Officer Down: Vehicle Positioning

By Brian McKenna

Incident Description
The beige Dodge Magnum coming toward her in the bank parking lot hardly looked like the kind of vehicle a street robbery suspect would drive. It wasn’t a very good match of the description given by the dispatcher either. Officer Laila Sabree, a 22 year-old with barely a year on the job, had been dispatched on a ‘suspicious person, possible attempted ATM robbery’ call, but there was very little to go on. The only description of the suspect vehicle had been a ‘white SUV’ and the dispatcher had not mentioned weapons or given any further information. In addition, this was one of the slowest districts in the city with few robberies. The bank was located in a busy shopping center and it was rush hour—hardly the time or place for the robbery of an ATM patron. On the other hand, Sabree had been only moments away from the call when it was dispatched, the Magnum’s chunky appearance made it look somewhat like an SUV and witnesses often get descriptions wrong. Still, it was difficult to believe that someone had just been robbed here. Besides the problem with the vehicle description, the driver of the Magnum didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave and there was no activity on the lot to indicate that a robbery had just occurred. The young officer watched the Magnum with mild suspicion as it came closer, but was far from convinced that it was worth checking out.

Part of the problem was that Sabree wasn’t at her best today. The summer air was thick with humidity after a heavy rain, making for the kind of muggy heat that saps the energy right out of you. And, like many ambitious young officers who had missed the opportunity to get a college degree before starting their careers, she was enrolled in college courses during her off hours. After having already spent most the day in class, she was tired and hoping for a nice, quiet shift. To make matters worse, she had been on her cell phone with a friend, her mind drifting far from its normal focus on police work, when she got the call. Taking the call more lightly than circumstances would dictate, she had cruised the short distance to the bank annex without disconnecting from her cell call.

All of that changed as soon as the Magnum cruised past her and she got a look at the driver’s face. There was also an older woman in the car, but it was the driver who got her attention—there was something about the way he looked at her that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She threw the cell phone down, her attention now completely focused on business. As she swung her car around to follow, the Magnum sped across the parking lot to the busy city street bordering it, made a quick right turn and accelerated. Sabree gunned the big engine of her patrol car, slowed down a bit to make the turn and then gunned it again to catch up. As she started to close the gap, she saw the light at the next intersection turn red and thought for a moment that the Magnum would get hung up in traffic there and stop. However, it managed to slip past the stopped cars, bust the light and keep going. Sabree hit the lights and siren, and followed. The intersection looked clear. She started through, and a car flashed into view from her left. She braked, swerved, saw gleaming glass and metal right in front of her, just feet away. …and then it was gone. She had missed t-boning the motorist by mere inches, and was through the intersection unscathed.

Sabree focused on the pursuit, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. The Magnum was now a good distance ahead, but she pushed on. The road went into a long sweeping right-hand curve that was intersected near its apex by a shady residential street coming in at a sharp angle from the left. The Magnum braked hard, turned sharply to its left, and shot up a side street. Sabree followed just in time to see the suspect vehicle disappear around another right-hand curve. She raced up to the curve, and was about halfway through it when she suddenly spotted the Magnum again. It was stopped just off the pavement on the left side of the street with its front end resting against a tree. Sabree braked quickly but she began to slide on the rain-slicked pavement, the momentum carrying her beyond her intended stopping point.

As her patrol car continued forward, Sabree could tell that she was in little danger of colliding with the other vehicle, but that wasn’t all she noticed: the Magnum’s doors were still closed, which meant both occupants were probably still inside. “They would have left the doors open if they had bailed out,” she thought.

She was right. The driver, a 27 year old doper named Chablis Owens, had opted to stay inside the car with the passenger, who happened to be his mother. Although investigators were never able to confirm the mother’s role in the incident, it appears that she was just along for the ride. Owens had tried to rob a woman who had withdrawn some cash from the ATM by driving up next to her as she walked to her car. The frightened woman had jumped into her own car and called the police. Instead of forcing the issue or displaying his gun, a 9mm HS 20001, Owens had driven away. But for some unknown reason he had decided to stick around for a little while, and was still there when officer Sabree arrived.

Sabree’s arrival had convinced him to take off, but the wet roads had soon ended his bid to escape. He wasn’t about to give up, however. Instead, he had reached into the glove box, retrieved his 9mm and set it down on the console with his right hand resting on the grip. Then he waited for his pursuer to approach. In the meantime, Sabree had been successful in avoiding an accident, but her situation wasn’t a good one. Her squad car had come to rest parallel to the Magnum, with its front bumper roughly even with the other vehicle’s front tire. Although she instinctively knew this could mean trouble, she really wanted this guy. Any concern for her safety was drowned out by her desire to catch him. She slammed the transmission into park, pushed the driver’s door open and quickly stepped out onto the pavement. Her left hand (she was left-handed) was already reaching for the 9mm Smith & Wesson 5903 on her side.

