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Routine Check Leads to Fight for Life

Plain-clothes officers from Seattle Police Department were recently forced to react with deadly force in a surprise encounter during a routine street check. The firefight resulted in one officer considering how important instinct is in keeping the good guys alive.

by Seattle PD Officer Jim Rodgers West Precinct Anti-Crime Team  mes.rodgers@Seattle.Gov   

Police officers are faced with interpreting both good and bad sides of human behavior. Over time, valuable experience compliments our mental and physical skills for surviving unpredictable circumstances. Learning to ‘read’ people and situations is essential for police officers to work safely and go home to their families after each shift. We are taught tactics for driving, fighting and shooting. However, the right mindset keeps you prepared for when you need to use those physical tactics. Some call it instinct or a sixth-sense. No matter what you call it, learning to trust that ‘gut feeling’ may prove to be the difference between life and death.

In May last year a group of plain clothes officers, known as the Anti-Crime Team, were working downtown Seattle. It was a sunny afternoon just after lunch. The team focus is on street crimes with a heavy emphasis on narcotics and gang activity in Seattle’s West Precinct. The officers decided to work an area next to the I-5 freeway just north of Chinatown. This grassy area is well known for groups of people who hang about at all hours to smoke crack, drink and loiter. The team had been there four times in the previous two months, assisting other officers including Department of Corrections in contacting people involved in various crimes. Each time the team returned to the location there were fewer people.

On May 14th, our team of four officers and a sergeant went there alone for the first time. The scene comprised a cement path that paralleled the freeway for approximately three hundred feet, with a short chain-link fence along the side nearest the freeway, and a small grassy hill leading up from the sidewalk. A quick check of the area revealed only a homeless guy sleeping near the freeway. There were no loitering groups. I immediately began to let my guard down.

One of my partners woke the homeless guy about a third of the way along the cement path. I walked over to assist him carrying a laptop computer that our team uses to run people. The other three officers were at the other end of the path close to stairs about ninety feet from our position. While my partner and I were busy checking our homeless guy, a man in his late sixties walked up the stairs carrying a knapsack. He passed the other officers after averting his eyes away from them when they said hello. He then walked up the grassy hillside and stopped to urinate against a tree. He did this in full view of all the officers as if he couldn’t care less.

I had my back to the hillside and was facing the freeway while speaking with the homeless guy we were checking. When the suspect finished urinating, he walked over and stood on the hillside behind us without speaking. He stared at my partner and I during our contact with the homeless guy.

My partner suddenly called out to the suspect on the hillside, and I turned to look at him for the first time from approximately thirty feet away. “What’s he up to?” was my first thought. I then turned back to face the homeless guy I was checking. I entered his particulars into the computer to check for warrants and trespass info. I figured my partner would go talk to the suspect on the hill so we could finish up and move on.

My partner was wearing a denim ‘Hidden Agenda’ style jacket with the ‘police’ flaps pulled down. He also wore his badge on a chain around his neck and “SEATTLE POLICE” were displayed in big white letters across the front of his chest. My partner yelled for the suspect to come down to talk with him, but he refused. I looked back to see what was going on. My partner began walking towards the suspect pointing to his police insignia and shouting, “Seattle Police come here!” My attention was now divided between the homeless guy I was checking and the non-compliant suspect that my partner was trying to contact.

Normally, I would not have thought twice about my partner going to contact what appeared to be a ‘low threat’ suspect by himself. The man was in his late 60s, was smaller than average, was not talking, did not appear to be high or intoxicated and generally did not look like much of a concern. However, as my partner continued approaching him, I started getting the feeling that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t figure out what his problem was and why he wouldn’t comply. The suspect seemed to visually lock onto my partner to the exclusion of everything else. He also had that “thousand-yard-stare”. I wondered if the suspect would try to take off running. My partner, rather than walking straight up the hillside, began walking along the path about twenty feet from me. He got ahead of the suspect before starting up the hill in case he ran. When he did start up the hill, he began walking across it at an angle. The suspect continued to turn his body and track my partners’ movement, always staying face to face with him.

I closed my computer and started walking towards the suspect on the hill to back my partner. I now had an uneasy feeling with the suspect acting so unpredictably. My partner and I were approaching him from opposite angles, like the sides of a triangle coming together at a point. We both climbed onto a fifteen-inch ledge at the bottom of the hillside before walking up a slight incline. My partner continued to shout “Seattle Police” at the man and point to his police flaps and badge. The suspect’s only response was to give a brush off motion with his left hand, as if to say ‘forget it.’ The suspect remained focused on my partner as I approached from the other side.

As all this unfolded, an officer that was still standing near the stairs was also watching. He began to move in our direction. My partner was now within three feet of the suspect and I was fifteen feet away at an angle.

In a flash I watched in disbelief as the suspect suddenly hunched his upper body forward and aggressively reached back to his hip with his left hand. At that moment, everything seemed to slow down. Being on the suspect’s left side, I could clearly see everything he was doing. I knew he was reaching for a weapon to pull on my partner. For whatever reason, my first thought was that he was going for a knife - maybe it was his age or his appearance.

Everything became surreal and seemed to almost switch to auto-pilot. The computer dropped from my left hand as I reached for my gun with my right. I lost sight of my partner who was now backpedaling away from the threat. My vision seemed to narrow down to only the suspect who was pulling out a silver revolver towards my partner. I don’t remember actually grabbing my Glock which was covered by my sweatshirt at the time, but suddenly I was bringing my sights up on target. I was desperately trying to get on target before the suspect did, knowing full well that he was going to try to kill my partner.

My mind was trying to process what was happening and I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, what is this guy doing!’ I began firing rounds as quickly and accurately as I could, aiming for the suspect’s upper body and head. My partner was also drawing, backpedaling and shooting from the hip as fast as he could but he lost his footing as he fell off the ledge at the base of the incline.

I never saw my partner tumble at the bottom of the hill, nor did I see the other officer coming up below me on my left. All I could see was the suspect fully extending his left arm with a silver snub-nose Smith & Wesson pointed directly at my partner. I knew there was a telephone pole to my left about five feet away. My mind told me to go for cover as I was totally exposed, but I realized it was a race and I didn’t have time to do anything but shoot and hope to God the suspect would hurry up and go down.

The three of us seemed to shoot at the suspect almost simultaneously as he fired shots at my partner. The suspect got off two rounds but missed before he was hit multiple times and killed instantly.

When it was over, we were in disbelief at what the suspect had done. Almost immediately I began to evaluate what might have happened if we had not picked up on the suspect’s non-verbal cues. What if we had not gone to assist our partner before the shooting erupted? The suspect, who was later determined to have a history of mental health issues, still had three live rounds in his revolver that he had every intention of using. He had gone from being an older man standing on a hill watching us, to being focused on trying to kill a police officer in mere seconds, with almost no warning whatsoever. What caused him to snap that day will always remain a mystery.

I realized that something in my gut just felt wrong about that guy, even though his appearance was unalarming. Rather than ignoring that feeling, I trusted my instinct and went to back my partner however unassuming the suspect looked. Given the same situation I might have missed the signs. Worse still, I might have ignored them. We have all been caught off-guard by complacency. Most of us have survived to realize it. This was a permanent reminder for me to trust my instincts and stay on guard, remembering to always expect the unexpected.

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