By Brian McKenna
As distasteful as it is to second-guess the actions of a fellow officer, especially one whose mistakes have cost him so much, it is even more distasteful to see an officer’s blood shed in vain, to deny others the lessons to be learned from his tragic misfortune. Officer deaths and injuries are rarely unavoidable. Some errors are more obvious than others, but usually something could have been done to prevent the dire outcome. The purpose of this column is not to unnecessarily criticize those who have given so much–we have all made similar, if not worse, mistakes–it is to hopefully prevent similar tragedies in the future. This regular feature will analyze actual incidents in which officers have been killed or wounded, and will focus on what can be learned from them. With this in mind, Officer Down is dedicated to the officers whose blood was shed in the course of the incident it analyzes, and to all our brother officers who have been killed and injured in unselfish service to their communities.
Description of the Incident
Trooper Bobby Smith, a 33-year old, 10-year veteran of the State Police, was moving up fast on the small red Pontiac, determined to apprehend the driver, who’d just blown past his checkpoint. The driver, a 38-year old, mentally disturbed man named Fred Anderson, had been addicted to drugs since college and had finally snapped. He was now obsessed with a single goal–to kill a cop! Dressed in fatigues, he had a 12-gauge shotgun on the front seat, and he’d spray-painted his license plates and inspection sticker, hoping to bait an officer to pull him over. Turns out, the ploy wasn’t needed. He’d come across the State Police checkpoint which offered him a number of potential victims, and an ideal means for drawing one of them into his trap.
Of course, Trooper Smith had no way of knowing Anderson’s cold-blooded plans. As his powerful cruiser roared forward, closing the gap with the Pontiac, he noticed Anderson leaning across the seat to his right, but didn’t give it much thought. He didn’t notice the paint on the license plate either. At this speed, with nothing but the lights from the two vehicles illuminating the rural highway, Smith was concentrating on just one goal–apprehending the suspect. Just last week a motorist had stopped his car along this same stretch of highway after a short chase and fled on foot across an open field. Being an outstanding athlete who made physical fitness a top priority, Smith had easily caught the fleeing suspect. This time Smith was determined not to be drawn into a foot chase.
Without warning, Anderson skidded to a stop. There wasn’t time to think about anything except the rapidly-approaching accident. Braking hard, Smith swerved to the left and slid past the Pontiac. Things were happening very quickly, and the motorist wasn’t wasting any time. Smith saw the Pontiac cut over onto the shoulder and the driver’s door swing open as he slid past it. Glancing into his mirror to try and see behind the car’s headlights, he could barely make out a shadowy form emerging from the driver’s seat.
Smith cut over onto the shoulder, braked to a stop a couple of car lengths ahead, slammed the transmission into park and threw his door open. As time began to pass in slow motion, Smith remembered his academy training–how he’d been warned against stopping in front of a motorist at night because of the possibility of being blinded and lit up like a target. He’d been taught to keep going a short distance, turn around and come back on the opposite shoulder, using his spotlight to illuminate the violator’s car. Smith remembered the warning and knew he should heed it, but he was determined not to let this violator get away.
As Trooper Smith quickly moved out from behind the wheel, turning toward the Pontiac, the headlights burned into his eyes. Instinctively, both hands flew up in front of his face shielding his vision, and he knew he was a sitting duck. Out in the open, bathed in headlight beams, and facing an adversary hiding behind a blinding wall of light, his only option was to keep moving.
“I hope he’s running,” Smith thought, as he moved rapidly forward and to his left in a wide arc away from the headlights. Raw fear welled up inside as he realized he’d put himself at risk. Without thinking, he did what his training had hardwired him to do–he snatched the S&W .357 magnum out of his holster and ordered the motorist not to move.
Smith kept moving, no longer completely blinded, but still unable to make out much detail. He’d moved out into the open traffic lanes, even more isolated from cover. As his peripheral vision picked up flashing lights of a backup unit rushing to his aid, he detected movement next to the Pontiac’s open door. “Don’t move!” he shouted as the revolver in his hand came up into firing position.
