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Facing your mortality after a deadly-force incident
One police officer’s 5 lessons learned from a harrowing “triple whammy” incident in Hillsboro (Ore.)
When Shawn Schumacher’s roommate came home one Thursday last November, Schumacher peppered him with a barrage of questions that just “weren’t normal,” the young man later told detectives from the Hillsboro (Ore.) PD.
“Did you see the secret police outside?” Schumacher demanded to know.
“Did you see the little green gargoyles on the wall?” Schumacher asked.
“Did you survive it?!” Schumacher exclaimed.
Too, too weird, the roommate concluded. He hurried to his room, locked the door, and shoved his dresser in front of it. He was scared for his safety, he said later, because he knew Schumacher had at least one gun in the house — a .50-cal. Desert Eagle, so powerful that it “rocked him back” when he fired it.
The next morning, Schumacher seemed “relaxed but jittery.” His eyes were “extremely dilated and he was very alert.” The roommate asked if he was going to work. “I don’t have to work anymore,” replied Schumacher, a meat cutter.
“Why, did you win the lottery or something?”
Schumacher said, “Just wait and see...”
The next day at nearly 1330 hours, Officer Kurt Van Meter, 34, an 11-year street veteran and force-and-tactics instructor, was patrolling westbound on the main drag through Hillsboro’s busy downtown commercial district when he heard a sergeant come on the air and blurt that he’d heard six shots fired in the general vicinity of their department’s West Precinct headquarters, just a few blocks east of Van Meter’s 10-20.
Van Meter whipped his car around and sped toward the gunfire. He was heading, he soon discovered, right into a triple whammy: an ongoing active shooting, a hazardous high-speed pursuit, and, ultimately, a fatal officer-involved gunfight. “Any one of those alone could be considered a critical incident,” he recently told PoliceOne.
He believes that the harrowing experience — including its aftermath — drove home invaluable “lessons learned” that he feels are important to share with officers and agencies everywhere.
As investigators were able to reconstruct events, the ordeal began when 28-year-old Shawn Schumacher, shirtless and barefoot despite the chilly weather and driving a northbound green 1997 Honda Civic, rammed into a pickup truck in heavy traffic two blocks south of the police station. He backed up with a squeal of tires and smashed into two other cars. Then he angrily and randomly started pumping .50-cal. rounds from his Desert Eagle semi-auto into vehicles around him.
A middle-aged HVAC repairman, riding as a passenger in a Mazda hatchback traveling in the opposite direction, was hit in the head and killed. Still shooting, Schumacher tore off, weaving crazily through traffic.
Sgt. Matt Shannon, chatting with Detective Becca Venable in the precinct station parking lot, heard the gunfire and called out the initial “shots fired” report that activated Van Meter. Officer Daniel Mace, who happened to be driving near the intersection of the crashes, heard the shots too and took off after the Honda.
Mace barked a description of the vehicle and the route of the chase into his radio. But unknown to him at that moment his messages were not generally heard. In the sudden excitement, he’d neglected to switch back to the department’s open channel from the limited car-to-car channel he was talking on when the shootings erupted.
As he responded to the sergeant’s call, Van Meter saw a speeding Honda flash past an intersection, followed by Mace’s unit rolling Code 3. “The driver had his arm out the window firing at Mace, so the situation was pretty clear,” Van Meter says, even though he wasn’t receiving what Mace was urgently describing. “Every fiber of my being wanted to be there for him.” Hauling ass, he joined the pursuit, along with Venable, who raced from the police station to catch up.
“The suspect was shooting back at us, and my pulse rate was through the roof,” Van Meter says. “I started combat-breathing in an attempt to relax. I wanted to be extra calm on the radio to help keep other officers well-grounded, not sounding like al-Qaeda having a seizure.”
