Officer Down: Failing to Control Your Suspect

By Brian McKenna

Description of Incident
Officer Dave Johnston stepped into his squad car and pulled the door shut behind him, cutting off the wind that was slicing through his uniform. He had just completed an assignment, and was picking up the microphone to clear from the call when he heard the dispatcher assign two cars to a domestic disturbance in his sector. The dispatcher advised that a female caller was concerned because her husband was intoxicated, had just left the house in his bare feet and was driving around the block in the family car.

Johnston, an officer with seven year’s experience with the department, had handled his share of family fights. He worked in a large suburb, bordering one of the busier districts in the city. His district contained some tough neighborhoods, and domestic disturbances were not uncommon. He was tempted to let the other officers handle the call; a crazy drunk driving around barefoot in this cold weather could cause a lot of problems. It wasn’t the kind of thing he wanted to handle this close to the end of the shift, but he didn’t like pushing his work off on others. He pulled the microphone from its clip, waited for the radio traffic to clear and advised the dispatcher he would take the assignment. Dispatch acknowledged, disregarded the original primary unit and told officer Gregg Foster, a 36-year-old four-year veteran of the department, to proceed as the assist.

Johnston hoped this wouldn’t take too long. With a little luck the male half of the dispute would stay gone for the night and there would be no complications. On the other hand, Johnston really wanted to get off on time tonight and law enforcement has a way of ‘making work’ at inconvenient times. He couldn’t help but wonder if this would be one of those times. As this thought crossed his mind, the radio crackled out his call sign again.

“Go ahead,” he responded.

“The complainant called back and said her husband is back home now.”

“Oh yeah,” he thought, “it could be one of those nights.”

The husband, a normally law-abiding family man named Cedric Lewis, was having a very bad night. He had been drinking much harder than normal and taking prescription medication as well. His relationship with his wife seemed to be crashing down around him. Their fight had started with something very minor and had escalated severely. His wife said something that gave him the strong impression that she wanted to leave him.

That thought infuriated him, and nothing she said or did could convince him otherwise. After an extended argument he had walked out of the house to get away and clear his head, but that hadn’t helped either. As he drove around in his bare feet, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that his marriage was falling apart and there was nothing he could do about it. Still burning with anger, he had come back home, only to find that his wife had called the police. Now the cops were going to come into his home, embarrass him in front of the kids and tell him how to run his life. He retreated to his bedroom, fuming with anger. Johnston pulled his squad car to the curb in front of the neighbor’s house, stepped out into the biting cold and walked across the steep lawn to the subject’s front steps. Like most homes in the neighborhood, this residence was an older building of brick construction. An expansive brick porch, spanning the length of the front of the house, stood several feet above the lawn. He climbed the steps, crossed the porch to the front door and took up a position to one side to listen. He had barely reached the spot when the door opened. A visibly upset young woman stood in the doorway.

“Did you call us, ma’am?” Johnston asked.

“Yes I did, officer,” she replied in a shaky voice. “It’s my husband. We’ve been arguing for hours and he’s very upset.” She stood to one side and invited him in. Johnston cautiously stepped through the doorway, while scanning for the husband. Two young boys, one around 3-years old and the other about eight or nine huddled in an obvious state of confusion and fear on the couch along the opposite wall. There was no sign of the husband.

“Where is your husband, Mrs.…” he asked. “I’m sorry; I didn’t get your name.” The young woman made an attempt at a smile, tears pooling in her eyes. “I’m Yolanda, Yolanda Lewis.”

“Where is he, ma’am?” Johnston asked. He heard a vehicle coming to a stop outside, and glanced over his shoulder to see another unit stopping behind his. It was Foster.

“He’s in our bedroom,” Mrs. Lewis answered, cocking her head toward the doorway behind her for emphasis. The doorway led to the adjoining dining room. Just inside the dining room was another entrance into a dim hallway, leading to the bedroom.

Keeping one eye on the doorway, Johnston asked, “What have you been arguing about?”

Her husband was drunk, she explained; much drunker than she had ever seen him before. And much angrier. There was fear in her eyes as she explained that the intensity of his anger, combined with his irrational belief that she planned to leave was scaring her. As Foster stepped inside the front door, Mrs. Lewis began to plead with both officers not to leave her alone with her husband.

“Please get him away from me. I’m afraid of what he might do if you leave.”

At that moment, Johnston heard a door open down the hall, followed by angry footsteps. He tensed, hand hovering near his holstered gun. Lewis stepped through the threshold, empty handed but fuming with anger.
“Get the hell outa my house!” he growled through a drunken slur, “you got no business here, botherin’ me and my family.”

