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A ''five percenter'' mindset in action

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Part 1 of a 2-part series

[Click here to read Part 2]

Most survival stories focus on a single officer’s heroic battle to prevail against life-threatening odds. This one is about a remarkable team effort, driven by a young sergeant’s textbook personification of supervisory excellence.

At risk: the life of a five-year street cop, cut down by what “should” have been a mortal wound from the gun of a murder suspect at the violent end of a foot pursuit.

The officer is 29-year-old Jason Fishburn of the Indianapolis Metro PD, the bespectacled, fresh-faced scion of a long, broad line of cops. The sergeant is Rick Snyder. At 32, he’s in his seventh year as a supervisor.

One Thursday night last month [7/10/08], Snyder was on the street in IMPD’s crime-ridden Northeast District with a squad of 15 officers when what he says has always been his “worst nightmare” struck: the grave injury of “one of my guys.”

Snyder has been in law enforcement since he was 19. He worked two years as a campus cop at Indiana University, then joined the Marion County (Ind.) Sheriff’s Dept., where he advanced to detective sergeant and specialized in emotionally searing child-abuse fatalities. When the SD merged with Indianapolis PD last year to form the 1,700-officer IMPD, he was put back in uniform and became what a retired colleague calls “a damn good patrol sergeant.”

Every day when he logs in on his car computer to begin his 1300-2130 middle shift, Snyder follows a ritual that to him is near-religious. He types in his routine specs, and then in the Comments field he enters “5%er”—shorthand for balls-out, never-fail performance that he picked up from the book Tactics for Criminal Patrol and from attending four Street Survival® Seminars.

“When I punch that in, it means something to me,” Snyder said recently during an exclusive PoliceOne interview. “I lock that in and, whatever else is going on in my life, it reminds me I’m going to work. I’m serious now.”

On the fateful night Jason Fishburn went down, that entry shows at the top of Snyder’s log, true to form. “That’s what made the difference on this incident,” he says. “That thinking, that positive energy.”

The week before Fishburn’s confrontation, there’d been a rapid series of murders in Indianapolis, “12 killings in seven days,” Snyder says. “It was crazy. The community was up in arms about the violence.”

Several investigative units were out on Thursday evening, trying to scratch up leads. One picked up a tail on a “person of interest” in the case of a 69-year-old man who’d been whacked four days earlier during a home-invasion robbery. The thirty-something suspect was a passenger in an old mini-van being driven by a senior-citizen female, and detectives radioed for uniforms to stop the vehicle for them so they could check him out.

When responding single-officer beat cars fell in behind the van near a shopping center shortly after 1900 hours, the driver sped away. After a brief pursuit, she suddenly slammed on the brakes, and the suspect “bolted out of the passenger door and took off running,” first through a small apartment complex, then out into an adjacent rough-and-tumble neighborhood of densely packed single-family homes.

Fishburn and his beat partner, Ofcr. Jerry Piland, bailed from their units and pursued on foot. About a minute into the chase, they were “right on him,” Snyder says. When the suspect headed around to the front of a house, Fishburn stuck with him and Piland took the back, hoping to cut the fleeing man off at some point.

Quickly after Piland lost sight of Fishburn and the suspect, he heard gunshots.

Snyder was a couple of blocks away when Piland’s voice urgently blurted from the radio: “Shots fired!”

Exactly what had happened is still under investigation. When Snyder reached the scene, Piland had handcuffed the suspect and had him safely under control. The man was bleeding from a gunshot wound to the shoulder, and a .38-cal. revolver had been recovered. The prisoner was not seriously injured, but uncommunicative.

“I started counting my guys,” Snyder says. Piland and another officer from the squad, Brian Mack, were at the scene and others were running up or responding by radio. Only B-270— Fishburn—wasn’t answering.

Piland recalls: “I felt he was missing immediately after handcuffing the suspect. I called his name out loud, ‘Fish!’ Then I hit him twice on the air. No response.”

