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One officer’s near-miss and the prized relic that hones his survival edge

Editor's Note: Thanks to Dave Smith and Jim Glennon, instructors with the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, for alerting us to Det. Sgt. Caggiano’s story. Do you have a memento from a close call that you’ve preserved as a tactical reminder? Tell us what it is, how you came by it, and the lessons it reminds you of. Your experience may help other officers stay alive, too.

Leaning against the wall in his parents’ basement is a solid wood door, heavy and painted white. A sticker on the front bears the name and address of the man it once belonged to. Head high is a hole, splintered through from back to front.

That hole has kept Andrew Caggiano faithful to survival tactics through a dozen years of law enforcement.

He’s 34 now, a detective sergeant with the Montville (N.J.) Twp. PD, a husband, and the father of three young daughters. But the day the door entered his life, he was a 23-year-old rookie, still on probation after graduating from the academy some six months before.

Just three days from Thanksgiving, he was on uniformed patrol that chilly Monday, working his suburban beat less than an hour from New York City, when his dispatcher sent him on what he considered “the most ‘routine’ kind of call you can get.”

A 66-year-old white male had been cited several weeks earlier for setting off fireworks, a violation of a municipal ordinance. Having missed one appearance already, he was due in Municipal Court again that afternoon. When a clerk called to remind him, he said he couldn’t get there because he had no vehicle.

“I was to pick him up at his residence and drop him off at the courthouse,” Caggiano explains. “I didn’t get the background, but dispatch made it clear that this was not an arrest, just a transport.”

The address led Caggiano onto a nondescript, middle-class side street of close-set, older homes, not at all a troublesome neighborhood. The man’s small, Cape Cod-style house, painted blue with a white front door, was almost the last in a row, near where the street dead-ended.

As he pulled up to the place and started up the walkway at about 3:30 in the afternoon (court was at 4:00), Caggiano felt a vague uneasiness, but he couldn’t understand why. Reflecting back later, he realized a couple of things that hadn’t consciously registered at the time:

He could see no lights on inside the house, despite the fact that twilight was starting to gather earlier that time of year and windows in some nearby homes were already glowing. Perhaps more telling, a pickup truck that “didn’t look abandoned” was parked in the driveway—“the driveway of a guy who said he had no way to get to court.”

Without hesitating, Caggiano took the two steps up to the narrow concrete stoop at the front entrance. “There was no doorbell,” he recalls, “so I opened the glass storm door and reached my hand around to bang on the wooden front door. The little porch extended only about 6 inches on each side, so I couldn’t stand completely clear.”

He was starting to close the storm door and back off when he heard a muffled BANG, “like a firecracker went off inside the house. Something hit me on the cheek, and I could feel and hear something whiz past my ear.”

Later he’d be told that what glanced off his cheek was apparently a piece of glass from the storm door. The “something” that tore past his ear was a .22-cal. round fired from a rifle. The slug drilled through both doors and, by luck, flew on past the young patrolman.

“It seemed like several seconds, but probably a lot sooner I realized something bad had just happened,” Caggiano says.

He drew his sidearm and raced across the street to a driveway where a man was working on a car. “Get in your house!” Caggiano commanded. The man quickly complied, and the officer crouched behind the vehicle to radio for help. He remembered having seen a woman pushing a stroller nearby when he’d arrived at the call. He looked around for her now but, as it turned out, she was already safely inside her home.

Then he did something that puzzles him to this day. “My squad was parked right in front of the assailant’s house,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I felt I had to get it out of there. I ran across the street—one of the worst things I could have done, because it put me right in the line of fire—and backed it up.”

Hunkered down behind his unit, gun in hand, he kept watch on the ominous white door as he heard sirens in the distance. “I saw it start to open. I thought, He’s coming out. We’re gonna have a confrontation. He pushed the storm door ajar and looked off to the side of the porch and out into the yard...probably looking where he thought my body would be lying. Then he drew back into the house and shut the door.”

