Officer Down: Trust Your Instincts

by Brian McKenna

Description of Incident
Mild summer air flowed through Officer Steve Marshall’s patrol car as he cruised the quiet streets. The city was unusually calm for a Saturday evening. Marshall, a 27 year-old, four-year veteran of the police department liked to stay busy, and the shortage of work was beginning to bore him. It was also increasing an odd sense of dread. The feeling had been lurking at the edge of his mind for the past two months and he’d been unable to shake it. He attributed some of the gloominess to his visit to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial ceremonies in DC the previous May. Since it was the first time he’d attended the ceremonies, he’d been deeply moved by the experience. He realized it was around that time that the dread had began to surface. But, why had the feeling persisted? And why had he continued to think about being hurt while on the job? The fact that he was working alone added to his uneasiness. His regular partner, Tim Preston, a departmental FTO, was training a new recruit.

As Marshall’s shift dragged into its fourth hour, he pulled up to a red light directly behind an older-model silver Ford Mustang. The battered sports car immediately ignited his interest and he noticed that its rear license plate was missing. Marshall could see a piece of paper affixed to the lower right corner of the back window. Since this was the proper location for a temporary tag, he took a closer look. Although it resembled a temporary tag, something wasn’t right. “A good fake, made on a home computer,” he thought. The light changed and the Mustang made a right onto Norton. Planning ahead, as he’d been trained, Marshall decided to stop the Mustang at a location about a block away, just past Edwards Street. He called out the stop, and flipped on his roof lights.

The Mustang slowed as it approached Edwards Street. But, instead of pulling to the shoulder, it turned left at the intersection, making Marshall uneasy. The motorist’s next move only added to his apprehension. A redneck bar was located on the opposite corner facing Norton, with it rear parking lot accessible from Edwards street. The Mustang turned into the parking lot, continued past two parked cars and pulled into the last parking space, nestled between the last car and a wood privacy fence on the far side of the lot. The privacy fence ran along the back of the lot, separating it from an alley bordering Edwards street, to the backyards of a string of residences along Norton. A section of the fence was missing near the point where the motorist stopped his car. But, even with the opening in the fence, the secluded corner was well insulated from the urban surroundings and any pedestrian traffic.

By this time, Marshall had notified the dispatcher of the change of location. As he braked to a stop and hung up his microphone, he watched the motorist closely. A hard-featured middle aged man, the motorist stopped his car, turned in his seat and looked squarely into Marshall’s face. He then pushed his door open and started to step out of the car. Marshall wasn’t wasting any time; he was already out of his patrol car, PR-24 in hand. He slid the baton into its ring and moved forward. The motorist looked intently at Marshall and stopped moving.

“Get back in the car,” Marshall ordered.

The man turned back and sat quietly behind the wheel as Marshall advised him of the violation, and requested his driver’s license and proof of insurance. The man handed over his driver’s license and said the car was not insured. The license identified him as Randall Snyder, 50, with an address in close proximity to their present location.

“Where’s your plates,” Marshall asked, “and what’s that in your back window?”

“It’s a copy of the bill of sale. I just bought this car last week and they told me to put a copy in the window. I have the original in the glove compartment.”

After officer Marshall explained that it was illegal to drive a car without temporary tags, he returned to his cruiser to run Snyder for wants, local arrest record and driver’s license status. The wants and record check came back clean, but Snyder’s driver’s license was suspended for lack of insurance coverage. Department policy required that motorists with suspended driver’s licenses be cited and released, and the vehicles towed.

As Marshall was stepping out of his patrol car to re-contact Snyder, he saw the man starting to exit his car again. “Stay in your car!” Marshall commanded.

Snyder sat back down behind the wheel and pulled the door shut, as Marshall moved up to the driver’s door.

“Your driver’s license is suspended, Sir,” Marshall said, “I’m going to have to write you a ticket. Let me see that bill of sale, please.”

Snyder handed the document over. After verifying the name and VIN, Marshall returned to his patrol car, keeping an eye on Snyder as he moved. He sat down behind the wheel, called for a wrecker and started to issue the citations: one for driving with a suspended license and one for no license plates. The nagging feeling that something was wrong had not gone away. In fact, it was stronger than ever.

Officer Marshall picked up his mic and asked the dispatcher to have officer Preston meet him there. He was told that Preston was out of service. He knew Preston would understand why he needed assistance, but thought it would be distracting to have to explain it to anyone else, so he decided against asking for backup. Instead, he called his lieutenant and asked him a few simple questions. Marshall knew the answers, but hoped the questions would jar something in his mind to help pinpoint what was bothering him. It didn’t do any good.

There was nothing left to do except complete the stop. Marshall again approached Snyder, issued him the tickets and explained that his car would have to be towed. Snyder’s face hardened. “Why are you being such a hard ass?” he demanded. “You’re takin’ away my livelihood.”

