14 Seconds: Anatomy of a Police Shooting

“Fourteen seconds pass between the time that we enter the door and I pull the trigger.  It seemed like an eternity.”

A Tampa Bay Times investigative report entitled “Why Cops Shoot” was released on April 5, 2017 that begins with the story of Rodney Mitchell, a man who the article implies was gunned down senselessly by a police officer during a traffic stop on a summer evening in 2012.  After glossing over a few other police shootings, the author, Ben Montgomery, then offers a statistical analysis.

Montgomery then profiles a Florida sheriff who oversimplifies a complex issue, indicating that in most cases, he doesn’t believe that officers should ever shoot an unarmed person.  He follows that up with a report from a psychology professor that argues that an officer involved in an incident where deadly force is necessary has no ability to reason at all.  Another profile of a police shooting follows where Montgomery alleges that it was bad information from the dispatchers that resulted in the senseless shooting of an (intoxicated, armed with a shotgun) innocent citizen.

Montgomery and the rest of his team of journalists provided an impressive analysis of six years of police shooting data.  The narrative he is portraying leaves out a large portion of the story, however.  Police officers are human.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, they are good people trying to do a difficult job.

Many departments will offer shoot/don’t shoot scenarios for citizens using video or scenario based training to show how difficult the job can be.  On some occasions, that training can be eye-opening.  Unfortunately, the person undergoing the training subconsciously knows that they are safe. There is no fear that they won’t be able to go home to their family when the training is done.  This is often just a fun opportunity to “play cop” for a few minutes.  In reality, police officers aren’t afforded the same benefit.  Come with me on a ride-along…

May 7, 2000

It is Sunday night at around 9:30 pm.  I am in my patrol car in a gas station parking lot on the edge of my jurisdiction.  I am exhausted.  Having a toddler and a two-month-old baby in the house has afforded me very little sleep.  I reluctantly agreed to work overtime tonight so a senior officer could go to the annual Memorial Trip to Tallahassee.  Most of our senior officers are gone.  I am currently wishing I had not agreed to work tonight.

The squad is a patchwork skeleton crew consisting of two rookie officers, one veteran, one supervisor, and me.  I have four and a half years on, but have worked in the Police Department for over ten years total.  Oh well, I think, Sunday nights are generally known to be “quiet” nights.  I need to do something to keep busy because six am is a long way away.  Perhaps if I conduct a few traffic stops, the night will go by faster and I can go home and get some sleep.

Shortly after ten pm, I am approaching a car when communications Officer Frank Swope comes on the radio.  I hear in his voice that he is nervous.  The two rookies get dispatched to a woman screaming at an apartment complex.  Sarge is on his dinner break.  I get a very strong urge that I need to go to that call.  I hand the license back to the driver, and tell her she is free to leave.  I then start driving to the call while listening to the police radio for updates.

The drive takes me five minutes.  As I am entering the apartment complex, I see Officer Greg Stevanus and Officer Patty Conway arrive ahead of me.  It is unusual for three of us to go to a call like this and I briefly consider just driving past.  I decide to just walk up with them; I can leave once I know it is safe.  I get out and start my approach towards the apartment.  They knock on the door as I am still about 100 feet away.  The door opens, and Officer Stevanus takes a side step while unholstering his firearm.  I’m confused.  I catch up to them as we begin entry.  Now, start counting the seconds with me …

One Second

There is a large puddle of blood on the ground inside the front door.  I hear screaming coming from the back of the apartment.  I think, “If the blood is here, and the screaming is back there, this isn’t going to be good.”  It is the last time I see blood until days later when I’m shown pictures of the scene.  Time stands still …

Two Seconds

Entry is made through the front door, and we make a left turn.  The kitchen is to the right, then the living room is past that on the right.  A hallway is to the left.  The house is in chaos.  Greg (Stevanus) is on my left and slightly in front of me.  Patty (Conway) is on the right next to Greg.  I am in the middle behind them.  Greg and Patty pause as we try to assess.  Kitchen to the right … knives in the kitchen.  We need to clear the kitchen.

Three Seconds

I tap Greg on the shoulder and have them move forward as I clear the kitchen.  We move past the kitchen to the living room.

Four Seconds

An older woman is standing in the living room.  She is holding a towel on her face with her left hand, and pointing down the hallway with her right.  She is repeating loudly, “He’s going to kill her!  He’s going to kill her!”

Five Seconds

We turn left.  Looking down a narrow hallway, I see a female in her 20’s.  She is wet and half nude, wearing only a wrap-around.  She is struggling with a large male in his 50’s.  He has a knife in his right hand, and he has her in a headlock with his left arm.

Six Seconds

He keeps reaching over her body and slashing upwards with the knife.  She is struggling to get away.  I am struggling to comprehend this.  I cannot tell if the slashing he is doing with the knife is actually cutting her.  (It is.)  I urgently call for more backup on the radio.  Radio chatter fades into the background.

Seven Seconds

We close the gap between us and them.  She continues to struggle, and he continues his slashing movements.

Eight Seconds

Greg grabs his pepper spray from his duty belt.  I’m thinking, “What are you doing?  We don’t engage in a knife fight with pepper spray.”  None of us have a clear shot.  The female is still in the male’s grasp between us.  The male peeks out over her shoulder while reaching over her body with the knife and still slashing.  I fear he is going to plunge the knife deep.  I still can’t see that she is injured.

Nine Seconds

Greg reaches in with the pepper spray.  He douses the male trying hard not to hit the female.  Greg later tells me that he knew that she was in the way, and he was just trying to find a way to get a clear shot.