The officers tried to explain that they couldn’t leave until the situation was under control, but Lewis, his voice cracking with anger, repeated his demand over and over. The officers allowed Lewis to blow off steam for a while and their persistence began to pay off. Although Lewis still displayed a lot of hostility, his attitude gradually cooled to a more manageable level. He began focusing most of his attention on Foster and the officer seemed to be handling him well.

Recognizing that Foster was having some success with the angry man, Johnston decided to remove Mrs. Lewis from the immediate area so he could get more information from her. He turned and motioned for her to step into the dining room. As they moved through the doorway, Cedric Lewis’ angry voice still echoing behind them, Johnston began questioning the frightened woman about her husband’s state of mind.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Mrs. Lewis answered, “I’ve never seen him like this before.”

There was desperation in her eyes and voice as she insisted she was afraid to be left alone with her husband. When pressed, she finally admitted that Lewis had shoved her around and roughed her up a bit during the argument. There was no mandatory adult abuse law at the time, so making arrests for domestic violence was rare. Nevertheless, Johnston saw no alternative except to arrest Lewis. He asked Mrs. Lewis if she would be willing to sign a complaint against her husband, explaining that it was the only way to keep him away from her and the children. Reluctantly, she agreed.

“Good. I think that’s the only thing we can do right now, ma’am,” Johnston said as he pulled a notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. “I just have to get some more information from you. How do you spell your last name?” With his attention now focused on getting information for his report, Johnston momentarily lost track of his partner and the angry man with him. Suddenly, like an immense, clanging church bell, high-pressure sound erupted inside his head!

Dreamlike, the floor drifted up toward him. There was a surrealistic intensity of detail in the baseboards as they came closer and then he was on his back, looking up at the ceiling. Again, unimaginable detail filled his view as he gazed dizzily upward at the seam where the wall met the ceiling. Stunned with shock, confusion and sensory overload, he lay motionless on the cold, hard floor. A 12-gauge deer slug had slammed into the right side of Johnston’s neck, ripped forward along his lower right jaw and exited near his chin. Missing the carotid artery and jugular vein by a mere fraction of an inch, the huge projectile had nevertheless shredded bone and tissue along its path.

Unknown to Johnston, Lewis had stepped out of the living room, crossed the corner of the dining room and disappeared into the darkened hallway. For reasons still unknown, Foster had briefly let his guard down and allowed Lewis to leave the room without following him or letting Johnston know what was going on. Lewis had calmly walked to the hall closet, reached inside and withdrawn his 12-gauge pump shotgun. He always left a shell in the chamber, making it unnecessary to reveal his intentions by racking the slide. Without a sound, he had returned and found his first target just where he knew it would be. That target was officer Johnston, his back still to the doorway as he spoke to Lewis’ wife. With swift brutality, Lewis leveled the shotgun at the back of the unsuspecting officer’s head and fired!

Without hesitation, Lewis racked another round, turned the shotgun on the other officer and fired again. Foster was reaching for his holstered revolver when the deer slug blasted through his left arm near the elbow, almost severing it. He stumbled out the front door while he was completing his draw, then crossed the porch and stumbled down the steps, falling face down into the cold grass. Lewis followed Foster outside and moved to the front of the porch as the severely wounded officer valiantly tried to get up. Before Foster could rise, Lewis bent over the porch’s low brick wall and fired again! The blast struck Foster in the back, just below the left shoulder blade, tearing through his left lung and severing the aorta just below his heart. Even this carnage failed to quench the enraged man’s lust for blood. He racked the slide yet again, ran back into the dining room and pointed the shotgun at Johnston. With the muzzle centered squarely on the center of the defenseless officers’ chest, he pulled the trigger. The only sound was an empty click. The fourth round had jammed, saving Johnston from almost certain death.

Although horrified by what her husband had just done, Mrs. Lewis had the presence of mind to run up to him, pull the shotgun from his hands and grab the phone to call the police. While Mrs. Lewis dialed 911, her husband, still raging, began dragging Johnston toward the front door. When he heard his wife talking to the dispatcher, he dropped the badly wounded officer, snatched the receiver out of her hand and calmly announced, “I just shot two of your cops.” Then, with venom rising in his voice, he added, “Come and get ‘em outta here. I don’t want ‘em dying in my house!”