“Jason’s missing,” Piland told the others. “We need to find him.”

With other officers watching the prisoner, Piland, Mack and Snyder started running back along the chase route. Just yards from where the suspect had been captured, they rounded the corner of a house. “The first thing I saw were boots—toes sticking up from the ground,” Snyder recalls. “It stopped me dead in my tracks, like I’d run into a brick wall.”

Jason Fishburn lay on his back in the dirt between two houses. Screaming his name, Piland and Mack ran toward him and keyed his radio: “Baker-270 has been shot!”

“I probably ran, too, but it felt like I was walking,” Snyder says. “Everything started to move in slow motion. Strangely enough, that felt like a benefit. It helped me see everything I needed to see and think about what I needed to be doing. I remember pulling latex gloves out of my front pocket and thinking, It’s time to go to work. There’s something to take care of here.”

Fishburn’s face was covered with vomit, but he was still conscious, mouth open, breathing hard, eyes open, looking up at them. The team kicked in.

Piland and Mack started to cut off his uniform shirt, trying to find where he was wounded. Another officer, Greg Crabtree, ran up and, without being ordered, raced back to his patrol car. He’d been a paramedic before hiring onto the force, and in his unit he had a Shot Bag “with all kinds of medical stuff.”

Snyder grabbed Fishburn’s left hand and the two locked eyes. “We’re here, Fish,” he said. “You’re okay. You’re still in the fight, buddy. You’re good!”

Piland and Mack cut the straps on Fishburn’s soft body armor and lifted up the front panel. An angry wound glared from his belly line. “We couldn’t tell at first if it was blunt trauma or a bullet hole,” Snyder says. Then Mack exclaimed, “The vest got it!” He’d found a slug buried in the Kevlar. The abdominal wound was just deep bruising.

“For a split second, we were elated,” Snyder says. He told Fishburn, “You’re good, Fish! The vest stopped it!”

Just then, Fishburn’s head rolled to the side. “We could see all the blood coming out of the back of his head.” A round from the suspect’s gun had blasted through his skull and had ripped into his brain.

Snyder held up his hand as a signal for silence. “I didn’t want anyone saying, ‘Oh, shit, he’s shot in the head!’ I didn’t want Fish to hear that.” Instead, Snyder said calmly, “We need to get something on that bleeding.”

When Crabtree ran up with his trauma kit, “it was like he dropped from heaven,” Snyder says. With the help of Ofcr. Jimmy Gray, Crabtree “started ripping 4x4s out of the Shot Bag and putting them on Fish’s head,” as Piland and Mack cut off Fishburn’s shirt in anticipation of EMS’s arrival.

Fishburn did his bit, too. “He stayed in the fight,” Snyder says proudly. “He couldn’t speak, just squeezed my hand, but you could tell he was trying to slow down his breathing, trying to stay calm and controlled.”

Throughout his career, Snyder has been a faithful practitioner of combat breathing, the slow-count respiration technique for overcoming physical and mental stress. He has also made a serious habit of if/then thinking. On duty and off, multiple times a day, he has imagined challenging situations that might arise and noodled out ways he might deal with them.

“Fish’s shooting was the first time an officer I was directly responsible for was ever critically injured,” he says. “I never wanted it to happen. I always thought, Please, don’t ever let it be one of my guys. But when it was, my deep breathing kicked in automatically and I seemed to anticipate what needed to be done, like I’d been there and done that before. My guys were in action, too, as perfect as perfect could be. Everyone had a job to do, and we did it.”

NEXT: An eerie voice of survival echoes in Sgt. Snyder’s head as he and his team fight to save Ofcr. Fishburn’s life.

[My thanks to Steve Gibbs, a former homicide lieutenant for IMPD for giving me a heads-up on this story. More than two decades ago, Steve was the first officer to tell me that his life had been saved by my book, Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters. We’ve shared a special bond ever since.]

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