When it All Goes Wrong: Lessons From the Street

By Jon Harris:

When I started my law enforcement career back in the seventies, I was just like every other newly minted officer fresh out of the academy. I was sure I knew everything I needed to know to be a police officer. I would go and fight crime, help people in distress, and generally be a force for good. I was confident that the academy had taught me all I needed. I was confident in my skills and the thought of failing never crossed my mind.

The academy only really teaches the mechanics of being a police officer. You learn the basics; the laws, and the procedures. What the academy does not teach the new graduate is how to actually be a police officer. That comes with time, experience, mentorship, and reflection. It takes maturity and exposure to all sorts of things and situations that the instructors in the academy cannot duplicate. The hope is that the new officer will learn. They hope that an officer will not repeat the first year over and over again, never growing.

The officers that do not learn will not last long.

Those of us that survived those first five years where an officer is still considered a rookie all remember that time. We were indestructible, in a hurry, and frankly, way too full of ourselves. This belief is not only a fallacy, but it is dangerous too. Older and more experienced officers have two names for this attitude; the John Wayne or Wyatt Earp Syndrome. These names sound a little silly, but they really speak to what is going on with a new officer.

As you go through each day on the street, you catalog all of your experiences in that filing cabinet called a brain. You learn to pull from your experience to determine how to handle situations. Maybe the first time you responded to a particular type of call, things could have been better. This time, calling on the memory of what went wrong the first time, you adjust and try to improve the outcome. This is how you mature as an officer on the street. This is how you get better.

Every once and a while something happens that shakes you to the very core. Sometimes things are so out of your control you end up just along for the ride and all you can do is hope it turns out okay in the end. When it is over you breathe, reflect, and hopefully learn.

Every officer I have ever met has lived through this. There is always at least one situation that stays with you. Always something you never forget. That situation changes you forever, or at the very least, wakes you up to the real world. I experienced two such instances that stick with me like that. Almost thirty-five years later, I can remember them as if they were moments ago. They changed me and taught me vital lessons that made me a better police officer.

I had been out of the academy for less than a year when I was working patrol late at night, around 3 a.m. on a very lonely stretch of highway. Like many new officers in Texas, I was working for a small, rural police department and I was the only officer on duty that night. Most small towns in Texas at the time depended on help from other departments when we needed backup. That help could come from the State Highway Patrol, the Sheriff’s Office, or a patrol officer from a nearby city or town.

The area I worked in was very isolated. The nearest town was about 30 miles away. The S.O. (Sheriff’s Office) only had two deputies on shift for the whole county, and the State Troopers were already off the road for the night. I was on my own. This was normal and I did not give it much thought. In my long career of less than one year, I was sure of myself and pretty cocky.

As I sat on the side of the road, I picked up a speeder on the radar and started after him as he passed my blacked out vehicle. This quickly turned into a chase. Flying down the road at over 100 mph, with my lights and siren blaring, the driver in the vehicle I was chasing was not showing any signs of stopping. I called in the chase; giving the speed, the direction we were headed in, and the vehicle description on my radio and let the S.O. know I was in pursuit. All cities and law enforcement in that county used the Sheriff’s dispatch system and this was the best way to call for back-up. Unfortunately, I was headed away from any help, racing farther and farther away from anyone who could possibly assist me.

After what seemed like a long chase, although it was probably only 10 or 15 miles, the car I was chasing came to a stop. I positioned my vehicle just as I had been taught and radioed in that I was out of the vehicle. I approached the driver, who was already out of his car. He was intoxicated and I had him move to the back of his car, and place his hands on the trunk while I proceeded to effect the arrest. I managed to get one handcuff on when suddenly he came unglued and started to fight me.

We wrestled from the back of his car to the front of mine and back again several times. I could hear the S.O. calling my number on the radio, but of course I was too busy to answer. As I struggled to gain control of the drunken man I held onto the one piece of leverage I had, the still attached handcuff. The wrestling turned into an out and out fight with punches and kicks as we both fell into the ditch on the side of the road and then back to the shoulder.

At one point I got in a good position and hit him with everything I had right on the side of the jaw. He SHOULD have gone down but he didn’t. This was my “Sunday” punch and I knew it was the best one I had. I was getting very tired and I knew the next punch was not going to be as hard. The fight was shifting from me trying to arrest this person to one where I was strictly on the defense. I was losing and I knew it. I could still hear the radio in the background calling.

After a couple minutes of me not answering, the S.O. dispatched the only deputy they had on shift to come to my aid. He was about 30 miles away. The fight progressed to one of desperation as I became exhausted. I felt the man trying to get my pistol from my holster and I clamped down on it with my elbow and turned that side of my body away from him. This was now a fight of life and death. If I went down he was going to take my weapon and then I would be defenseless. I had one option left. The walkie-talkie radio in my back pocket which was about the size of a brick (remember this was in the 70s) was useless as a radio because I was way out of range. I realized it would make a darn good club as I grabbed it and broke it over the side of the guy’s head.

It worked! He fell to the ground and I fell on top of him as I finally got the other handcuff on. The fight was over. I had survived, not by skill or preparedness or strength, but by sheer luck.

Some minutes later, I could hear the siren of the one deputy screaming down the road. I got to my radio in the car and advised I was all right and everything was under control. When the deputy showed up, he looked stunned. I had not seen myself yet, so I looked in the mirror. I was a mess. I was clearly going to have a black eye, my uniform was torn, my badge was gone, and my knees were torn and scraped. I had blood running out of my nose and the side of my mouth. The guy, who was laying in the backseat of my car, was no better off. We both had been in one hell of a fight.

I decided at that moment that was never going to happen again. I started taking unarmed self-defense training and I became a PR24 (those were the night sticks of the day) instructor. I worked out and got in much better shape. I went to every survival class I could find; Felony Apprehension, Officer Survival, you name it I went. That fight that night changed me. John Wayne was gone.

The second time I found myself in a tight situation was a few years later. After stopping thousands of cars on the road, complacency, the one thing that we were always warned of, crept in. They say no traffic stop is routine, but after thousands, it can begin to seem that way. I stopped a truck with a camper. No big deal, he just had a bad taillight, I only planned to give the guy a warning. As I approached the truck the driver got out and we met somewhere in the middle between the two vehicles, his and mine. Everything was progressing as expected and I asked him to join me back at the front of my vehicle as I finished the warning. As he leaned against the front of my patrol vehicle, facing his truck I saw his eyes widen and he seemed to lose color.

I had just enough time to realize that something he was seeing was wrong when I heard a click. I turned around to see the passenger in the truck, one I had not even realized was there, pointing a pistol at me. He had just dropped the hammer. The gun misfired.

As I drew my weapon and started screaming for the guy to drop the gun he threw it back inside the truck and immediately raised his hands. I called for backup and when they arrived we made the arrest. The pistol was sent to the lab as evidence and while there it fired every other round in the magazine. It was a nickel Colt 1911 and the round in the chamber had the primer dented. It simply did not go off.

That night it was hot and humid, and I was not wearing my vest. It was in the trunk. Again, I learned and adjusted. From that shift on, I never went on duty without my vest. I have retold that story to every new officer I have worked with ever since.

They say “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly makes you smarter, especially on the street.

Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.

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