Owens was looking at her with an odd expression on his face. It was cold and confident, as if to say, “You don’t even know what’s about to happen to you.” His mother’s expression was similar, and Sabree wondered why they looked so calm. Then she saw the gun! Owens was thrusting it past his mother’s face toward the open passenger window, its muzzle pointed directly at her. “Pop, pop!” The reports sounded more like they had come from an air pistol than a firearm.

Just feet away from the muzzle of a 9mm spewing lead, Sabree made the best decision of her life! She hit the ground, diving well below her assailant’s line-of-fire. The passenger door prevented Owens from depressing his gun barrel far enough to hit her, and his mother’s position made him unable to lean out of the window or crawl out of the car. This bought Sabree valuable time, and she used it to scramble forward on hands and knees, while calling for help on her walkie talkie. After reaching open ground in front of the two cars, she stood and turned back toward Owens, completing her draw as she did so.

Owens was leaning across his mother and out the open window, still shooting, but Sabree was now on the offensive. She pulled the trigger, or tried to anyway! The gun felt sluggish in her hand and the trigger wouldn’t move. She looked down to find out what was wrong, only to discover something much worse than a malfunction. Her hands were covered with blood, making it clear she had taken a hit in at least one of them. Frightened by the sight, but determined to shoot back, she crammed a couple of more fingers into the trigger guard and pulled. Her efforts were rewarded by the buck of the Smith & Wesson, as it sent lead toward Owens. She fired again. Owens’ gun went silent and he disappeared from view. Although Sabree had barely heard the gunfire, the world seemed to go deathly quiet in its absence.

She couldn’t be sure if she had hit Owens or where he had gone. Concerned that he may have exited the car and disappeared into the heavy underbrush nearby, she crossed to the other side of the street. Her bleeding hands still held her pistol and she used the weapon to cover the car while scanning the area for signs of further danger.

Sabree called for help again, but it took some effort. In addition to the radio traffic caused by responding officers, she had trouble manipulating the radio and soon discovered that it was because of a wound to her right hand. She knew that her left hand had also taken a hit, but the pain had not yet set in. Besides, she had other things to worry about. Pushing concern about her wounds to the back of her mind, she concentrated on what had to be done next: Owens’ mother, who was still sitting in the passenger seat, had shown no signs of aggression but Sabree wasn’t taking any chances. While continuing to scan for potential threats from Owens, she ordered the woman out of the car and onto the ground.

After what seemed like an incredibly long time, assist officers arrived on the scene and determined that Owens was still inside the vehicle, dead of a single gunshot wound to the head. His mother had also received a minor grazing wound to the back of her head, which appeared to have been inflicted by her son. She later told investigators that she believed Owens had shot her intentionally, but this could not be confirmed.

The wound to Sabree’s right hand was a minor one that had torn through the web of the hand without striking any bone. The other one was much worse. Owens’ bullet had smashed solidly into the trigger finger and obliterated the bone between the second and third joints, leaving the tip of the finger hanging by a shard of flesh. The severed tip was reattached later, but the middle section of the finger is still missing. Nevertheless, Sabree eventually learned how to shoot despite this disability and is still serving on her department.

Analysis: Mental Attitude
Officer Sabree readily admits that she didn’t take the call seriously enough at first. In addition to the fact that the manner in which it was dispatched made it unclear whether a robbery had occurred, the location was in a low crime area, reducing her suspicions. She was also not in the best frame-of-mind for dealing with a high-risk call. She was tired from a full day of classes, feeling sluggish from the muggy weather and had allowed herself to be distracted by her cell phone. Finally, she was unusually close to the scene when the call was dispatched, which gave her very little time to mentally prepare, gather further information or plan her actions.

Under such circumstances, it’s best to pause briefly, give some thought to what you might encounter, scan for danger and make a plan before proceeding. Don’t let personal business distract you from the job. Police work is dangerous enough without adding unnecessary distractions to the mix. Regardless of how pressing personal matters may be, let them go when responding to calls, making traffic stops, etc., and immediately focus on danger awareness and tactical concerns.

After initially taking a lax approach to the call, Sabree quickly shifted gears when she saw Owens driving past her. Although she still doesn’t know exactly why, her ambiguous feelings skyrocketed into full-fledged suspicion as soon as she looked into his face. It was enough to make her immediately terminate the phone call and turn all her attention to him. Even though she still couldn’t be sure if she had the right vehicle, her instincts had been triggered. Then, just moment later, Owens’ obvious attempt to flee cinched it and the pursuit was on. As the chase progressed, Sabree fell victim to a very common mental pitfall: she began to disregard the potential for danger as she focused on apprehending the suspect. This was evident when the pursuit ended and she stopped alongside Owens’ vehicle. Her determination to catch Owens had been building and when she saw the Magnum stopped with all its doors closed, she knew it meant the suspects were still inside. Even though she instinctively knew this might mean danger, her desire to make the arrest compelled her to close in.