“It’s not my decision, Sir,” Marshall firmly replied, “It’s policy. I’ve got no choice.”

Snyder didn’t look happy, but he didn’t argue, as he dug the car keys out of his pocket and handed them over to Marshall without comment. “You’ll have to leave now, Sir,” Marshall said. Sullenly, but still without argument, Snyder stepped out of the car and walked away. Marshall turned his attention to the business of towing the Mustang, and was checking the VIN when he caught sight of Snyder out of the corner of his eye. The man was coming toward him and his unexpected appearance immediately put Marshall on the alert. Marshall quickly turned to face him. “What can I do for you?” he asked sternly.

There was nothing threatening or hostile about Snyder’s demeanor. “I’ve got some stuff in the car, and I need it to get by,” he said. “Is it okay if I take it with me?”

Marshall hesitated. He usually refused to grant such requests, but for some reason he decided to allow it this time.

“Go ahead,” he said.

Marshall moved to the right side of the Mustang while Snyder stepped up to the driver’s door, leaning inside. Cautiously, Marshall wrapped his hand around the grips of his 9mm Sig and unsnapped the holster. He watched Snyder closely as the man picked up a brown paper grocery bag, held it with its open mouth facing the officer, and filled it with papers from the console between the front seats. That done, he started to back out of the car. Marshall turned to his left and headed toward the back of the Mustang, intending to move around to the other side and send Snyder on his way again…

Something slammed, hammer-like into the right side of Marshall’s neck, stunning his brain into a foggy daze. In the short time it had taken the unsuspecting officer to turn and take a couple of steps, Snyder had snatched up a two-inch S&W Model 10 and opened fire (It was never determined where the gun had been concealed, but investigators believe it was probably inside the bag or under the seat.) The .38 slug sliced its way through the flesh at the front of Marshall’s right shoulder, near the collar bone. It then crashed into his neck, ripped through the right carotid artery and shredded the vega nerve before lodging about a quarter inch from his spine.

Marshall stumbled to the rear of the car, where Snyder jumped him. His mind swimming, Marshall was aware that Snyder was trying to grab something from him, but he couldn’t focus on what it was. Confused, yet unflinching in his will to repel the attack, officer Marshall fought back with all the strength he could muster. Suddenly, he was free of his assailant, stumbling backward, drawing his gun. But Snyder fired first. The bullet tore into Marshall’s upper right hip just a split second before the stunned officer could pull the trigger. It passed through Marshall’s holster, slowing it down and causing only a superficial wound. Marshall flinched with the impact. The Sig discharged uselessly into the ground as the injured officer stumbled to the pavement.

Snyder abandoned his attack, quickly retreated to Marshall’s squad car and stopped alongside its left front fender for cover. Now prone, Marshall looked under the car, spotted Snyder’s feet through a haze and fired two quick rounds at them. Both shots missed; one altogether and the other striking the patrol car’s left front tire. Snyder responded by snapping off another shot over the hood of the car. Thankfully, it was rushed and therefore poorly aimed. The shot missed.

Marshall rolled away from the car, got to his feet and ran to a car backed into a space along the back wall of the bar, taking cover at the right rear corner.

Snyder fired again. The round went wide to the left, hitting the wall of the tavern behind the officer. Snyder fired twice more. Both rounds ricocheted harmlessly into the wall behind Marshall. His revolver now empty, Snyder fled through the hole in the fence and down the alley, leaving the grocery bag on the hood of the Mustang. Inside the bag was a box of ammunition.

Marshall pulled the walkie-talkie off his belt and tried to call for help. His voice was just a raspy whisper because of the damage to his vocal cords. No one heard him. Growing weak from loss of blood, and stunned by his wound, he shuffled back to his cruiser. Reaching through the open window for the microphone, Marshall weakly called for help and slumped to his knees. In the meantime, the tavern’s bartender had called 911, while patrons grabbed towels and rushed outside to help the wounded officer.

Officer Preston and his trainee arrived on the scene, immediately followed by their sergeant. Marshall spotted Preston running toward him, rose to his feet and stumbled forward to meet him. His neck blazed with pain and he was dizzy from shock and blood loss. He collapsed into Preston’s arms. “Tell my wife I love her,” he gasped as Preston gently leaned him against the fender of the squad car.

“You’re gonna be okay. Stay with me, Steve,” Preston said, “keep fighting!”

Preston lowered his wounded partner to the ground, tore open his shirt, ripped off the front panel of his vest and cut his T-shirt open. Blood poured from the neck wound like the steady flow from a broken faucet, but the other wounds appeared to be superficial. Preston took a towel from one of the bar’s patrons, pressed it on the neck wound, and kept it there until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later. Although Marshall’s dulled senses prevented him from noticing, Preston remained at his side with a constant stream of encouraging words until he was handed over to the emergency room doctors.