As the chase ripped at 70-80 mph against lights and through “the busiest part of Hillsboro,” a Portland suburb with a population of some 90,000 people, “two overwhelming thoughts seized my mind,” Van Meter recalls. He remembered that his son’s eighth birthday was just two days away. And he flashed back to four years earlier when he’d been T-boned by a mini-van while clearing an intersection on a hot call (that time, injuries kept him off-duty for nine months).
Now there was the added risk that the suspect’s continuing wild shooting would hit one or more of his pursuers, or civilian drivers and pedestrians he erratically fired at along the way as he sideswiped and bounced off of other traffic. Van Meter scooted low in his seat, trying to keep his eyes on things through his steering wheel and broadcast a running commentary as speeds zoomed close to 100 mph. “He was flying,” Van Meter says. “Some of the holes in traffic we were weaving through were absolutely insane. But we felt we had to stop this guy.”
The perilous chase ended outside Hillsboro’s jurisdiction, about 8 minutes after it began — “8 minutes of pretty scary shit,” as Van Meter puts it. In the small community of Cornelius, three miles west of Hillsboro, Schumacher, “driving recklessly and passing vehicles dangerously,” collided with a Ford van he was attempting to overtake on the right in a sea of heavy traffic. His Honda veered into a curb. The impact knocked the left front wheel off its axle, and knocked Schumacher unconscious.
The pileup happened to occur at the intersection where the Cornelius Police Department is located. And a deputy with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Daniel Charter, just happened to be stopped at that intersection in his patrol car.
“Cornelius and the Sheriff’s Office don’t share our communications channel,” Van Meter says, “so the deputy had no clue what was really happening. He rolled up within about a foot of the Honda’s bumper, thinking he was going to do an everyday crash report.” Two Cornelius officers exiting the PD, Bill Russell and Craig Wellhouser, ran toward the scene as well. Almost simultaneously the pursuing Hillsboro units skidded up. Deafeningly loud rock music was blaring from the suspect vehicle.
Suddenly, Schumacher came to life. “He jumped out of the Honda with the silver .50-calibre Desert Eagle in one hand and a black .45-caliber Desert Eagle in the other,” says Van Meter. “He walked up to Deputy Charter, who was still in his car, and fired two shots at him at point-blank range. By some miracle, he missed. One round went just past Charter’s chest and lodged in the seat. The second hit the roll bar on the passenger side.
“He started walking down the middle of the street like Tombstone, shooting both guns. One round grazed the top of Wellhouser’s head. I remember seeing the suspect point one gun toward me. Things got really cloudy.
“I came up to shoot him and just as I was about to squeeze the trigger, a blurry patch of grey flashed in front of me. Thank God my brain picked up on that in time. It was Dan Charter’s uniform.”
Van Meter held his fire, but Charter and the two Cornelius officers had an unobstructed target. “They all opened fire at once,” says Van Meter, who was less than ten feet away. “With nine rounds, they hit him eight times. He went down, twitching, and didn’t get up. A chunk of his head had been blown out.”
Amazingly, aside from the one mortally wounded victim, there were no casualties reported from Schumacher’s marathon fusillade. Van Meter estimates he may have fired up to 100 rounds.
His motive for the violent spree has not been established. Detectives searching his residence found a makeshift lab and other evidence that he was a user of mescaline, a powerful hallucinogen extracted from peyote cactus and usually associated with “spiritual quests.” It’s believed he may have experienced excited delirium, which is frequently associated with illegal drug abuse. He was wearing only a pair of camouflage shorts and driving with his windows down despite inclement weather, suggesting that his body may have been over-heated, a physical phenomenon typical of EDPs.
Van Meter’s Five Tips
Reflecting back on the encounter and its emotional impact, Van Meter offers these suggestions for other LEOs and departments:
1. As an agency or a single fellow officer, show compassion. Quickly after the shooting, Hillsboro PD, headed by Chief Lila Ashenbrenner, rented a hotel room for officers who’d been involved in the chase and its deadly climax. “They had pizza for us and grief counselors — guys who’d been through traumatic incidents. That was huge,” Van Meter says. One of his fellow trainers, Officer Jeff Branson, “showed up and just stood beside me, not even talking really. It was so comforting just to have someone there that I respected.”