Ten Seconds

The female goes limp and slumps to the floor.  Now we have a clear shot.  I look past the male and see an open bedroom door.  I think he might try to run and escape out the back now that he no longer has the protection of her body, but he doesn’t.  Both Greg and Patty glance at me over their shoulder as if to say, “What now?”  I quickly glance over my shoulder, and there is nobody senior to me to help me decide.  I wish there was.

Eleven Seconds

I hear Patty and Greg shout, “Drop the knife!”  The suspect bends at the waist, straddling the female.  He continues to try to cut her with the knife while she lays lifeless on the ground.  I don’t know how badly she is injured.  In my head, I hear voices clearly stating, “You have the shot … take the shot!”  I don’t smell the pepper spray, and I don’t understand why.  I don’t realize until later, when I hear an audiotape of the incident recorded via the phone call that all of this happened in seconds.  The pepper spray hadn’t had time to diffuse in the narrow hallway yet.

Twelve Seconds

I take aim at center mass like I was trained.  “Center mass” of someone standing straight up would be the center of the chest area.  It is a wide target with a high likelihood of stopping the threat.  With the way the suspect is standing, center mass is his head.  I can’t pull the trigger.  The voices in my head grow in volume.  It is as if they are trying to scream over each other.  “You have the shot!”  My firearms instructor’s voice yelling at me also, “We don’t take head shots!”

Thirteen Seconds

While my inner voices fight it out, I see Greg step back and almost stumble.  I must take the shot.  There is no choice now.  I look down and see the female victim still lying on the ground.  I am afraid that the bullet might ricochet off of the male’s skull and hit her.  I adjust my aim slightly to try to compensate for his head and turn my hand inward to try to get “center mass.”

Fourteen Seconds

I pull the trigger.  The report from the gun sounds like a child’s pop gun.  The knife flies out of the male’s hand landing on the ground by Greg’s foot.  Greg kicks it out of reach of the suspect.  The suspect slumps to the floor.  The female victim pulls herself up and runs into the living room.  Patty follows her and begins to render first aid.  The fight is over.  We need to provide first aid to the male as well.  My first thought after pulling the trigger is, “I hope he doesn’t die.”

Fourteen seconds pass between the time that we enter the door and I pull the trigger.  It seemed like an eternity.

Aftermath

A flurry of activity occurs after the shooting.  A radio transmission that sounds much more logical in my head than what just happened comes out as, “Police shooting, police shooting.  No officers are down.  We need rescue here now!”  The pepper spray finally takes effect, and Stevanus starts to choke up as he gives the dispatchers updates on the male’s injuries.  More backup arrives.  They check on all of us.  Paramedics transport the wounded as a trauma alert.  Investigations and interviews begin.  I am segregated from everyone and a Union representative arrives to stand with me.  I overhear the Assistant State Attorney exit the apartment after walking through saying, “I’m wondering why he is still breathing!?”  I am disgusted by the comment, and I feel judged.

After giving a summary of what resulted, I spend the rest of my shift in silence.  I am assigned a Union-appointed attorney, and I am told not to talk to anyone about the incident until he arrives.  The internal affairs investigator says he needs to take my gun as part of the investigation and I am offered another.  There is later a dispute about whether or not I will be allowed to end my shift and go home without completing my report first.  My attorney says I am not writing it until several days later.  The Deputy Chief points to policy that says I need to complete it first.  They come to a compromise, and I can go home.

When I walk in the door, my wife hands me my two-month-old and tells me to change her diaper.  While it might seem trivial, it helps me in my state of shock.  I still don’t know if any of the people involved in the incident will live.  I can’t sleep.  A neighbor comes down and sits with me for a few hours.  He is a police officer from another agency, and he tells me that he has my back while I sleep.  To this day, he still hasn’t told me how he knew so quickly.  Sleep still won’t come.

I receive phone calls from other officers all day long.  Some are checking on me.  Some are congratulating me.  I don’t know how to tell them that I don’t feel like I should be congratulated. Sometime during the next 48 hours, I return to the police department to write my report, and to be interviewed by internal affairs.  Attorneys from the state are present.  They are incredulous to find out that I didn’t see all the blood.  They ask how many times I shot.  My answer of “One,” again, surprises them.

I am scheduled to attend a debriefing.  My attorney tells me I am not allowed to talk about the incident in detail in the meeting, as there is no attorney/client privilege in the room.  I am told that both women and the man that attacked them will all live.  I am relieved.  I meet with the young woman and I suspect she was underwhelmed.  Exhausted from minimal sleep interrupted by nightmares of the incident (expected) and the stress of the investigation, the meeting between us is brief.  I am not the hero that she envisioned.

For three days, I live in limbo.  I know that I did the right thing, but I wonder if my superiors will see it that way.  I am relieved to learn that the shooting is justified.  The news about the shooting is straightforward, and for the most part, pretty accurate.  I am back on full duty on Friday night, only five days after the shooting.

As a white cop, I shot a black man.  My point in writing this is not to share a war story, or to boast, or to push for any agenda of pro-gun or gun control.  The rush to judgment that occurs in the media, by police administrators, and by politicians when a police shooting occurs has since evolved to a mob mentality, especially when race is a factor.  A police shooting is often tried in the media well before the investigation is even completed.  The drive to sell ad space, bolster political careers, and sell a narrative should not outweigh the necessity of waiting until the investigation is complete.  There is no circumstance where even justifiable force looks pretty.  Every death and injury is tragic, but sometimes necessary.

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