After hanging up the phone, Lewis stepped outside and waited for the responding officers. Officer Al March was the first to arrive. As he stopped his patrol car in the middle of the street, he saw Lewis standing at the front door. The man was unarmed and seemed calm as he motioned at March to come up onto the porch. Not seeing officer Foster in the shadows next to the steps, March raced up the stairs. As he ran across the porch toward Lewis, he noticed Johnston lying on his side just inside the front door. Johnston’s upper body was soaked in blood from the devastating wound to his neck and face. He appeared to be mortally wounded. The nightmare unfolding before him confirmed March’s worst fears. His mind swimming with grief and anger, March grabbed Lewis, slammed him down onto the porch and cuffed him.

Meanwhile, Dave Johnston was alternately slipping into deep unconsciousness and then drifting back into a world of odd intensity and detail—someone was throwing him into the back of an ambulance— he felt the van bouncing madly down the roadway—his bare back now pressing down on cold metal. He was lying nude on a metal table in a sterile-looking room and a man in green scrubs was hosing him down. The horrifying thought of an autopsy table came to mind. He tried to scream, to let someone know he wasn’t dead, but the words wouldn’t come! Mercifully, he fell back into unconsciousness. Only later did he learn that his neck wound had been bleeding so profusely that the ER doctors couldn’t determine if he had been shot anywhere else. The man in the green scrubs had been a doctor who was washing the blood away to inspect him for additional wounds.

Officer Johnston eventually recovered from his extensive wounds, but it took more than a year and a lot of hard work and determination before he could return to work on limited duty, and another six months before he could perform full duty. He has since retired after a distinguished career with the same department. Gregg Foster was not so lucky. The deer slug to his torso caused internal injuries too extensive to survive. He succumbed to his wounds while en route to the hospital.

Cedric Lewis was convicted of murder and assault with intent to kill, and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment plus 50, with no parole.

Analysis: Dangers with Domestic Disputes

This tragedy is a sobering example of how dangerous domestic disturbances can be. Although the belief that domestics are the most dangerous call we respond to is a fallacy (ambushes and suspicious persons calls result in more officer homicides), they are still exceedingly hazardous and should always be handled with appropriate tactics and great caution.1

Besides the threat of attack from other family members when an arrest is made, domestic disturbances pose a number of other hazards:

  • Subjects are normally highly agitated, under tremendous stress and extremely angry. Unlike most fight calls, the anger is connected to emotions that can trigger violence far beyond what might be expected, as was the case with Lewis.
  • Subjects often harbor deep resentment toward law enforcement for coming into their homes and intervening in their personal affairs.
  • Weapons are always present. Although not every home contains a firearm, all have kitchen knives and improvised weapons like baseball bats, hand tools, etc.
  • Subjects are normally intimately familiar with the layout of the residence and the location of weapons.
  • Subjects may view assertive actions by law enforcement as a challenge to their dignity, especially when other family members are present.
  • Unlike most high-risk situations, we seldom take the perpetrator into custody upon initial contact. Arrests (if made at all) are normally made after we have been on the scene for some time, severely limiting our ability to control the subjects.
  • The duration of most domestic disturbances makes it hard to maintain a high level of awareness. Most high-risk calls are brought under control within a few minutes of highly-focused activity, but domestic disturbances can drag on for 20 to 30 minutes. Additionally, there are many distractions—from children and pets to blaring stereos and TVs. Add to this mix decisions that must be made, including how to resolve the conflict, accessing the extent of injuries to family members and whether or not arrests are warranted, and you’ve got a mess to sort through while watching for trouble. Finally, after handling countless domestics, we become desensitized to their dangers. All of these factors appeared to have come into play, at least to some extent, in this case, which should serve as a reminder of how important it is to stay focused on officer safety when handling any domestic disturbance.

Danger Signs
Besides the dangers commonly associated with domestic disturbances, officers Johnston and Foster had other reasons to be concerned for their safety. The fact that Lewis left the house in his bare feet in bitterly cold weather showed an abnormally high level of emotion, and thus a greater risk of violence. Mrs. Lewis’ fear of being left alone with her husband was also unusual, as was the fact that Lewis stayed in the back room instead of coming out to meet the officers when they first arrived. Finally, Lewis’ persistent anger at the officers’ presence was unusual in its intensity and duration. Any unusual behavior or signs of abnormally high emotions should send up a red flag.

Inquiring about Weapons
The officers failed to ask Mrs. Lewis about the presence of weapons in the house, and so did the dispatcher. Although there is no way to know what Mrs. Lewis’ answer would have been, there is a good chance that her fear of her husband would have led her to tell them about the shotgun in the closet. If so, it is highly unlikely that officer Foster would have allowed Lewis to enter the hallway, and the tragedy may have been averted.