In the meantime, Preston’s trainee, officer Ken Michaels, contacted several witnesses who had seen Snyder run down the alley at the rear of the parking lot. Acting on that information, Michaels and other responding officers found Snyder hiding in a vacant apartment not far from the scene. Snyder surrendered without a fight and later confessed to shooting Marshall. Although, he claimed he acted in self-defense after Marshall fired the first shot without provocation.

Officer Marshall’s wounds were almost fatal. The neck wound caused extensive damage and profuse bleeding. If officer Preston had not stopped the bleeding when he did, or if Marshall’s arrival at the hospital had been delayed, he would have bled to death. After a lengthy hospital stay and a six-month recovery period, officer Marshall returned to full duty. He is still assigned to the same beat, with Tim Preston as his partner. Snyder pled guilty to attempted aggravated murder of a police officer and eight other felonies. He is currently serving a 44-year sentence.

Analysis: Danger Signs
Although some were quite subtle, danger signs appeared from the onset of Marshall’s contact with Snyder. The most obvious of these was the way Snyder chose the location for the stop, leading Marshall to a site hidden from public view. Snyder’s desire to exit the car was another indication of danger, as were more obscure signs. An example is Snyder’s initial angry response to Marshall’s decision to tow his car, followed by an acceptance of the officer’s explanation without further argument. People who are unhappy with an officer’s actions often put up an argument or plead for a break. Similarly, the timing of Snyder’s request to retrieve his belongings was rather unusual. Instead of making the request immediately after learning that his vehicle would be towed, he waited until Marshall had relaxed and was focused on something else. None of these things alone created a clear danger sign. However, when viewed together, they definitely signaled a need for caution. These facts, and perhaps others too fine to be perceived at the conscious level, were not missed by officer Marshall. His instincts told him something was wrong, but he didn’t respond as effectively as he should have. This is a common problem among law enforcement officers. After continually dealing with potentially dangerous situations without serious incident, we become accustomed to success. This breeds a false sense of security that can prove lethal.

To counter this, we must learn to trust our instincts for what they are–warnings from our subconscious mind. Danger signs are often subtle and unseen at the conscious level. However, the subconscious mind perceives and processes information much faster than the conscious mind. When its assessment of the incoming data determines that danger may exist, it sends us a warning in the form of concern, fear or alarm. If we trust our instincts and listen to this silent message, we can react much quicker to danger.

Although officer Marshall recognized the potential for danger and responded to it, his response was too limited. While he became more cautious, began watching Snyder more closely and asked the dispatcher to have officer Preston contact him, he did not ask for another assist car when he learned that Preston wasn’t available. This was because he thought he’d have a hard time explaining his concerns to anyone besides Preston. When working with a partner on a regular basis, it’s important to resist the temptation to rely on one another to the extent that you discount help from others. Some officers also hesitate to ask for backup because they don’t want to give the impression that they can’t handle things on their own.

Although such concerns are understandable, we must not allow them to intrude on our responsibility to control violent situations. Controlling violence is our highest priority, and one that requires a focus on getting the job done safely. There is no room for pride or other emotions. If you think you might need backup, trust your instincts and ask for it. Then, wait for it to arrive before committing to further action. When your assist officer arrives, brief him on the situation. Tell him what you need and co-ordinate your approach. Any good officer will appreciate why you asked for help, even if your suspicions prove unfounded.

As officer Marshall is quick to point out, it’s important to look below the surface when dealing with suspects, especially if something seems wrong. Don’t assume that the subject will behave as expected, because violent offenders are good at hiding their true intentions. Don’t assume that he will not attack just because he has been co-operative, as this can be a ploy to cause you to drop your guard. Don’t assume anything. Instead, be suspicious of everything; remain ever vigilant; keep digging for information and expect the unexpected.

Control of the Scene
Officer Marshall is still not sure why he allowed Snyder to retrieve his personal property from the vehicle. This is something he rarely permitted, yet he made an exception in this case. It proved to be a mistake that almost cost him his life. Most people appreciate getting a break from an officer. However, violent offenders view kindness as a sign of weakness, one to be exploited. In fact, cop killers often try to manipulate the situation in order to find a gap in the officer’s defenses. This is exactly what Snyder did. With the predatory instinct of a cop killer, he complied with officer Marshall’s directions until Marshall let his guard down. Snyder then pounced on his opportunity without hesitation or mercy. It was only after Marshall courageously counterattacked that Snyder changed his mind. When it became apparent that Marshall was a tougher opponent than expected, Snyder turned tail and ran.

