or does can have on his or her students long after the training is completed.
Names and exact locations have been changed to protect the many involved.
No Such Thing as ‘Routine’
Wednesday, May 11th, 2011 began as a “routine” day — like many days do, it began with follow-up work from the night before. With that paperwork completed, Officer Tony (we’ll just call him Tony) hadn’t been on the road for more than fifteen minutes when he was dispatched to what was first reported as an injury auto crash. He had no idea that this call would turn out to be the most eventful days of his career.
Quite often calls we are dispatched to turn out to be different than what they are originally reported. While en route to the call, dispatch continued to relay updates to Tony. Ultimately, this accident-with-injuries call morphed into a suicidal-male-with-a-knife call.
Tony recalled thinking to himself, “This isn’t going to go well.”
Like a Hollywood Movie
No sooner had that thought run through his head when he received another update proving his thought correct. Dispatch informed Tony that the male subject had cut his own throat and was now threatening people in the area with the knife.
As Tony pulled up to the scene, he observed a crowd of people fleeing in different directions. It was later learned that several neighborhood residents responded to the original auto accident and attempted to assist the man with his injuries. Those good Samaritans had no idea that his injuries were self inflicted until he began to threaten them with a large butcher knife.
It was then that he saw the male subject running from the accident scene. “The man had blood coming from his neck and a large butcher knife in his hand,” Tony explained.
“The whole thing looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie, only this was real. He [the injured man] ran right in front of my patrol car and headed into a residents back yard. I exited my patrol car and gave chase into the yard with my duty pistol drawn.”
The foot chase was about to change the lives of everyone involved.
As Tony pursued the man into the backyard, he continually yelled for the subject to “stop and drop the knife.”
Tony recalled that “it was almost like I was subconsciously begging him to comply.”
It was then that the man stopped and turned toward Tony from approximately 33 feet away.
“I again commanded him to stop and drop the knife but, he continued to play out that Hollywood scene by not responding at all, not even a twitch. He just kept moving towards me, almost zombie -like.”
Shots Fired! Shots Fired!
Tony fired two shots in rapid succession. “He didn’t even flinch. I thought ‘[bleep], I missed’!”
The subject continued toward Tony and stumbled to his knees.
“I repeatedly told him to stay down, at which point he attempted to stagger to his feet. I then remember thinking back to the basics, site picture, sight alignment, trigger press.”
Tony squeezed off two more rounds.
“I swear that I watched those two bullets leave the barrel of my weapon.”
Those two rounds were well placed, one in the neck and one between the subjects eyes, stopping the threat for good.
With the subject down and apparently lifeless with the knife several feet from him, Tony stood there “still staring down the barrel of my weapon, waiting to see movement. It was as if something kicked me and said, ‘don’t stand there, cuff him and get him help.’ Even though I was fairly certain he was dead, securing the subject and requesting medical assistance was another element of my training taking over.”
Tony said that as backup officers were arriving and the scene was being secured, he saw his Chief arrive. “The first thing I said to him was, Chief, it was a suicide by cop.”
To Tony’s relief, the Chief responded saying, “Did you do what you were trained to do? If so, then don’t worry about it.”
“It was at that point that I knew my administration stood behind me, which is a great feeling in a crappy situation.” said Tony.
Tony later found out that his first two shots did not miss — they struck the subject in the left and right shoulders near the collar bones. Tony said, “I now realize this was consistent with an observed left to right stagger. If you were to place these shots on our police qualification target they would be considered qualifying hits, even though they did not have the desired effect in this particular situation. Those first two shots were straight point shooting with no use of the sights at around 33 feet. The last two were sighted shots at approximately 14 1/2 feet.”
Tony considers himself an avid shooter and someone who trains more than the average patrol officer. “I will tell you this, I don’t remember thinking about anything — I just did it. It felt like a little training guy took over the driver’s seat in my head and just carried me through. More so then ever. I can’t imagine slacking in my training or having the mind set of, I’ll know what to do when it happens’.”
He says that type of thinking is “BS.”
“The only way to know what to do when it happens is to prepare for it the best you can,” he said.
Dealing with the Aftermath
Not long after the incident, Tony found that the male subject suffered from severe mental disabilities, very similar to some a close family member of his has. Tony was cleared in the shooting and almost unbelievably, the deceased man’s family wrote letters to the officer and local papers apologizing for their son’s behavior. Before the Grand Jury hearing they (the subject’s family) wrote a letter asking them to forgive their son’s actions that day and to not hold Tony responsible for having to do what he was trained to do.
Tony completes his recounting of that day in May with this statement: “Every day we strap on the gun belt, lace up the boots, and (if we don’t, we should) mentally prepare for the drug dealer that may bail out of his car shooting at us or that desperate individual who has already decided he will take the life of a police officer to keep from going back to jail for his latest crime.
We forget to prepare for someone who has a mental illness and a butcher knife and is determined to force you to carry out his suicide mission. My hope is that we can learn something from this tragedy that will help us all return home safely when our shift is over.”
In the end, it was the basics that won the day for Tony. His knowledge of what it takes to hit, his application of the fundamentals, and his confidence in himself and his equipment.
The fact that Tony quickly fired two shots at a distance of 33 feet and managed to hit the subject with both rounds points to a learned motor program for presenting and firing a pistol. We talked about it, and he agreed they were reactive. His being able to talk himself “back to the basics” of sight picture, sight alignment, and trigger press shows his knowledge of what it takes to hit.
As you read this after-action report, think about how many calls like this have you responded to. They most often do not result in shootings. Are you one of those officers who get amped up for qualification or training days? How is responding to this call different to responding to a training day where you are expected to perform? Do you know the value of breathing to reduce your stress and focusing on the task and can you apply it?
It’s a concept I first learned from trainer Kevin Davis and has proven to be a cornerstone of my training as well as my performance. How will you react when your lethal force encounter is a dispatched call? Will you plan a tactically sound way to win or will you become anxious about failure like qualification day? Will you have sufficient training to move to another plan or fix what you have done when what you do doesn’t initially work?
I stand by the statement that you will not rise to the occasion, you will default to the level of your training. You need to understand that training is what you repeat time and time again. What is it you have been repeating/practicing? Do you have a “tactical toolbox?” Is it a mess or is it organized with your favorite tool right on top ready to use?
Until next time,
Those who can, do...
Those who understand, should be teaching!