Officer Sabree aptly calls this kind of thinking “That stupid kind of courage.” Cops are aggressive by nature and driven to succeed, especially during pursuits (which is why we sometimes see tactics go out the window at their conclusion). In addition, we are victims of our own success. Although suspects often manage to escape, they rarely get away once we get our hands on them. Even when they do resist, it’s usually nothing more than an unsuccessful effort to break away. Violent resistance, motivated by a true desire to kill is exceedingly rare, which is exactly why officers are so often ill-prepared to deal with it.

We cannot afford to be consumed by our desire to make the arrest. An awareness of the threat to our safety must always be foremost in our minds. It should temper everything we do. When we keep our priorities straight, we can get the job done, but at considerably less risk. We can aggressively pursue and apprehend our suspect while maintaining a high level of readiness.

Vehicle Pursuit Tactics
Vehicle pursuits are emotionally charged, making them especially dangerous. One way to quell these strong emotions is to focus on bringing the pursuit to a safe conclusion and controlling the outcome through proper tactics. Anticipate situations that might lead to an accident, as well as things the suspect might do to initiate an attack, and how you will respond if these hazards materialize. The position of your patrol car and the way you remove the occupants upon termination of the pursuit are especially important. High-risk vehicle stop tactics are definitely called for in many cases, and they are vastly superior to the common practice of swarming the vehicle and manually pulling the suspect/s out. Similarly, think about what you will do if the occupants flee on foot. It is very dangerous to run past the suspect vehicle on foot, because someone may be inside waiting to ambush you.

Another important concern is sudden stops. It’s common for suspects to stop after disappearing around a curve or making a turn. When the pursuing officer spots the suspect vehicle again, he is caught off guard by the sudden need to stop. In many cases, the suspect also positions his vehicle in a spot where the officer is at risk of running into it, adding considerably to the urgency to stop. As soon as the stunned officer stops, the suspect exits and opens fire.

In this case, Owens used a modification of this tactic by taking advantage of the situation after accidentally skidding off the roadway. Once stopped, he didn’t exit the car to initiate an attack, he set up an ambush of sorts. He removed the gun from the glove box, set it down with his hand resting on it and waited for officer Sabree to get close. Sabree was caught by surprise when she saw the car off the roadway. As a result, she didn’t have time to think about where she should stop her patrol car, or how to conduct the stop. As she pulled up next to him, Owens was ready to attack before she could get into position to control the encounter.

The most appropriate tactic to use will depend upon the circumstances. However all of them require preplanning and quick action. They require practice for maximum effectiveness. If they are not included in formal in-service training, they must be practiced on your own. Mental imagery can also be used in the absence of such training, or in addition to it. If circumstances prevent you from using your vehicle to exit the danger zone, it’s unlikely that you will be able to get out of your car in time to effectively engage your assailant. Your only alternative may be to draw and fire through the windshield. This can be an effective option, but it requires shooting from an awkward firing position. Since many officers haven’t shot through glass before, they may not be mentally prepared to do so. These factors can lead to hesitation and mistakes under stress. Therefore, it’s best to practice this skill, either on your own or during training (using a nonfunctioning weapon to avoid accidents, of course).2

All of the tactical options mentioned earlier should be considered during any pursuit. Expect that a sudden stop may occur at any time. Watch for situations in which one could be used against you and think about which tactic would work best if the threat materializes. In officer Sabree’s case, the best tactic would have been to continue past Owens’ vehicle. Under the circumstances, it would have been much quicker to accelerate forward than to take the time to drop the transmission into reverse in order to back away. Unfortunately, she had never practiced this tactic, nor had she ever considered the need for it. The rest of us have the luxury of hindsight—we would do well to learn from her experience.

Exiting the Danger Zone
Once the shooting started, officer Sabree did a good job of exiting the danger zone by dropping to the ground and changing locations. When suddenly confronted by an assailant who already has his gun pointed at you, there isn’t time to outdraw him. Unless you are close enough to grab or deflect his weapon while you draw and fire, your best option is to immediately exit the danger zone.3 Drop down, jump to one side, do something to get yourself out of his direct line-of-fire, and start moving to cover or any other position where you can effectively return fire. This is exactly what Sabree did. Although it can be argued that it would have been preferable for her to move to the front of her patrol car and take cover there, the fact remains—she moved quickly to get below Owens’ line-of-fire and kept moving until she could get into position to fight back. Caught by surprise with no time to consider other alternatives, she made the best of what time she had left to get into position and go on the offensive. These actions turned the tables on Owens and enabled Sabree to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Cover Awareness
Why didn’t officer Sabree use her patrol car for cover when returning fire? This is hard to say with any certainty, but it was probably because she was caught off guard. Although she wanted to put some distance between herself and Owens, she didn’t think of heading for cover in the process. This is not uncommon. Because officers under fire often have their attention focused on fighting back, they don’t have time to look around for cover, so they just stand and shoot back. Although fighting back is the single most important thing you can do when under fire, it’s a lot better to do it from behind cover. Often, the only way to make this happen is to think about cover possibilities before the shooting starts.

