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Cop shares gunfight lessons from ISIS-inspired 'Draw the Prophet' terrorist attack

Here's what Garland Officer Greg Stevens learned during his fight for survival in the 'Draw the Prophet' terrorist attack


For 10 critical lessons from a broader view of the incident in Garland, click here.

Garland, Texas, Police Officer Greg Stevens had just resumed his post at the west entrance to the Curtis Culwell Center when a car pulled to an abrupt stop in the driveway, parallel to the traffic cones that blocked public access to the parking lot and buildings behind him. From his position at the right rear of the car, which was parked partly in the street and partly in the blocked driveway, he could see the Arizona tags on the vehicle. 

Although it had been anticipated that the widely-advertised and controversial “Draw the Prophet Contest” would attract visitors from all over, the out-of-state plates caught Stevens’ eye. The plates didn't grab his attention nearly as much, however, as the passenger who was exiting from the right front of the vehicle with an AK-pattern rifle in his hands.

Homegrown terrorists

In this May 4, 2015 file photo, FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)
In this May 4, 2015 file photo, FBI crime scene investigators document the area around two deceased gunmen and their vehicle outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

The passenger was Elton Simpson, one of two radicalized American citizens who had come to attack the crowd at the Culwell Center, shortly before 1900 on May 3, 2015, in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Wearing soft body armor and load-bearing equipment (LBE), and carrying a pistol and an ominous backpack, Simpson exited the car with a smile and began firing the rifle, which fed from a 100 round drum magazine.

Witnesses said the rifle was fired so quickly it sounded as if Stevens and nearby Garland Independent School District Security Officer Bruce Joiner were taking automatic fire.

The smile on Simpson’s face gave Joiner the impression it was all a joke, but when Stevens saw the rifle barrel poke out of the car, he immediately recognized the threat for what it was, and also recognized that his tactical position was poor. 

Stevens was standing in the open, with no hope of reaching any kind of cover, when Simpson tracked the rifle toward him and the unarmed security officer to his left rear. Stevens instantly recognized that the only way he was going to prevail in the coming fight was to aggressively engage Simpson and the driver, who was now exiting the vehicle on the far side with a drum-fed, AK-pattern rifle of his own.

Taking the fight to the enemy

Stevens immediately drew his Glock 21 pistol and engaged Simpson with four to five rounds as Simpson fired at him and Joiner with the rifle.

As Stevens fired, he slowly advanced on the suspects from 15 yards away, pressing the attack on the pair as he fired “rhythmically,” obtaining a “decent sight picture” for each round. Stevens was conscious of the fact he had to make his hits count, and his deliberation was rewarded with the sight of Simpson falling to the ground and dropping his rifle.

Switching to the next threat, Stevens pivoted to the left and fired at the driver, Nadir Soofi, who also wore soft armor and LBE, and had a backpack and a pistol. As Soofi rounded the back of the car with his rifle raised in the firing position, his left side was exposed to Stevens, who drew careful aim and shot Soofi in the elbow, above the elbow, the side of the chest and the shoulder, as he continued to advance and fire at a controlled pace.

The .45 caliber Speer Gold Dot 230 grain hollow point that hit Soofi in the shoulder got plugged with material from the LBE and didn’t open, lodging in his spine at the base of his neck. However, the round that hit above the elbow went through the arm, dodged the soft body armor, and entered the side of his chest, where it destroyed the heart and damaged a lung. After Soofi hit the ground, he did a momentary “push up” then slumped back down.

Stevens didn't know where his rounds had impacted on either suspect, but he knew he “was making progress” because they had both gone down. However, since neither threat had been eliminated for sure, he went back to Simpson and assessed him.

Simpson was still down, but his arms were moving in the area around his upper chest, near where the pistol was located in his LBE. Fearing that Simpson would access the pistol, or possibly trigger an improvised explosive device (IED) in his backpack (intelligence briefings before the event indicated this was a likely threat), Stevens fired several rounds at him again to end the furtive movements. Just as quickly, he traversed back to Soofi a second time and fired the remainder of his 14 rounds at the suspect, who stopped all movement.

Stevens instinctively knew that the familiar Glock 21 had run to slide lock and completed an emergency reload without any conscious thought. Still moving, he approached Simpson with the intention of shooting him again, if necessary.

Help arrives

Around this time, a self-described “in the zone” Stevens slowly became aware of a group of SWAT officers yelling commands to the non-compliant suspects. When the still-moving Simpson failed to show his hands, the SWAT officers shot him with their 5.56mm Colt Commando carbines to prevent him from triggering a suspected IED. Stevens later recounted that the commands and the shots from the rifles sounded “muffled,” as his own gunfire had been.

With both suspects down, Stevens and the SWAT officers took cover behind a Bearcat that had been moved up. The possibility of an IED loomed in everyone’s mind at the scene, so SWAT covered the downed attackers while explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) assets were summoned to clear them, their backpacks and the vehicle. Meanwhile, the wounded Joiner was evacuated and given medical treatment for the only wound sustained by the good guys – a bullet wound to the calf believed to have been caused by a ricochet.

