I was involved in my first shooting on March 11th, 2006. I was working night shift as a Uniform Shift Sergeant, a position I had been in for about a month. I had about 8 years in law enforcement at that time, and had been on the SWAT Team for four years. I was a firearms instructor, and was one of the best shots in my department. I thought I was prepared for that “moment”. I was not.
On that evening in March, I remember going to work and thinking “beware the ides of March” for some reason. Maybe I was watching some show on the History Channel, or something, because I do not sit around and read Shakespeare. The night was no different than any other night on duty. I started my shift at about 5:30 PM. My shift ran from 6 PM to 6 AM. We had been pretty busy, as was the usual for a Friday night, and I had been working the busier side of the county. At 2 AM all of the bars shut down, per the local ordinances. There had been issues with people gathering at the larger gas stations on portions of Cherry Rd, part of my jurisdiction. Being the proactive guy that I usually am, I went to one of the gas stations. around 1:45 AM and waited on the crowds to form. At about 2:11 AM, while I was sitting in the parking lot watching all the people show up, another deputy called out on the radio that he had shots fired into a crowd and a vehicle leaving with the suspects inside. He gave the vehicle description: a silver Chevy pickup headed towards Cherry Rd. I started driving toward the scene looking for the vehicle. I passed it seconds later as it was headed north on Cherry Rd. I turned around, and called in on the radio that I was behind the suspect vehicle. I followed it for a short distance and it was driving normally. I cut on my lights and siren. The truck continued a short way, failing to yield to the blue lights and siren. As luck would have it, the suspect vehicle pulled into the same gas station I had just left. As we pulled through the gas station, still busy for that time of night, I thought that I really didn’t want this chase going into a crowded area. In my head I was preparing for the suspects to flee on foot or to give up.
That was mistake number one. My assumption that the suspect would either run or give up was based on all my previous experience. I am a cop, when I show up people do what I say or they run. Sometimes they fight, but that’s usually not right out of the gate; it usually builds up to that. Not unlike many other police officers, this was the extent of my experience. Not this night.
As I was following the vehicle around the back of the gas station with my lights and siren on, a former police officer turned security company owner was across the street, saw me trying to stop this truck and pulled into the parking lot to be sure I wasn’t alone. The catch was he pulled in from the other side of the parking lot. He had been working security, was in uniform, and in a marked up Crown Vic. The key to this was that he didn’t follow my path, he came to the rear of the building from the opposite side. In the process, he eliminated the suspect’s escape route. The suspect’s truck stopped. I started exiting my patrol car. I was anticipating that the suspects would start running, or for me to start a felony car stop. Remember mistake number one? As I am getting out of my car, I see the reverse lights come on and the back of the truck lift up under acceleration. I had already started drawing my pistol as I was getting out of the car in preparation for a felony car stop. In this split second all I could think about was getting caught by my car, trapped under the front tire, and run over. I was scared to death! The voice inside my head screamed: Make the truck stop now!
Pow! I fired my service pistol. The truck hit the front of my patrol car at the same time (in the dash cam video, you can’t distinguish the difference between the collision and the shot). Why does my underarm hurt? No wait, get the gun in front of your face, remember your training. Pow! I fired my pistol a second time. The truck stopped, then pulled forward striking the security car, and came to a stop against a brick wall. Internally I was thinking, “I just shot my gun!” I was excited for some very strange reason. I did it, when it counted I did it. I got on the radio, “County – shots fired, get some more units up here.” Attempting to look through the tinted rear window, I could barely make out the suspects inside the truck. “Put your hands up where I can see them. Put up your *#@&*$% hands!” Another unit arrived on scene, and we began to initiate that felony car stop that I thought I was going to go right into before all of this. All three suspects came out, were cuffed, and placed into squad cars. Firearms were recovered, pictures were taken, and the crime scene was processed. I called my Lieutenant, he called the Captain, more people were on the way, and the list started to grow of who was notified.
Now, I was scared, really scared. Not scared of dying, but scared of losing everything. Did I do it right? What if I was wrong? What will they do? Will I have a job? Will I be prosecuted? Will I be sued? What do I do now?
I started trying to remember. Why did I shoot that first round? All I could think about was getting run over. I did it right, didn’t I? How did that first round go off? The door hit me in the under arm, that was why my right underarm was hurting. The door is sharp there. The door was hitting me as I fired the first round. It just happened as a reaction. I was scared of getting run over by my car after the truck hit it. I was trying to stop that from happening. But what do they think of it? What does the Captain think? I felt so low. I had the worst feeling in my stomach ever. Why can’t I remember exactly what happened?
As it turned out, I was justified in the shooting. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and they had the opportunity and ability to kill me, or at least cause great bodily harm. When I fired the first time at the truck, I hit the side. The second shot would have done some damage had it made it into the cabin. Instead, it hit the top of the bed (with the most metal), pushed up to the cabin, and was lying in the bed of the truck. It would have hit just right of center on the driver seat if it had continued on into the cabin.
Why the rollercoaster of emotions? The rollercoaster was because I was not prepared for what happened. I had trained to shoot the threat many times. I had done force on force training with the SWAT Team, but had never thought on this night, that someone who had just shot into a crowd of people outside of a party, would possibly try to kill me. Why would I not think that? I don’t have a good answer. I could not understand the feelings I felt because of complacency and past experiences. Why was I excited after I realized I had shot my gun? I was excited because people that train regularly want to test that training. Shootings are not frequent, and are a very dangerous test. Most officers and civilians never actually have to use that training, and that is a good thing. However, when you train that skill over and over, some part of you wants to know what would happen in a real situation. It is normal. Then came the low feelings. Why did I feel so low? Why did I question everything? I did everything correctly in accordance with policy and procedure. Why could I not see that? It is natural during high stress events in life to have these questions. High stress can also affect your memory of events. I learned most of these things from reading “On Combat” by Dave Grossman. Although a little dry at times, it is a great book that talks about what happens to the mind & body during high stress events, and ways to train past them.
Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand what I went through that night. How can I be better prepared? How can I train others to not make the same mistakes? If you carry a gun for a living, or just to protect you and your loved ones, you need to be mentally prepared for what could happen. Be prepared for that “moment”; be prepared for the emotions that will wash over you. Knowing these emotions will come – and understanding why – is a great start. It will keep you from being a mental casualty of violence. You want to protect your family and those you work with, but you don’t want the experience to change you. Your loved ones love you the way you are. Prepare yourself mentally so you are able to handle the mental stress repercussions, and be the same person after an event.