A new, much more vivid light burst from the darkness next to the Pontiac, punctuated with the horrific boom of a shotgun. At the same instant, Smith’s knees buckled and he went down, landing first on his buttocks and then falling backward onto the hard pavement. “Am I hit,” Smith wondered, “or did I just stumble?”
There wasn’t time to worry about that now. Focusing on the only thing that mattered–fighting back–he immediately came up off the pavement into a sitting position, thrust his gun toward his assailant and fired.
As the magnum bucked in his hand, Smith saw something as incredible as it was terrifying. As another ball of fire belched from Anderson’s gun, sending clusters of fire in his direction, he could see a large number of them scatter, as if met by a powerful counterforce. There was only one reasonable explanation for what he saw–it was the hollow point from his magnum blazing its way through the fiery mass on the way to its target.
The strange sight was the last thing Bobby Smith would ever see. He was hit full-in- the-face, knocking him onto his back. There was no pain; just stars flashing wildly inside his head and the feel of the warm pavement under him. And, more gunfire. Although Smith felt no pain, nor impact from bullets hitting his body, he feared the bullets were meant for him and that one would find its mark.
Luckily, none did. Deputies Don McDuffey and Mike Parker made sure of that. They had been assisting at the checkpoint, and had followed moments behind Smith as he initiated the pursuit. It was the lights from their unit that he’d seen just before the shooting. The deputies had pulled in behind the Pontiac an instant later and immediately engaged Anderson.
Smith’s single round struck Anderson in the right thigh and severed his femoral artery, but the man didn’t go down. Instead, he quickly turned his shotgun on the deputies, only to be met by their gunfire. Deputy McDuffey, who’d been driving, was in the best position for a clear shot. He fired all six rounds from his .38 revolver, striking Anderson four times in both legs. Parker, in a much less advantageous position, fired only once and missed.
Before Parker could fire again, Anderson dropped the shotgun and fell back into the seat behind him. A moment later, he stood again, now unarmed and Parker ordered him to put his hands on the roof of the car. Slowly, Anderson turned, hands half raised, stumbled and slumped to the ground. He made a feeble attempt to reach the shotgun, but the effort was in vain. Even if he’d been able to reach the weapon, he wouldn’t have been able to use it, as it had jammed after his second shot.
That second round struck Trooper Smith solidly in the face and head. Fortunately, Anderson had loaded the weapon with birdshot and Smith’s raised weapon and hands absorbed a good portion of the blast.
Nevertheless, the wound had been a devastating one, tearing the flesh from Smith’s upper face and scalp, peppering his eyes and obliterating his vision. Although he recovered from the wounds within a relatively short period of time, the blindness destroyed his career, caused him agonizing emotional trauma and shattered his marriage. However, Bobby Smith proved to be a man of strong character with a passion for helping others.
Although it was a long and difficult struggle, he eventually overcame these adversities to make a new life as a lecturer, author and psychologist who counsels law enforcement officers suffering from job-related stress. Anderson died while en route to the hospital.
Trooper Smith sensed something was wrong as he was braking in front of Anderson’s car, but he didn’t know what. Although he wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, he’d already detected a number of danger signs at the subconscious level. One was the fact that Anderson ran the checkpoint in the first place. People don’t normally run checkpoints unless they have something to hide. That something could be as minor as an expired driver’s license or as serious as a multiple homicide. Or, as this case graphically illustrates, it could be a ploy to draw an officer into an ambush. A more obvious danger sign was Anderson’s activity in the front seat as Smith was pulling up behind him during the pursuit. There should be reason for concern anytime an occupant appears to be reaching for something, but it should be especially disturbing when the driver is reaching around while driving at a high rate of speed. The most obvious danger sign came when Anderson slammed on the brakes and started to exit his car as Smith drove past him.
Another danger sign that went unnoticed by Trooper Smith as he focused on more immediate concerns, was Anderson’s obscured license plate. It’s easy to overlook the significance of this violation because it’s only a minor infraction, but it should not be casually dismissed. An obscured/obstructed plate may have been deliberately tampered with to conceal identity during the commission of a crime, or to encourage an officer to stop the vehicle so he can be ambushed.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that Anderson was setting Trooper Smith up for an attack, but Smith didn’t have time to assess the situation. However, Anderson’s actions were threatening enough to indicate a heightened likelihood of violence, and Smith recognized it. He even thought about changing his approach but, declined to deal with the threat.