Once other officers arrived in force, it wasn’t long before the elderly offender obeyed commands to exit the house and surrender. A former employee at a military arsenal in the area, unkempt and with a scraggly grey beard, he offered no explanation for shooting at Caggiano. Neighbors described him as a stoic and reclusive loner. Inside the front door, police found boxes of ammunition piled up and also recovered the rifle he’d used. “Apparently,” Caggiano says, “he just decided he didn’t want to go to court that day.”

The officer’s ears were still ringing from the near-miss when he arrived at the hospital ER. Oddly, the glass fragment that bounced off his cheek left no wound, but when his vest was removed the skin under it was “red as a beet, like a really, really bad sunburn or severe rash. My blood pressure was sky-high, and at the hospital I had the worst nosebleed I’ve ever experienced. The doctor said my body was just reacting to the stress.”

The next day, Caggiano returned to the shooting scene. He stood in front of the white door to see how his body aligned with the .22-cal. hole. “If I’d been squarely in the line of fire, the bullet would have hit me in the nose,” he says. “If that had happened, I don’t think I’d be here today.”

The attacker, initially charged with aggravated assault and weapons violations, was later indicted and tried for attempted murder. But instead of going to prison he was sent to a psychiatric facility. At least once a year, his case is reviewed. To date he has not been deemed fit for release. “He’s getting off easy,” Caggiano believes.

Once the case was adjudicated, Caggiano had a request that was important to him personally and that his department granted. He wanted to keep the white door the offender had fired through. It would be a vivid reminder, he felt, of what might have been—and of what needed to be, so long as he wore a badge.

After attending a Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar recently, Caggiano shared with PoliceOne some of the enduring lessons this prized relic calls to mind.

1. Trust your gut. “Something didn’t feel right when I got to the scene, but because I couldn’t identify what exactly was wrong I just went ahead, trying to get through the call. When your gut is reacting, it’s probably your subconscious, picking up on cues you’re not yet consciously aware of. There are times when you have to react anyway, but when you have time, take a step back, pause a few seconds, and try to figure out what’s wrong.”

2. Try to minimize the unknown. “When you confront a closed door with no window to see through, you have no idea what’s on the other side. Obviously, don’t stand right in front of it.

“Exactly one year after my near-miss, I got the same call again, a transport to court, but from a different address. I thought it was a joke but it wasn’t. This time I had the dispatcher check on whether there were any firearms registered at that location. When I was a block away, I asked that the party be called and told to come out and meet me outside. I didn’t pull up until he was standing on the sidewalk where I could scope him out before approaching.

“Going to a house, I like to park down the street and walk around the property a bit, utilizing any concealment I can, before going to the door. It gives me a little extra time to size up what’s going on and see if anything looks out of the ordinary.”

3. Don’t prejudge any call. “I tell new officers, ‘There really is no such thing as a routine call. What the dispatcher knows and says may not be what’s happening or what’s going to happen after you arrive.’ Where I was almost shot is not a high-crime area. In our whole jurisdiction, there are few violent crimes. The township population is just 22,000 and includes some multi-million-dollar homes.

“But anything can happen anywhere on any call. You need to practice officer safety consistently. The one time you don’t will be the time something happens.”

4. Don’t stereotype your adversary. “I had never pictured in my head that the person who would try to kill me would be a 66-year-old retiree.”

When Caggiano took possession of the door, he put it in the basement of his parents’ home, where he’d been living at the time of the incident. He has a home and family of his own now, but seeing the door there over the years when he comes to visit, contemplating how thick and solid it is and yet the bullet ripped right through it, “has kept me on my toes,” he says.

“I have yet to persuade my wife that it’d be a good idea to bring the door over to our place. One day I’ll convince her. Or maybe I’ll just cut out a chunk with the bullet hole and keep that. I think that would be enough.”

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