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It's in the cards: Two officers' pocket-sized survival reminders

Surviving a shooting is made much easier by a small piece of plastic

Two cops, two cards. In California, the card is a dog-eared paper relic of a close call that reminds an officer that kissing off any assignment can be hazardous to your health. In Georgia, it’s a plasticized checklist, designed by a federal trainer to help LEOs from his agency navigate challenges of a different kind, after the shooting is over.

I met Officer Pat Comerford on a ride-along during his swing shift Halloween night. With San Jose P.D. for more than a decade, he’s a big guy, low-key but no-nonsense and street-smart.

We’d just finished assisting on a gangbanger bust and soon would join other officers in monitoring a volatile mix of the young and foolish at an open-door masquerade party. In between, Pat snagged a call of a silent alarm at a darkened, two-story residence on a block of newish, up-scale homes.

He parked a couple of houses away, hugged the shadows in a low-profile foot approach, and slowly circled the property looking for signs of a break-in. Finding nothing suspicious, he returned to the squad and started filling out a FAIR card (False Alarm Incident Report). The white top copy goes to Records, a carbon is left behind for the property owner.

Then he showed me a filled-out FAIR card he’d been carrying around for years. It was well-worn, getting a little tattered. About the size of an index card, he kept it tucked in his uniform shirt pocket, spring-clipped in a packet of Miranda warnings, fresh FAIR cards, and other paper miscellany.

A half dozen years ago, on the night he wrote out that card, he was working alone when he was dispatched to a silent alarm at a liquor store. “It was going on midnight,” he recalled. “The place was closed. Front double doors chained and locked with a padlock. Very dark inside. Only about 10 percent of the lights were on.” Cautiously, he peeked through the front glass from around a corner of the building and “saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

The store was tightly flanked by residences on both sides. On the left was a gate, locked and topped with barbed wire. On the right, an eight-foot chain link fence, its gate also padlocked. There was no alley behind the place; only more homes. Faced with barbed wire or an 8-foot scramble for immediate access, he didn’t go back there. “Everything seemed to be secure,” he told me.

Back at his unit, which he’d parked half-a-block away, he wrote out a FAIR card, then with lights out drove to the edge of the liquor store parking lot and got out, “still a little cautiously,” to tuck the carbon in the crack between the front doors.

He was just about to stick the paper in when through the glass, “I see an arm come up from behind the counter inside and grab some cigarette packs that were laying there.”

Oh, Sh*t!
Everything ended up OK. Because the intruder was ducked down, he didn’t see Pat. With the help of a sergeant who’d rolled up and other officers who quickly responded, he was safely captured, an adolescent goof who’d broken in “mainly to get cigarettes and beer.” He’d circumvented the locked gates by approaching the store from another street, through the residential yards to the rear, and popped the lock on the back door. He didn’t have a gun, but he did have a big crowbar and could certainly have been trouble.

It was a pucker experience Pat didn’t want to forget. So since the alarm turned out not to be false, he decided to keep the FAIR card as a reminder.

“If I start getting a little lax,” he told me, “I’ll see it and it will be a kick in the butt that gets me to pay attention to what I’m doing.”

As an FTO and a training instructor, he has shared the story behind the card “with everybody I come across who looks like it might help, recruits and in-service. We go to alarm calls hundreds of times that turn out to be false, we go to domestics that are just verbal, we make traffic stops of violators who are just soccer moms. We all need reminders that any call could be the one that’s different and that we need to stay on top of the game all the time.”

After an OIS
The card carried by Insp. David McGaha, a senior firearms instructor at the U.S. Marshals Service Training Academy in Glynco, Ga., is a memory-jogger of a different sort.

Dave, whom I met recently at a certification course in Force Science Analysis, has never been in a shooting. But as a 19-year veteran of a federal service that deals with an inordinate number of fugitive scumbags and a survivor of tense encounters where guns were feloniously present, he feels a deep empathy for colleagues who’ve had to pull the trigger.

In addition to the emotional impact and the uncertainty of what may lie ahead in terms of disciplinary measures and legal actions, there’s the immediate and urgent question of exactly what to do next after shots are fired.

“These things tend to come out of nowhere,” says Dave, a former member of the Marshals Service’s shooting review board. “I think about some deputy marshal standing by the side of a road in the middle of the night trying to remember under stress what he was told to do back in the academy after he’d shot somebody.”

That haunting vision prompted Dave to conceive the white plastic card that he pulled out of his credentials case and showed me. It’s headed: STEPS TO FOLLOW AFTER A SHOOTING INCIDENT, and it incorporates a format that easily could be adapted to any agency.

One side is divided into two sections: 1) a list of circumstances under which firearms discharges must be reported and investigated, which includes shots fired “against an animal” and unintentional discharges, and 2) steps to be taken by involved personnel after a shooting. Specifically, the latter are:

1) “Immediately notify your supervisor of your situation and your location”
2) “Make no immediate statements to any law enforcement authorities,” except for “information required by operational necessity,” such as “direction and method of flight, suspect description, type of weapon, etc.”
3) “Do not surrender your weapon to anyone except a [U.S. Marshals Service] supervisor”
4) “Advise responding L.E. officers that you will cooperate with their investigation, but USMS policy requires you to take these actions”

The other side of the card bears an itemized response list for supervisory personnel, reminding them of such responsibilities as determining the facts, then providing “such information to the investigating agency”; taking custody of and replacing “any USMS firearms that were discharged during the incident”; advising investigators that the involved LEO will “provide a statement within a reasonable time”; seeing that the involved LEO is removed from the scene and examined by medical personnel; and so on.

Beside providing prompts for USMS personnel at the scene, Dave explains, the card can be shown to representatives of the agency in whose jurisdiction the shooting has occurred as verification of what Marshals’ people are required by agency policy to do. “This tends to minimize arguments over such potentially controversial issues as offering an instant statement and surrendering the involved weapon,” he says.

“We do surrender the involved weapon quickly, but it has to be done in a controlled manner,” he explains. “The USMS Supervisor on the scene must get permission to surrender the weapon from our Office of General Counsel, which is on call 24 hours a day. This has caused tension in the past when local authorities wanted our deputies to surrender their weapons immediately.”

Dave’s initial draft of the card’s content was tweaked in consultation with Harvey Smith, a member of the Service’s Office of General Counsel, and Kim Widup, the U.S. Marshal for northern Illinois who chaired the shooting review board at that time. The card was then published and distributed to all 2,500-some sworn USMS personnel. Cards are also now issued to all trainees during their stint at the academy.

Response from the field, he says, has been overwhelmingly appreciative. “We’ve always dealt with violent federal offenders,” McGaha says. “We regularly arrest more federal fugitives than any other agency. The increase in the number of USMS-led fugitive task forces has added more violent non-federal offenders to these numbers, increasing our shootings up to 20 annually in recent years. Deputies appreciate having something like this available to them in the stressful confusion and chaos that often follow the use of a firearm.

“Getting through the aftermath is a critical part of surviving — or as I prefer to call it, victory. The card is like a ready-reference map in black and white that helps you start to navigate that journey.”

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