A long day gets longer

There was considerable concern that Soofi and Simpson were just a feint or diversion, and the main thrust of the terrorist attack was still forthcoming. As a result, Stevens joined a group of other officers to hold a position on the perimeter on the other side of the Culwell Center to safeguard against a potential terrorist attack from the wooded tree line in that area. 

Stevens maintained the watch for a few hours before he could be relieved and taken off the line, but was not allowed to leave the scene because EOD clearing procedures were still underway. By the time he was debriefed and sent home, he had been on duty for almost 15 hours, and the shooting had been over for almost nine.

It had been a hell of a day for a guy working what was supposed to be a “simple extra-duty assignment.”

Lessons and observations

There are many lessons to be learned from Officer Stevens’ experience in the Culwell Center terrorist attack. Some of the most important areas to focus on include the following:

1. Situational awareness

Stevens knew something was up before he ever saw the rifle barrel coming out of the car. The abrupt stop that left the car partially in the traffic lane and the out-of-state plates that were consistent with intelligence estimates suggesting the possibility of an attack by non-locals were important cues that alerted him to potential danger. His awareness allowed him to quickly gather information and confirm the threat before those around him could piece things together.

 2. Mental preparation

Stevens participated in several pre-operation briefings that discussed potential threats and the plans to counter them. These briefings served as mental rehearsals, which, when combined with strong officer safety habits and a tactical mindset, mentally prepared him for the reality that an attack might occur. This enabled him to make rapid judgments about the threat when it presented itself, allowing him to bypass the denial and confusion that are a common reaction in these scenarios. He didn't ask himself, “What is happening?” or say, “This can't be happening.” Instead, Stevens, in his words, “immediately knew the fight was on” when Simpson exited the car and acted without hesitation, even as others around him were telling themselves it was a prank and not a real attack.

 3. Aggressive counterattack

Stevens’ immediate and aggressive counterattack was the key to his safety and victory after the fight commenced. By aggressively closing with the terrorists and attacking the ambush, Stevens changed the dynamic and put them on the defensive. He interrupted their OODA loop and capitalized on the confusion he created in their minds, while minimizing his vulnerabilities. His aggressive counterattack destroyed their ability to flank or target him by creating shock, surprise and injury, and shortened the amount of time they had to inflict casualties.

 4. Closing the distance

Had he retreated for cover instead of attacking, Stevens would have allowed the attackers to take advantage of the superior range, power and hit probability afforded by their rifles. A retreat would have given them an uninterrupted shot at his back, and even if he had made it to cover – such as a car or tree – unscathed, the rifles would have been able to penetrate that cover, as well as his soft armor. Increased distance wouldn’t have hindered the rifle-armed attackers, but would have made it harder for Stevens to make accurate hits with his handgun. By closing the distance, he maximized the effectiveness of his short range weapon, while denying the attacker's long range advantage.

 5. Skill at arms

Stevens describes himself as a “better than average” shooter but “not a master class shooter,” as many of the officers on his department are. However he rates himself, the facts are clear that he made more hits than misses on a pair of moving threats, as he himself moved from 15 to seven yards while under fire from weapons that could easily defeat his soft armor.

National police gunfight hit ratios hover around the high teens, percentage-wise, but Stevens hit with almost all of his rounds, as a result of his composure and his skillful execution of marksmanship fundamentals. It's instructive that Stevens had a clear view of his front sight while shooting, and took the time to obtain an appropriate, but not perfect, sight picture – what most instructors would call a “flash sight picture” – because, “I knew I needed to make the hits.”

Obtaining a suitable sight picture for the circumstances certainly aided him in getting shots on target. “Master class” or not, he demonstrated a masterful balance between speed and precision that serves as an example for us all.

 6. The value of training

Stevens didn't achieve this level of skill by accident. Over the course of 38 years in law enforcement, he paid careful attention to the instruction he received, taking advantage of extra training opportunities available to him.

Shortly before the Culwell Center shooting, he participated in department firearms training that required him to engage multiple targets at various distances – the very skills he would soon use to stop the terrorists. Stevens cautions that officers need to “train with a purpose,” build and reinforce good habits in training, and “avoid the temptation to be lazy and take shortcuts” during training. He believes that “training is a gift, a privilege,” and encourages officers to make the most of it, because, “We don't choose the moment, it chooses us.”

His exceptional performance in his first-ever officer involved shooting is a testament to the power of good training and a personal dedication to wringing the most out of it that you can.

Salute!

Officer Stevens is a modest, family man who takes great pride in his service to the community, but is somewhat uncomfortable with the attention he received after the Culwell Center shooting. He believes most officers “appreciate an occasional pat on the back” because they're unaccustomed to getting much thanks or praise, but don't seek or need much public attention to be satisfied.

However, he deserves a hearty pat on the back from his fellow officers for the positive example he set for them in this incident. We can all benefit from his experience, and we owe him a debt of thanks for his service and the model of professionalism he displayed in the first ISIS terror attack on American soil.

Remember Officer Stevens’ warning: We don’t choose the moment, it chooses us. So train hard and stay alert out there.

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