Editor’s Note: The statements reflected in this piece are the author’s opinion and do not constitute legal advice. Get adequate self-defense training and familiarize yourself with your local laws.
One of the things a rookie cop learns is that any incident can turn deadly in the blink of an eye. Most of the time we survive these wake-up calls, but some of us do not. If we are particularly lucky, we get our first taste of a real life-and-death struggle with an experienced field training officer at our side.
I wasn’t so lucky.
Let me share my story and what I did to win the confrontation. There are lessons here for both police officers and armed citizens alike.
A Hot Georgia Afternoon
I’d been a police officer for less than a year in a small town outside of Atlanta. We had about 30,000 residents, with about 3X that many who worked in and traveled through the city each weekday.
My first six months had been on day shift, and I’d recently moved to the afternoon watch. As an eager young cop, I enjoyed the faster pace of the later shift. When we came on duty at 3pm one Saturday in mid-August, the temperature was sweltering. As if the heat wasn’t bad enough, we were understaffed: just a lieutenant and two officers.
Two calls were holding: an accident with injuries and a shoplifter in custody at a local supermarket. As the shoplifting suspect was cooperative, I was sent to that call solo while the lieutenant responded to assist the other officer with the injury accident.
I arrived at the supermarket and spoke with the manager, witness and suspect. Everyone was cooperative, and I was able to establish probable cause for an arrest. I handcuffed the suspect and put him in my patrol car.
As I sat in the car doing some initial paperwork prior to transport, I observed two men walk out of the supermarket. Both men stared at the suspect I had arrested as they walked by. They didn’t blink or even look for traffic as they walked across the parking lot – they just stared at me and the suspect.
It was obvious that the men knew the suspect, and the suspect confirmed my suspicion when asked. I drove my patrol car over to where the two men were beginning to get into a car. Through a brief investigation, I determined the three men came together to the store and were living together nearby. I developed reasonable suspicion with articulable facts that the two new men had also been shoplifting.
Things Get Exciting
Without back-up, this rookie continued his investigation. Both subjects gave me consent to search them for stolen property. As I began to pat down the subject I deemed most cooperative, the second subject began to walk back to the open car.
Not knowing what the second subject may be retrieving from the vehicle, I put the cooperative subject on my car hood and quickly approached the second subject. As I came up behind the second subject, I saw him pull a package of cheese from a cargo pocket on his BDU-style pants and toss it into the vehicle in an attempt to hide it.
At this point, I had probable cause to believe the second subject stole the cheese from the store. I took his left arm into an escort position and began walking him back to my patrol car. As I did, I asked him if he has any weapons on him. He responded:
“Um. Well. You know … .”
I recognized immediately that he was armed and began to act. At the same time, his right hand went into his right-side cargo pocket and he began to pull out a fixed blade knife similar to the famous U.S. Marine Corps Ka-Bar.
I turned the subject sideways and slammed his body into the front wheel well of my car. Between my weight and the adrenaline-fueled force I applied via, his arm was smashed into the car body and his knife went bouncing onto the pavement.
Briefly stunned, he did not put up much resistance as I took him to the ground and handcuffed him. Several citizens who were watching the incident ran over to help, and the more cooperative subject offered no problems.
As it turns out, the subject who pulled a knife on me was a fugitive, wanted for the attempted murder of a police officer near Fort Benning. It seemed he stabbed a cop there and fully intended on killing me to make his escape.
I made several mistakes that day that put me in a bad position – one that could have ended with me bleeding out on that hot Georgia asphalt. But, I also did a few things right that allowed me to prevail in the encounter without serious injury to anyone.
My primary mistake was not having a back-up officer available. While I had no control over the department’s staffing issues, I could have requested a county officer for backup once I realized I would be expanding my investigation to include two additional subjects.
However, I saved myself by recognizing the lethal threat when it came and taking immediate action to stop the attacker.
While I moved him away from his open car where weapons could be located, I tried to overwhelm his thinking by asking questions. He responded to my question about being armed with “Um. Well. You know…” and with that response, I knew he was armed.
I had seen the nearly identical response from Richard Blackburn just before he murdered South Carolina Trooper Mark Coates in 1992. The patrol car video of that traffic stop made a lasting impression on me, and when I heard my subject respond in the same way, I knew exactly what was up.
I immediately acted and used my car as a hard surface to effectively disarm and stun the subject. The key to this successfully working was being physically fit and having trained to perform similar maneuvers. Mine was not the only possible solution to the armed criminal. It is possible I could have shoved him away from me and drawn my pistol. Someone adept in Brazilian jiu-jitsu may have employed a grappling technique. Other methods may have been just as effective.
The keys to winning this incident are the same lessons you can apply to your own encounters, be it on patrol or just out with your wife on date night.
First, recognize a bad situation. If you are in a tight spot, and particularly if you are a citizen with no duty to act, leaving is the best course if you can. If you cannot leave, get help coming your way. Key up your radio or call 911 and let someone know where you are and what is happening.
Second, understand when it is an appropriate time to fight. If you wait until an attacker is stabbing or shooting you, you have failed to anticipate the violence. Most attackers will reveal their intention through body language and other cues. When this man made his move, I was already in motion.
Lastly, it is impossible to know how any attack will happen. The criminal decides the when, where and how. Nevertheless, you can prepare for a range of eventualities by staying physically fit, training in a realistic martial art and carrying weapons with which you are proficient. You might have to use any of the tools and skills you have at your disposal. The better you are with them, the more flexibility you will have when responding to an unexpected attack.
They say a smart man learns from his mistakes, while a wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Maybe I’m a little smarter because of this incident. I hope you can be a bit wiser.
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