Why is this kind of inaction in the face of danger so common? In Trooper Smith’s case, it was largely due to complacency. Like most officers, his years of successfully handling potentially dangerous situations without serious incident had desensitized him. And, on those rare occasions when situations began to get out of hand, he’d managed to control them without serious violence or injury. Trooper Smith believes that state highway patrol officers may be especially prone to this because they deal mostly with traffic stops, an activity that quickly becomes routine. Countless stops without encountering any serious threats eventually erode danger awareness. In fact, Trooper Smith noted that he knows a large number of troopers who have never had to pull their handguns in the line-of-duty, which is something very few officers in other agencies can say.
Also, because of their military-like, no-nonsense image, state troopers tend to be treated with more respect than other officers, leading to a false sense of security.
The first step in combating complacency is to remember incidents like this and maintain a high level of awareness. Trust your instincts. Fear is more than just a feeling with no basis in fact. It is actually a warning, based upon information undetected by conscious thought. Your subconscious mind, which takes over under stress, detects and processes input more rapidly than your conscious mind. It then communicates its conclusions as raw emotions. When stress is caused by input that the subconscious perceives to be a threat, the emotion it emits is fear. Often, the actual causes of fear cannot be consciously articulated at the time, but are based upon real danger cues. So, when you get the feeling that things are going wrong, don’t blow it off. Acknowledge it, raise your awareness level and immediately do something to improve your current situation. Change your approach or position, take cover–it doesn’t have to be anything drastic. While fear should never be an excuse for unreasonable use-of-force, we must adjust our approach accordingly.
In fairness Trooper Smith did go with his instincts just seconds later. As he headed back toward Anderson’s car, his fear instinct suddenly went into red alert. Perhaps it was a barely perceptible glint of light off the shotgun, a clank as the weapon banged against the door, or the fact that Anderson had already exited the car, but wasn’t fleeing. Whatever it was, Smith knew he was in big trouble and he instantly did something about it. Without conscious thought, he drew his handgun and challenged Anderson. Although this failed to prevent Anderson’s attack, drawing his weapon enabled him to return fire.
Another reason officers fail to react effectively to danger signs is misdirected focus. Aggressive, enforcement-oriented officers like Trooper Smith are especially prone to this. In their zeal to apprehend the offender, they become so focused on the task that they either fail to notice the danger signs, or they ignore them. Similarly, officers fail to notice danger signs because of anger, concern for others or similar strong emotions. Trooper Smith readily admits that he was angry at Anderson for running the checkpoint, at least in part because he’d defied his authority. This clouded Smith’s judgment to the point that he declined to change his approach, even though he knew his current course-of-action was risky. We must make a conscious effort to keep our emotions in check, and to stay focused on safety and tactics. We must honestly examine ourselves to determine what pushes our buttons and make a commitment not to allow our emotions to override caution.
Trooper Smith was drawn into a common trap when Anderson suddenly slammed on his brakes. This forced Smith to focus all his attention on avoiding a collision. There are several versions of this particular tactic: For instance, the assailant simply stops at some point while the officer is following him; sometimes he starts to pull over normally and then slams on his brakes; but most commonly he stops suddenly after rounding a corner, cresting a hill or otherwise temporarily disappearing from view. The purpose of this tactic is to get the officer to stop directly behind the assailant, where he is extremely vulnerable as the assailant jumps from the car and rushes him. In some cases, the officer may collide with the suspect’s vehicle, thereby becoming disoriented or injured by the collision or stunned by the airbag, making him vulnerable to attack.
Trooper Smith initially countered the maneuver by driving around Anderson’s car before stopping. This was a good move, but it only solved part of the problem. Although it prevented a collision, it still left Smith in a precarious position. He’d stopped directly in his assailant’s line-of-fire, was bathed in light and unable to see Anderson behind the headlights. Granted, Smith’s academy training had warned him against stopping in front of a motorist’s car to avoid being illuminated. However, he hadn’t been taught that sudden stops are commonly used to ambush officers. Had he been aware of this highly effective tactic, and drilled in counter tactics, he would’ve had more options.