We should treat people with decency and respect when warranted, but not when it could jeopardize our safety or the safety of others. In this case, it would have been much safer for officer Marshall to deny Snyder’s request. Or, had he thought it appropriate, Marshall could have retrieved Snyder’s property himself after establishing control of the situation. This could have been done by frisking Snyder for weapons and ordering him into a position where he couldn’t effectively launch an attack, (preferably with a backup officer covering him during the process). To do otherwise would have made Marshall vulnerable to attack while he retrieved the property. If you choose to grant a request that even hints at compromising your safety, temper your actions with caution and proper tactics.

While on the topic of control, it’s also important to consider making a custodial arrest in situations like these. While there’s always a certain risk in making an arrest, appropriate techniques minimize this. And, once completed, the arrest establishes physical control over the suspect. The decision to make an arrest also gives you an excuse to call for backup, because most departments encourage officers to obtain assistance before making an arrest. If a suspect’s actions make you uncomfortable and you have probable cause, it’s normally best to make an arrest. Back off to a safe distance, take up a position that gives you tactical advantage, request backup and wait until it arrives before making the arrest.

Watching the Hands
Because his suspicions were aroused, officer Marshall intently watched Snyder’s hands while the man retrieved his belongings from the car. He also placed his hand on his Sig in preparation for an attack. This reflected a high degree of readiness and tactical good sense. Unfortunately, Marshall let his guard down a moment too soon. This is easy to do when threats don’t materialize as quickly as we expect. Unfortunately, predators like Snyder often wait for windows of opportunity to launch their attack. By recognizing this strategy, putting safety first and practicing good tactics, we can reduce our vulnerability.

Winning Mindset
Marshall’s first wound was devastating. It left him stunned, weakened and severely disadvantaged in the attack. Nevertheless, he fought back. Time and again, fighting back has proven to be the single most important element in winning lethal confrontations. Even when tactically flawed or poorly executed, a determined counterattack can turn the tide. The act of returning fire will end the fight at least 80 percent of the time. Even if your counterattack does not incapacitate the suspect, it will normally convince him to surrender or flee the scene.

Marshall’s refusal to give in to confusion and pain, and his determination to quickly return fire reversed the momentum of the fight. Because his initial aggression was checked by Marshall’s sudden counterattack, Snyder was forced to take a defensive stance. Because his life was now on the line, he was forced to rush. He was also forced to rethink his rapidly disintegrating plan of action. In addition, when Snyder’s gun went dry, officer Marshall’s actions kept him from calmly reloading and moving in for the kill. Instead, Snyder decided to run, leaving the dangerously vulnerable Marshall behind. Officer Marshall’s tough resistance to an otherwise devastating attack provides an inspiring example of what it takes to win.

Marshall immediately sought cover, making him a more difficult target, and most likely shielding him from additional injuries. Marshall’s determined response to the attack ended Snyder’s plans for a quick victory and then drove the man from the scene. Another example of officer Marshall’s winning mindset was the fact that he fired under the patrol car at Snyder’s feet. Instead of worrying about his wounds or desperate situation, he focused on fighting back. Admittedly, Snyder’s feet were not ideal targets, but they were vulnerable and Marshall took that advantage. When no better target is available, a hit to any body part will do. It lets your opponent know that he is in for a fight. Combative optimism is characteristic of the warrior spirit, and officer Marshall proved that he was a warrior through and through.

Aiding a Wounded Officer
Officer Preston deserves credit for helping Marshall survive his devastating injuries. Acting on information learned at a Calibre Press seminar two months prior, Preston refused to allow the severity of Marshall’s neck wound to overwhelm him. Instead of reacting with fear and distress, he responded with encouragement. Because words can have a powerful effect on a victim’s mindset, be sure to convey encouragement and hope. This will endow the victim with mental strength to overcome even the most devastating wounds. Also, remember, unconscious people can often hear spoken words. Regardless of an officer’s apparent level of consciousness, it is essential for all responding officers to give him encouragement and positive verbal messages, as officer Preston did in this case.


  • Trust your instincts.
  • Don’t hesitate to call for backup.
  • Remain vigilant.
  • Establish and maintain control.
  • Don’t put yourself at risk to give someone a break.
  • Watch the hands.
  • Fight back, no matter what.
  • Use positive words of encouragement when assisting a wounded officer.

About the Author
Brian McKenna recently retired as a patrol lieutenant with the Hazelwood (MO) Police Department after 32 years of service. Brian is a member of ILEETA and IALEFI. Since retirement, Brian is taking lessons learned from the Officer Down column on the road. His Officer Down: Winning on the Street seminar makes extensive use of case studies and class participation to teach key learning points. More importantly, the seminar focuses on developing positive mental skills crucial to winning. For more information, contact Brian at: Winning Edge Training, 7412 Lynn Grove Court, Hazelwood, MO 63042  314-921-6977  or  314-941-2651  e-mail:

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