Later the department hosted a candid, multi-agency debriefing for all involved officers and mandated a confidential visit with a police psychologist for those from Hillsboro. “The department said we had to see the shrink but we didn’t have to talk to her once we got there,” Van Meter explains. “To be released from any obligation to talk made you want to talk, to be heard about what you were feeling and not be judged.”
2. Counsel with others who’ve “been there.” Van Meter’s first phone calls were to his father and an uncle, both of whom survived shootings during careers in law enforcement. They talked about potential emotional and physical reactions, “not what I would feel necessarily but what they experienced after their incidents.”
Both mentioned bad dreams, among other things. When Van Meter subsequently had nightmares of his own, including one in which he was relentlessly fired upon by four fellow officers during a call for service, he was better able to accept them as part of a normal brain/body readjustment from his adrenalin-fueled, life-threatening ordeal.
“You need someone you can reach out to 24/7 who understands what you’re going through,” he says. “One night a diaper commercial that showed babies peacefully sleeping came on TV and I just lost it. I’m a tough country kid, a bull rider! The first rule of rodeo is ‘If it hurts, hide it.’ But I couldn’t stop bawling. My two little boys are my life, and that ad touched some raw nerve. I needed somebody I could call right then who would listen and convince me I wasn’t going crazy.”
He strongly recommends studying about body/brain reactions during and after massive stress before you are in a critical incident. “My dad’s motto for survival has always been ‘See it before it happens.’ The more you understand beforehand, the better you can deal with it.”
3. Revisit the event. After two weeks off, Van Meter was told to “ease back into the job” by riding his first shift back with a partner. He rode with Branson. “The first thing we did was retrace the path of the pursuit — a tremendous revelation.” There were whole sections of the route that he didn’t remember, and at the shootout scene distances as he recalled them “in my mind’s eye” were radically different than they proved to be in reality. “That’s the sort of discrepancy some attorney can tee off on later and to challenge your credibility,” Van Meter says.
With the help of his training buddies, he also “revisited” the shootout itself one day, via a scenario reconstruction. “I felt such frustration because I hadn’t been able to shoot the suspect,” he explains. “He’d tried to kill me, and someone else gets to shoot him? I absolutely wanted to take him out myself! That may not be what society and the media want to hear, but it’s how I felt. I had a need to finish the job.”
At an unpopulated 15-acre warehouse site they had access to, Van Meter and the other trainers conducted a mock pursuit. A fellow officer played the suspect, “shooting” back from a “fleeing” car, while Van Meter chased in another vehicle, driving “under the steering wheel” just as he had in the real occurrence. “My emotional brain was right back there again,’ he says. But this time when the suspect launched his final face-off, Van Meter put him down. “You’d be surprised at the psychological closure that gave me,” he says.
4. Pursue non-cop passions. “You need interests that get you away from police work and especially from the critical incident you’ve been through,” Van Meter says. For him, it’s a burgeoning side-career as a country singer and songwriter.
“About the only thing I have left from my ex-wife is a guitar she bought me,” he says. He’d fooled around a bit with amateur jam sessions at a local bar, then several months before the pursuit he started taking music more seriously, writing as well as picking. Since then, it’s been a welcome way to clear his mind and escape for awhile to a totally different world. One tune he wrote and sang, “Daddy’s Song,” has gotten radio air time; another, “I Work with Heroes,” is a tip of the hat to his profession, and he’s working on getting an album together.
5. Face your mortality. “Any critical incident is a life-changing experience,” Van Meter says. “I don’t know that you ever get over it completely. It forces you to face the fact that you could die doing this job.
“That’s a harsh reality. But once you really come to terms with that — and accept it — you gain a confidence that few civilians ever know,” Van Meter concludes.
“I don’t want to run toward gunfire. I don’t want to shoot people. But if I have to, I know I will.”