First, as had been recommended in his training, he could have proceeded well past Anderson, turned his patrol car around and approached from the front on the opposite shoulder while using his spotlight for illumination. Although this can be effective, it gives the suspect time to drive away, flee on foot, take cover and prepare to attack, or initiate other actions. Additionally, this tactic exposes the driver’s side of the patrol car to the suspect’s gunfire. To alleviate this, it’s important to angle the patrol car sharply enough to the left to allow you to exit and take cover behind it, without exposing yourself. Another alternative for Trooper Smith would have been to proceed past Anderson to a safe location and stay there instead of turning around. Once there, he could have angled his patrol car to the right to shield him from gunfire as he exited and took cover along its right side.
In some cases, however, there may be no alternative except to stop directly in front of the motorist. Traffic conditions, terrain, a dead-end street or other circumstances may prevent you from proceeding past him. Or, the need to prevent his escape could be so great that you believe you have no choice. In such cases, it’s important that you at least angle your car sharply to the right and take cover behind it instead of approaching the motorist on foot. This allows you to quickly get into position to monitor the suspect’s actions and assess the situation from cover, while awaiting backup. Remember, the suspect may try to ram your patrol car in order to escape, so be ready to jump out of the way and go for other cover, should that happen.
Stopping in front of the suspect vehicle presents another hazard: If the backup officers deploy in standard high-risk stop positions to the rear of the suspect vehicle, your position puts you directly in their line-of-fire. Fortunately, there are several ways to alleviate this. One is to move your patrol car to a safer position as soon as backup arrives. Depending upon the circumstances, you may move across the street and cover the suspect from there, or drive back to a position behind the suspect vehicle to assist with standard high-risk procedures.
Another option is to abandon your vehicle for roadside cover, if you can get there safely. Depending upon the terrain, lighting conditions and other factors, you may also be able to move on foot to a position behind the suspect vehicle and assist from there. If you must remain in front of the suspect and you have angled your car sharply to the right, you can move to the rear of your patrol car and direct your backup officers to modified high-risk positions. The first backup officer (the contact officer) should stop well to the left of the suspect vehicle and about a half a car length behind it, while the second backup officer offsets his car to the right about two or three car lengths behind the suspect. This allows you and the contact officer to triangulate your lines-of-fire on the driver’s side of the vehicle, while the contact officer issues orders to the occupants.
At the same time, the second backup officer can stay out of the line-of-fire while covering the passenger side of the suspect vehicle.
It may not be possible to drive past the motorist after he stops suddenly. In that case, one option is to drop the transmission into reverse and back out of danger. This technique takes more time than continuing forward and it may be hard to find the reverse notch on the shift lever under stress. But, since it may be your only reasonable option, you should practice it to a reasonable level of proficiency. If the motorist is already out of the car and attacking as you come to a stop, you can run him down. Or, when all else fails, ram his car to slam it into him and back away quickly. This option will probably deploy your airbag and may cause you some injury, but it will disrupt his plan-of-attack and will probably disable him. Moreover, the adverse effects will be minimized if you are physically (another reason to wear seat belts) and mentally ready for the collision. This is clearly an extreme measure, but it may be your only alternative, so think about it.
One last option is to immediately go on the offensive. Draw and fire, either after exiting your vehicle and taking cover behind the open door (if you have time) or from behind the steering wheel (if you don’t). Your adversary will be expecting you to be distracted into momentary inaction, so your immediate and aggressive counterattack will probably catch him off guard, while also enabling you to return fire.
Any sudden stop has high potential for violence. When a motorist stops abruptly, you must assume it’s probably prelude to an attack. There may be another explanation, such as confusion or surprise on the driver’s part, but it is much more likely that he’s setting you up for an ambush. Always anticipate the possibility that the motorist may use this tactic, especially during pursuits and other known high-risk situations.
Trooper Smith was at a severe disadvantage when he stopped in front of Anderson’s headlights. Although this fact demonstrates a hazard, it also validates the value of lighting. Superior illumination is one of the few things that officers have at their disposal in almost every low-light confrontation. We may be outgunned and even outmanned, but we almost always have illumination devices that are greater in number and intensity than our adversaries. Criminal suspects rarely carry flashlights or possess illumination other than the headlights on their vehicle, while we generally carry high-intensity flashlights and have spotlights and takedown lights on our patrol cars. As long as we don’t lose this benefit through the use of improper tactics, we can use superior lighting to our advantage. For this reason, it is important to understand and train in the proper use of light.
