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Trust your instincts: One officer's sixth sense sniffs out trouble

By Gary J. Monreal

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Every now and then we handle a potentially catastrophic incident and after getting through it safely, think to ourselves, “Was I good, or was I lucky?”

A month ago, a mutual aid request came from a neighboring jurisdiction looking for suspects involved in a theft that occurred on our cities’ border. Two suspects were seen taking bottles of liquor from a store and not paying for them. As luck would have it, I was in the area, along with a cop just out of field training.

The “newbie” spotted the suspect vehicle on the highway that divided our two jurisdictions. An unmarked squad from the other jurisdiction and I immediately caught up to the officer as the suspects were entering a neighboring county. We immediately advised that jurisdiction of the situation and planned to stop the suspect vehicle. Once all three squads were in position, we activated our emergency lights.

That’s when strange things began.

First of all, instead of the suspect vehicle pulling over on to the right shoulder, the vehicle changed lanes to the inside lane. Then the vehicle made a left turn onto a neighborhood street, only to pull into the back area of a fast food restaurant’s parking lot.

The first officer pulled in behind the vehicle, offset so he could see the driver’s side of the suspect vehicle. The unmarked squad pulled off to the right and had a direct view of the passenger side along with a suspect in the backseat. I pulled in between the two squads and had a visual on the passenger side.

Right away we saw that there were three suspects inside the vehicle, not two.

As I was pulling up to the vehicle I observed the front-seat passenger making furtive movements by leaning forward and reaching under the seat. This wasn’t just a quick movement. It was prolonged, as if the subject were hiding or retrieving something.

As the first officer stepped out and began to approach, I immediately advised him to stay back by the squad, as we would not be making an approach. Now I realize that this was a retail theft that occurred, but given the number of suspects and their hidden actions, it just didn’t feel right making approach and placing officers up by the vehicle. We waited for other squads, then safely called each occupant out of the vehicle one at a time and detained them for further investigation.

Does this sound reasonable?  Well not to one of the “seasoned veterans” that showed up on the scene. The “veteran” was from the jurisdiction in which the traffic stop occurred.

Thumbs in his belt as he approached, he asked, “Did you have an armed robbery?” 

I told him, no, just a theft from a liquor store.

He raised his eyebrows, chuckled and made a comment that implied our actions were overkill “for just a theft.” 

I quickly responded that we seem to do things a little different, and that there was no reason to approach, given all the facts.

He looked at me, turned and walked away.

Well the bottles of booze were in plain sight, the suspect vehicle was positively identified, and at least one of the suspects was identified by video surveillance. I had no problem with our actions and I thought, “Overkill? No way!”

Then, upon searching the vehicle, an officer found face paint, two wigs and disposable rubber gloves. Gee, the only thing missing was a weapon.

Despite the fact no weapons were ultimately found, I felt good for having had my instincts take over. These guys were up to no good and I am glad that we took that extra step to conduct safe tactics.

Now comes the kicker. . .

The suspect who was identified, arrested and charged for the theft committed a double homicide less than two weeks later. The double homicide took place in the veteran officer’s jurisdiction. I wonder what his face looked like when he realized that their homicide suspect was the same one that we “overreacted” to just days before.

Trust your instincts and stay safe!

Gary J. Monreal has more than 18 years of law enforcement experience in corrections, patrol, SWAT and training. As a police officer with the City of New Berlin (Wis.) Police Department, his duties include SWAT team leader, specializing in explosive entry. Monreal is an instructor-trainer and currently teaches chemical munitions, defensive tactics, firearms, TASER, vehicle contacts, high-level simulations, submachine gun and SWAT. He was instrumental in the development of the RedMan Integrated Use-of-Force Simulation Instructor Development program. Contact him at monreal@swatcop.com.

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