Winning Mindset
Officer Sabree admits, she wasn’t at her mental best during the time leading up to the shooting and she made a mistake when she stopped next to Owens’ car. Winning is much more than avoiding mistakes. Far more often, it hinges on making the best of a bad situation. When trouble comes, we must not focus on fear or doubt, but on what we can do about it. We must take control and fight back—officer Sabree did just that. She didn’t panic and she didn’t hesitate. Instead, she immediately took herself out of Owens’ direct line-of-fire and went on the offensive. Most importantly, she persisted even after realizing that she couldn’t manipulate her weapon properly because of her wounded hand. She didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but she didn’t worry about it. She focused on her capabilities, not her vulnerabilities, compensated for her inability to pull the trigger by cramming more fingers into the trigger guard, and delivered deadly return fire. Fighting back was the only way out of the trouble and that’s exactly what she did, despite the loss of her trigger finger. In doing so, she gave us all a fine example of what it takes to be a true winner.

Dealing with the Aftermath
Officer Sabree also demonstrated a positive winning attitude in the way she handled the emotional aftermath of the shooting. Rather than feeling guilty or blaming herself, she focused on the fact that it was Owens who was responsible for his own death. She recognized that Owens could have deescalated the confrontation by simply surrendering, but he choose to try to kill her instead. By employing deadly force, she did her job in the way dictated by his actions, not hers. This is a very realistic and healthy way to look at things. If more officers followed her example, we would have fewer emotional casualties as a result of officer-involved shootings.

Perceptual Distortions
Officer Sabree experienced some very common perceptual distortions during the shooting. Tunnel vision was the most apparent, as evidenced by the fact that she didn’t notice her own gun or the blood on her hands until after she made a conscious effort to look down. By contrast, the muzzle of Owens’ gun looked unnaturally large to her. This is because humans tend to focus all their attention on the one thing that seems most important when their lives are in danger—the threat. Everything else is unimportant by comparison, so we ignore it. Officer Sabree also experienced a greatly heightened pain threshold (she felt no pain until well after the shooting stopped), as well as auditory and time distortions. Owens’ gunshots sounded muffled, she didn’t seem to hear her own gunfire at all and everything went completely silent as soon as the shooting stopped. As far as time was concerned, the initial attack seemed to occur in real time, but then seemed to slow down when she returned fire, and it stayed that way until help arrived.

The most significant distortion officer Sabree experienced had to do with her memory. Her recollection of her movements and her exact location when she returned fire conflicted with the physical evidence at the scene. Interestingly, this is common because we tend to remember high-stress situations in bits and pieces. Our minds try and fill in the gaps with logical assumptions, and sometimes with what we would like to believe. Because of this, it is very important to be careful about what you say during post-shooting interviews.
Be honest, but don’t try to answer any questions unless you are absolutely sure. Instead, admit that you don’t recall the details, stick to the basic facts and focus on your concern for your safety and/or the safety of others. Relate the basics of what you saw and/or heard that made you feel threatened, but don’t give specifics about distances, times, the number of shots fired, etc., because you might be wrong. The details of your statement can appear to be false if they conflict with the physical evidence or the statements of other witnesses (whose perceptions of the event may also be distorted). This can be very damaging considering the fact that your account is likely to be closely scrutinized by others who may not be understanding, or may be hostile toward you. Since winning the legal battle is almost as important as winning the physical one, be very careful about what you say.


1 – The HS2000 is a polymer-frame pistol made in Croatia.
2 – Officers can be trained for this with live weapons by allowing them to practice the technique with nonfunctioning, Simunitions™ or AirSoft weapons at first, and then graduating to live-fire exercises after they have demonstrated the ability to draw and fire without an accidental discharge. With enough time, effort and cooperation from a local auto glass repair shop, realism can be added by putting damaged windshields into empty windshield frames.
3 – Most readers will probably note that the author is using the term danger zone in place of kill zone. This has been done intentionally, because kill zone is a negative term that may lead officers to believe that being caught inside this zone is a death sentence. Officers may get into dangerous situations, but this should only serve to inspire them to fight back harder. You can win if caught in the danger zone; it just requires quick and decisive action. Officer Sabree is living proof. (The author would like to thank fellow Police Marksman contributor Brian Willis for bringing this important distinction to his attention)

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