Disputants will often admit that weapons are present and disclose their location if asked, so don’t deprive yourself of this valuable source of information. On the other hand, it is equally important not to let a negative response create a false sense of security. Don’t take anyone’s word for it, because even if the person isn’t lying outright, he may honestly be unaware that a gun is on the premises. Take an affirmative answer as a valuable piece of intelligence, but put no credence in a negative response. Instead, assume that the person may be lying or wrong, and stay alert to the potential threat from firearms.

When Johnston took Mrs. Lewis into the dining room to talk to her and turned his back on the doorway, he lost the ability to monitor Lewis’ movements and actions. The decision to remove Mrs. Lewis from her husband’s immediate presence was the correct one, because separation is an essential first step in diffusing any dispute. But, like many officers, Johnston allowed this separation of the subjects to detract from his ability to watch his partner. This is a common problem, because the need to separate the subjects makes it hard to practice contact and cover effectively.

Contact and cover is based upon clearly dividing the officers’ areas of responsibility. The contact officer does all the work. He is the only one who gets directly involved in handling the situation, while the cover officer’s sole responsibility is to stay back and scan for danger. He stays out of the situation unless a peripheral threat appears or the primary officer is unable to safely handle things alone. Unfortunately, this clear division of responsibilities isn’t possible when handling domestics because, in order to separate and control both disputants, each officer has to take responsibility for one subject. With both officers thus acting as contact officers, there is no one to take the role of cover officer, clearly violating the central principle of contact and cover.

Unless a third officer is on the scene, the only other answer is to combine the roles of contact officer and cover officer. This is accomplished by separating the disputants and moving into positions that allow the officers to maintain visual contact with one another. At the same time, the officers should stand facing each other with the subjects between them. The subjects should then be facing the officers with their backs to one another (see illustration #2). This allows the officers to keep an eye on one another while conversing with the subjects, and also makes it harder for one subject to see what the other is doing. In addition, since the disputants have their backs to each other they have a more difficult time hearing one another, which helps to calm emotions and diffuse the argument.

One of the shortcomings of this tactic is that an officer going to the aid of his partner will have to get past his own subject first. To alleviate this problem, the officers should stand offset to one side of their subject so they can quickly get around them, if necessary. When coupled with a high level of danger awareness and readiness to act, the officers can effectively cover one another, while also dealing with the subjects.

This same tactic can be used when the subjects have been moved into different rooms, as long as the officers make sure there is an open doorway between them, keep an eye on each other and maintain the same basic positions they would use if they were in the same room. (i.e., facing each other with the disputants between them and offset to one side).

Like most tactics, it isn’t always possible to implement this one perfectly, but we should strive to apply it as best we can. Once the basic principle becomes a habit, officers will find that it greatly improves their ability to cover each other. In this case, it would have enabled Johnston to see Lewis heading for the hallway, which would have given him the opportunity to do something before it was too late. Even if Lewis had managed to slip past him and get to the shotgun, Johnston would not have had his back to him when he returned and opened fire. In that case, he may have been able to spot the threat soon enough to move out of the line of fire, draw and return fire as Lewis emerged from the hallway.

Allowing Subjects Out of Your Sight
The most crucial factor in this incident was that Lewis was allowed to leave the room unescorted. Although this violated one of the cardinal rules for the safe handling of domestic disputes, it is not an uncommon mistake. Whether caused by complacency, reluctance to follow someone into private living areas, or some other reason, the fact remains that subjects are often given way too much freedom of movement during domestics. Whatever the cause, this temptation must be resisted because we lose control of them as soon as we lose sight of them. If we follow a subject, we must move into an area he controls with no knowledge of his intentions. However, if we stay behind, we give him the opportunity to access a weapon, return at a time and via a route of his choosing and attack at will. Keep subjects away from doorways, use proper positioning to place yourself near exits from the room, and refuse to allow anyone to leave the room unescorted, no matter what the reason.

If, despite your best efforts, a subject manages to leave your control unescorted, it is best not to follow him into an unknown location. You can’t be sure where he is going, or what he plans to do when he gets there, so don’t allow him to draw you into a trap. Instead, stay behind, change positions so you won’t be where he expects you to be when he returns, take cover if possible and watch closely for his return. If for any reason it doesn’t appear to be appropriate to take cover, at least move up close to it and be ready to use it if needed. The key is threat awareness and readiness to act, because there won’t be time to think about how to respond if he returns with a weapon.

