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An officer goes down…and the "five percenter" mind-set kicks in
Part 2 of a 2-part series
[Part 1 of this exclusive series described the critical wounding of Ofcr. Jason Fishburn of the Indianapolis Metro Police Dept., who was shot in the head last month (7/08) during a foot pursuit. Fishburn was found, still clinging to life, by fellow officers, including Sgt. Rick Snyder. Here’s how a strong adherence to the five percenter style of policing excellence proved itself at the scene and beyond.]
Whenever he used his radio during the crisis, Snyder says he was thinking: Don’t be yelling…Slow down….Take care of business.
Before the ambulance hit the scene, he ordered all patrol cars pulled back to permit clear access. “Cars blocking medics had pissed me off at other scenes,” he says. Anticipating the likely route to the hospital, some six to seven miles away, he asked marked units from other districts to converge on the course and block off intersections all along the way so nothing would impede the fastest possible run. When EMS personnel ran in to get Fishburn, they remarked on how thoroughly he was prepped for transport. “They just put a neck brace on and loaded him onto a stretcher,” Snyder says.
Instructing another sergeant to “shut the scene down tight,” Snyder joined Ofcr. Jerry Piland in the back of the ambulance with medics and Fishburn. As the ambulance screamed toward the trauma center, they continued feeding the wounded officer positive comments about his condition.
Eerily, Snyder recalls, he heard the voice of a former Street Survival® Seminar instructor, Dave Grossi, echoing distinctly in his head. Grossi had once recorded a popular audiotape called The Winning Mind, which Snyder had played repeatedly over the years as part of his critical incident preparation. Now he heard Grossi giving him messages from the tape: “You will survive!”….“If you live long enough to realize you are shot, chances are overwhelming that you are going to be okay…”
“I took that to mean that he [Fishburn] was going to survive, and it motivated me to keep reassuring him,” Snyder recalls. Fishburn, meanwhile, continued his own silent contributions to his survival. “He used his fingers to keep his eye lids forced open,” Snyder says. “He didn’t want to go to sleep and give up.”
At the hospital, “medical people were gowned up in surgical gear and waiting for us in the hallway to the trauma room,” Snyder says. After they’d whisked Fishburn away and Snyder had a chance to clean up, he realized that his hands and arms were covered not only with blood but with spatters of brain matter, as well. “So I knew it was bad.”
After four hours of surgery, doctors confirmed that Fishburn’s future, put mildly, was uncertain. “About 10% of his brain had been lost because of the suspect’s bullet and the surgical repairs,” Snyder says. Most people with such devastating injury die. What gave any hope for Fishburn was the fact that he’d reached the hospital so quickly and had received attentive care from the moment he was found.
While Fishburn fought for his life in a medically induced coma in ICU, Snyder fueled the psychological strength of his troops. Most were young, experiencing what one described as their “first heartbreak” on the job.
Officers on Snyder’s squad had the option of taking time off, but “not one didn’t come back to work the next day,” he says. “I knew that what happened at roll call would set the direction for the way they’d go from there on out.” He planned it carefully.
First, he gave a debrief on what had happened, “so guys had the facts, not rumors.” He spoke candidly about the trouble he’d had sleeping after he got home from the shooting, and encouraged the officers to air any emotional effects they might be experiencing. Drawing on a wallet card with tips for dealing with post-shooting stress that he’d been given at a Street Survival® Seminar, he offered practical suggestions for maintaining an even mental keel while they processed what had happened. Repeatedly, he urged the officers to understand that they could decide how they were going to handle the crisis.
In subsequent roll calls, Snyder resumed his practice of discussing tactical tips for improving officer safety, “to start getting things back to normal.”
“Bad guys aren’t going to take a break because you’re sad,” he told his crew. “You have to keep your head up, your eyes open, on your game.” Still, he daily spoke privately with officers to “take their emotional temperature” and in some cases called their spouses for a reading on how things were going at home. “I made sure they knew I cared,” Snyder says.
“But what helped more than anything,” he believes, “was Fish staying in the fight. Every benchmark the doctors set for him—how he should be at 48 hours, at 72 hours—he exceeded. He was getting better every day.”
His spirit was infectious. “A special pride developed,” Snyder says. “We were going to go out there and do things right for Fish.” With the approval of the brass, they kept his name marked “in service” on the computer roster as a symbol that he was not forgotten. They spoke of middle shift as “the best damn shift in the whole department,” and they adopted a shift motto: “Not today,” meaning that day by day they would never be defeated by anything they ran up against. They accepted virtually as a mantra one of Snyder’s core beliefs: “No matter how right you do things, bad shit is still going to happen. The question is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ”
Since then, Snyder says, “We’ve been in all kinds of dangerous situations. My guys have taken care of business and not backed down one bit.”
At this writing, Fishburn continues to improve. He’s out of the coma and is regaining the ability to speak and walk as therapists work with him at a rehabilitation center. Physicians predicted that it would be months before the young officer would be able to move his right arm and leg, if ever, because of his brain damage. But as Snyder put it, “Jason chose differently” and has started moving them already. He told astonished doctors and family members, “It’s not much, but it’s a start.”
Whether he’ll be able to return to policing at some point is still unknown, but he has been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest recognition IMPD can bestow. In Snyder’s words: “He embodies survival—and winning.”
His accused assailant, an ex-convict and alleged crack-head with a long sheet of arrests, has been charged with attempted murder in the shooting, as well as with the murders of three Indianapolis citizens. He could face sentences of more than 300 years. His ex-convict father has also been charged in one of the slayings, and efforts are underway to reopen a cold case in which the father and another son, currently in prison, were suspected of raping and killing a 13-year-old girl. The elderly female who was driving the van that tried to elude police just before Fishburn was shot turned out to be the attacker’s mother. She’s been charged with resisting law enforcement.
Fishburn’s family tree is a little different. His father is a sergeant in IMPD’s property recovery unit and his brother is an officer in Columbus, Ohio. His wife, a forensic scientist, works for IMPD’s crime lab. An uncle was a deputy U.S. Marshal. Another uncle works for the FOP, and an aunt is a retired cop. And, of course, there’s his extensive blue family, unconnected by blood.
After the shooting, often several times in a single day, Snyder would go to the hospital, to check on Fishburn’s condition and touch base with his family and with the Indianapolis cops who always kept a vigil there. Fearing a personal visit might be too stressful for Fishburn, however, he hadn’t met face to face with the wounded officer until two days before Fishburn was transferred to rehab. “That was one of the strongest impacts on my life I’ve ever had,” Snyder says.
“He just about came up out of bed when I walked around the curtain. He stuck out his left hand and I grabbed it to shake it, but he moved his hand around until it was like it was when he was bleeding on the ground and I held it.
“He started to cry, and I could tell right then that he remembered that we got to him. He couldn’t talk yet at that time, but he said everything with his eyes.
“I told him I was proud of him for staying in the fight, and how proud the shift was of him. He nodded like he understood.
“He reached out and rubbed his hand on my gunbelt. He rubbed the buckle, the holster—like he missed it. I stood there and let him do it.
“Then he motioned with his hand. He was telling me, Go out there and get back to work.”