We must also be aware of hazards to avoid, remain constantly aware of lighting conditions around us and watch for ways to use light to our advantage.
Training played a key role in Trooper Smith’s shooting. He had not been trained to expect sudden stops or to respond to them. This is no surprise as most trainers were unaware of this hazard at the time. Even now, more than 20 years later, sudden stops are not a well known hazard, and countermeasures are not often presented in training. This is unfortunate, because this tactic is much more prevalent than we realize In fact, nearly half of the traffic stop assaults presented in this column involved the use of sudden stops in one form or another. Admittedly, Officer Down cannot be considered a statistically significant study of traffic stops, but the numbers are alarming nonetheless. Trainers must make their officers aware of this threat and teach them to deal with it.
On a more positive note, Trooper Smith had been trained to shoot from the sitting position and to always use his sights. Consequently, he was able to quickly return accurate gunfire from the sitting position after falling to the ground. Unfortunately, this was the only shot he was able to make, but he still managed to strike Anderson’s femoral artery, inflicting a serious wound. It’s worth noting that, with the ever-improving firearms training, many of today’s officers would probably have fared better. Had Trooper Smith been trained to shoot while lying on his back, as with many modern firearms training programs, he could have returned fire sooner and without having to raise himself up to the sitting position. This would have enabled him to shoot before Anderson fired his second shot, and to remain below Anderson’s line-of-fire. Clearly, the value of realistic firearms training geared to the realities of the street cannot be overemphasized.
Trooper Smith had also received excellent training at the academy from his defensive tactics and officer safety instructor, Lt. Aubrey Futrell. Lt. Futrell pushed his recruits hard to develop the habit of persistence and mental toughness, a key element in winning lethal encounters. In addition, he had repeatedly emphasized the fact that gunshot wounds are rarely fatal, and that the human body can stand up to a tremendous amount of damage, with the right attitude. The recruits were taught to fight to remain conscious if wounded, to focus on their ability to overcome injuries and to stay calm. More importantly, Lt. Futrell had presented his message with passion and confidence. When Trooper Smith was lying grievously wounded in the street, he remembered his instructor’s positive message, and it gave him confidence to remain calm in spite of his frightening injuries. Officer safety instructors play a pivotal role in enabling trainees to overcome adversity and win against all odds. Trooper Smith’s experience should serve as an inspiration to all law enforcement trainers to be tireless in your efforts. You are saving lives!
Unexpected Physical Reactions
Trooper Smith’s knees buckled in response to Anderson’s first shot. This is a natural reaction, (similar to freezing up) that can occur when we are caught off guard by a highly stressful event–but Smith didn’t know that. Confused by his body’s unexpected response, he didn’t know if he had tripped, fallen or been shot. Fortunately, like the true warrior he is, he didn’t allow this to distract him from returning fire. This unexpected reaction may have led to debilitating confusion or panic, had he been less determined to fight back. Coupled with the fact that he was already in a very vulnerable position, the results could have been devastating had he panicked.
One of the best ways to guard against panic is to maintain a high level of situational awareness. Vigilance helps us detect danger in time to prevent surprise, substantially reducing the severity of our physical responses to it. However, a we know, anything can happen on the street, so there are no guarantees against surprises. If caught off guard, be aware of the possibility of freezing up or collapsing. Understanding these phenomena will significantly reduce the psychological blow, should they occur. Hopefully, this will greatly improve your ability to push past them and focus on fighting back, as Trooper Smith did. Also, be aware that tunnel vision, slow or accelerated motion, distance distortions, selective hearing, auditory exclusion and other perceptual impairments are likely to occur under the extreme stress of a lethal confrontation. Although these may not be as debilitating as collapsing, they can be distracting.