Delaying the Arrest
Another reason Lewis was able to reach the shotgun was because the officers delayed arresting him. If officer Johnston had arrested Lewis as soon as he made the decision to do so, Lewis would never have had the opportunity to leave the living room. Considering the problems with maintaining the appropriate level of awareness throughout the duration of a domestic dispute, it is wise to make all arrests at the first available opportunity. That way, the primary aggressor is brought under control as early as possible, and the officers can complete their investigation without having to watch him as closely as before. Caution is still necessary because domestics are volatile situations that can go wrong at any time, but at least they will have one less subject to control while focusing on their investigation.

Over Dependence on Partner
While teamwork, including the effective use of contact and cover, is essential to the safe handling of disturbance calls, it is also important to avoid becoming overly dependent on your partner. Officer Johnston is quick to point out that he left officer Foster with all the responsibility for controlling Lewis while he focused on talking to Mrs. Lewis, resulting in him being ambushed by Lewis before he was even aware that the man had left the room. Johnston recognizes that in one sense he was the victim of Foster’s momentary failure to exercise due caution, but in another sense he was also responsible for what happened. He understands that every officer’s safety is ultimately his own responsibility.

This is not meant to imply that we can’t trust our fellow officers, but we must recognize that everyone makes mistakes. Things can go bad very quickly, so we can’t afford to shift all our attention away from what our partner is doing. We must maintain overall situational awareness by keeping an eye on our partner even while we deal with our specific areas of responsibility. Proper positioning goes a long way in enabling us to maintain this overall situational awareness. We must also continually strive to remain alert, scan for danger and assess potential threats.

Law Abiding Cop Killers
Cedric Lewis had never been in trouble with the police. In fact, he was considered to be a hard working, law abiding family man—definitely not your run-of-the-mill hardened criminal. We tend to think that only people with a history of drugs or violence kill police officers, but as this case graphically illustrates, there is a dangerous fallacy in this line of reasoning. And this was not an isolated case; only 17% of the assailants identified in police killings had prior arrests for assaulting an officer or resisting arrest. Even more remarkable, 23% of the known assailants had no arrest record at all.2

Given his reputation, it is highly unlikely Cedric Lewis would even think of harming a law enforcement officer. However, the cold-blooded nature of his attack makes it obvious that a strong propensity for violence was hidden just below the surface. His anger toward his wife and mistaken belief that she intended to leave him, coupled with the drugs, alcohol and resentment toward the officers, triggered this latent brutality and something snapped. Circumstances unknown to the officers and beyond their control had transformed a previously law-abiding citizen into a vicious cop killer. Almost anyone can become violent under the right circumstances, so never assume that someone is harmless. Stay alert, remain aware and make a habit of practicing proper tactics during all contacts, especially when tensions are high.

Body Armor
Neither officer in this case was wearing body armor. Although body armor would not have helped officer Johnston, it would almost certainly have saved officer Foster’s life. Like a seat belt, body armor is a piece of safety equipment that we don’t think about much, but is there when we need it. It provides an irreplaceable safety net for those times when things suddenly go wrong and other safety measures are not enough. Always wear your body armor.

Author’s Personal Note
Although I never had the honor of meeting Gregg Foster, his death had a profound impact on me. His was the first law enforcement funeral I ever attended, and it changed my life. I sat just a couple of rows behind officer Foster’s family during his funeral. As the emotionally charged service was performed, my attention was drawn to his wife and children—the silent sobs, the grief-stricken expressions, the kindly arms of family members comforting them. These things hit me hard. How could some animal do this to the family of a brother officer?

The thing that affected me most was the procession at the close of the service. Dressed in a dark suit, officer Foster’s little boy hung onto the coat tail of a man next to him. With his mother in tears nearby, the little boy looked weakened and confused by events unfolding around him. I will never know if he fully comprehended what was happening at the time, but I do know that his life was forever changed. And so were the lives of his mother and everyone else who loved Gregg Foster.

It was at that moment that I decided no one would ever do that to my family and I would do whatever I could to shield other police families from the same fate. As time went on, I devoted a good part of my time to writing the Officer Down column in The Police Marksman Magazine in the hope that its lessons would help keep America’s Finest safe. You folks are the best America has to offer. You are the ones others count on in times of fear and danger, and you fulfill that vital role with unwavering commitment and courage. You deserve to go home safely at the end of every shift, to make it to retirement so you can look back on a noble career of service. Honor the names of the officers whose stories have graced the pages of Officer Down by learning as much as you can from their triumphs and tragedies.

1 FBI (2004). Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2004, US Dept. of Justice Uniform Crime Reports, p.24.

2 Ibid, p. 35

* The incident recounted here is true, but some of the names of persons and places were changed to insure the privacy of those personally involved. To preserve clarity, some facts may have been altered slightly, but the essential elements of the story remain unchanged.

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