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Reflecting on Family Safety Following Florida Tragedy

By Dave and Betsy Smith

On Tuesday, January 30th, 2007 a convicted felon and murder suspect, Lionel Sands, and his companion Daniel Brown apparently stalked and gunned down Mellie McDaniel, the wife of Jackson County Sheriff John McDaniel as she headed home from the grocery store. Mrs. McDaniel was able to contact her husband via radio phone to advise him she was being followed; as he called for assistance and told her not to go home he heard her scream. The first responding deputy Harold Michael Altman, was also murdered. The sheriff and other units responded, killing both suspects.

Deputies found ammunition, latex gloves, bleach, vinegar, handcuffs, duct tape, and trash bags inside the killer's vehicle. In addition, both killers wore disguises which included a wig and a glued-on mustache, but their ultimate plan died with them.

Shortly after this incident, we received a call from a good friend and fellow police trainer, Greg May, coordinator of Public Safety Education at Gulf Coast Community College in Florida. Greg is also a police officer with Panama City Beach Police Department, and more importantly, a husband and father.

The home of Jackson Co. (FL) Sheriff John McDaniel where his wife Mellie, a deputy and two suspects were murdered.(AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

He’d already been receiving requests for information and training for police families. The Jackson County case hit Officer May especially hard as Deputy Altman was one of his recruits. We decided that this tragic case brings up issues we need to talk to our own families about, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it may be. Thanks to Officer May for his inspiration and assistance.

When we talk about and train for “off duty survival,” we have to include our family members in many aspects. Let your family know that you have an obligation to keep yourself, your family, and the community safe on or off-duty. More importantly, teach them that as members of a police family, they also share this obligation.

Talk to them about good v. evil, about being part of a “warrior family,’ and how they can help you AND each other. Keep it simple, keep it age appropriate, and talk about this more than once! These discussions should be a regular part of your life as a crimefighter’s family.

The Internet has made our personal information more accessible than ever, including our home addresses, relatives, even the vehicles we drive. Tell your family about the dangers of Internet chat rooms and to NOT give out any information that may give their true personal information or indicate they have law enforcement in the family.

Teach them not to give out personal information when shopping, in casual conversation, and when meeting new people. Make sure they are very cautious about revealing your identity as a police officer.

Teach your spouse or partner to use your off duty weapon, and as your kids grow and mature teach them also. It’s a good idea to begin teaching your kids (and spouse or partner) that sometimes bad people choose to do evil and good people sometimes have to stop them, which may include you or members of your family...THEM!

In other words, teach them to be warriors! Don’t hide or downplay what you do, and what you (or they) may face someday. If you empower your family both mentally and physically, they will be less vulnerable to victimization. Our spouses and kids are usually much stronger than we give them credit for (after all, they live with us, don’t they!?)

Here are a few additional “quick tips” to tell them during your family discussions:

• Be aware of other people attending to you or your children, vehicle, your movements

• Make sure "911" and your jurisdiction’s dispatch center is programmed into your cell phones

• If you're being followed, go to a crowded, busy place (such as a busy gas station or store, the mall, local police or sheriff's department, courthouse), identify specific locations in your own area that may be “safe zones.” DON'T GO HOME...this is especially difficult for youngsters to understand, because home is a "safe place" for them, so help them to understand why they shouldn’t just go home.

• NEVER allow yourself to be taken into a vehicle or building. Learn tactics such as drop and roll under vehicles, yelling, screaming, hitting, biting, running in the opposite direction, whatever it takes to get away.

• If you suspect you are being followed or targeted, trust your instincts and take appropriate action. Believe in your gut instincts!

• Make sure you know how to find your location, including using mile posts along the highway, to tell help exactly where you are.

If you don't live in your own jurisdiction, make sure you and your family know the local cops; take them to the local police station to visit (bringing some cookies or a dozen doughnuts couldn’t hurt!), have them meet the dispatchers, desk officers, and the officers who patrol your neighborhood. Take advantage of the child safety and personal safety courses taught by your own agency or another one; we often neglect to get our family members involved in our own crime prevention programming.

You must teach your family some of your own police tactics, including “cover and concealment,” “crisis rehearsal” and “tactical breathing.”

More importantly, teach them the “warrior mindset” that is so vital to survival. Teach them to protect themselves, to "keep fighting no matter what!”

Our hearts go out to the families of Mellie McDaniel, mother, grandmother, and loyal cop’s wife for so many years, and Deputy Harold (“Mike”) Altman, one- year veteran of the Jackson County S/O, son, husband, step dad, and now fallen hero. Honor the sacrifice of these two people by sharing their story with your own warrior family.

There are still some of you that, even after reading this, will still believe that you should maintain a “wall” between your family and your job. As this example proves, now more than ever, we can’t afford that luxury. Bring your family into your world, our world, and teach them to be part of our own warrior family of crimefighters!

Here are some great resources to help in teaching your family to stay safe:

The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
By Gavin De Becker

Raising Kids Who Can Protect Themselves
By Mike and Debbie Gardner

About the authors

Former police lieutenant Dave Smith developed the popular “Buck Savage” survival series videos and was the lead instructor for the original Calibre Press “Street Survival” seminar from 1983 to 1985, helping to develop the popular “Tactical Edge” book. He served as the Director of Education for the Enforcement Television Network.

Sergeant Betsy Smith is a 27-year veteran of law enforcement, currently serving as a patrol supervisor in a Chicago, IL suburb. Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy is a police trainer, and author. She can be reached at betsybrantner@aol.com

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