This incident brought Trooper Smith’s world crashing down around him. Of course, the permanent loss of his sight was the most devastating, but his career was also shattered. He had worked diligently to become a state trooper, was deeply committed and took great pride in wearing the uniform. Coming to terms with that blow was almost as difficult as dealing with his blindness. To make matters worse, despite the exemplary support from his fellow troopers, the department abandoned him. Finally, his last hope of making a positive contribution to his beloved department was crushed when, even with the support of several high-level officers, he as denied a position as an instructor at the academy. This left him hopelessly severed from the career he loved so much. In addition, the pressure from his ordeal soon ruined his marriage and made life overwhelmingly difficult. Before long, despair drove him to the brink of suicide. However, being the kind of man he is, Smith dismissed that thought when he thought about the grim effect it would have on his family.
Eventually, with the support of family and friends, faith in God and strength of character, Trooper Smith overcame these devastating hardships, turning them into something that would have a greater impact on law enforcement than anything he ever anticipated. He used his ordeal as a learning experience and put his lessons to work helping others. Along the way, he discovered a latent talent for public speaking, fueled by a passionate concern for his fellow officers, and has been using it for years to teach officers how to deal with stress and emotional consequences of police work. He also earned his PhD in counseling/psychology, authored two books about emotional trauma of police work, and recently founded the Foundation for Officers Recovering from Traumatic Events, (FORTE) a nonprofit organization that provides treatment for officers suffering from emotional trauma.1 Trooper Smith’s story serves as a powerful example of how to deal with adversity. When faced with tragedy, we can either feel sorry for ourselves and allow it to destroy us, or we can find ways to use our trials to benefit others.
What can be learned about the emotional trauma of the job from Trooper Smith’s experience? First, his attitude about shooting Anderson illustrates an often overlooked aspect of dealing with the emotional aftermath of taking a life. Despite the fact that his bullet inflicted a wound that contributed to Anderson’s death, Trooper Smith felt no remorse. Contrary to what many believe, this is not unusual. Some officers are deeply troubled by taking a life, while others feel little or no remorse. These feelings depend upon the circumstances, the officer’s personal belief system, personality, etc. Anything from extreme remorse to euphoria about coming out of the shooting alive is normal, and the level of reaction should never be interpreted as a reflection of the officer’s moral character.
Often, officers feel compelled to pick these events apart, looking for what they could have done to improve the outcome. This can lead to self blame and self-doubt, both counterproductive and emotionally destructive. Instead, we must accept that we are human, that we often have limited or no control over what happens and that the suspect is responsible for his actions. Even if we believe there was something we could have done differently, it was his decision to initiate violence that led to the outcome.
Acknowledging our feelings and talking about them with people we trust is an extremely positive way to deal with emotional trauma. This is the reason for the effectiveness of participation in group counseling with other law enforcement officers who’ve been through similar situations. Peer counseling allows us to discover that others have feelings similar to our own and gives us the opportunity to be honest with people we can trust emotionally. Our first priority is to win the fight, but once the smoke clears we must go on with our lives. We cannot allow emotional trauma to destroy what we fought so hard to preserve. We must take care of our mental health so that we can continue to enjoy life. The traumatic events in Trooper Smith’s life, and his courageous response to them have a lot to teach us about how we can accomplish this.
- Trust your instincts.
- Stay focused on safety to override emotions that may put you at risk.
- Anticipate the possibility of a sudden stop and be ready to respond with appropriate countermeasures.
- Understand and train to proficiency in the proper use of light
- Persistence and mental toughness can be developed by mentally and physically pushing yourself hard during training.
- Fight to remain conscious if wounded, focus on you ability to overcome injuries and remain calm.
- A high level of situational awareness will substantially reduce the likelihood and severity of unwanted physical responses to violence.
- Peer counseling is very effective in helping cope with emotional trauma of the job.
1 For further information on FORTE, including services or to make a donation, contact:
Code 3 Counseling Center
5422 West State Hwy M
Brookline Station, MO 65619
Phone (417) 887-1142
About the Author
Brian McKenna, a 31-year police veteran, is a lieutenant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a shift supervisor, lead firearms instructor and in-service training officer. He holds an MS in management and development of human resources, is a certified police instructor with teaching experience at both the academy and in-service level, and is a member of ILEETA.
Fight against complacency by maintaining a high level of awareness and preparation.