Misreading Danger Signs
The incident recounted here is true, but the names of persons and places were changed to insure the privacy of those personally involved. In order to preserve confidentiality and clarity, some facts may have been altered slightly, but the essential elements of the story remain unchanged.
DESCRIPTION OF INCIDENT
“Zero five-one. Send me another unit.”
Officer GregRoss instantly recognized the voice as that of his friend and fellow midnight-shift officer,EdNelson. Nelsonhad just called out on a car stop at the Westview Apartments just a couple of miles away.Ross took the assist, flipped on his roof lights, and headed that way. Two minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, and spotted Nelson’s patrol car almost immediately. It was parked, empty with its headlights on and engine running, near the center of the complex between two rows of parked vehicles. He saw no one around it, no activity whatsoever in the gloomy stillness of the parking lot. He braked to a stop in front of the empty cruiser and warily stepped out of his vehicle. Uneasiness ate away at him as he peered into the nearby shadows for any signs of his friend. Keying his mic, he asked for Nelson’s exact location, but the dispatcher could offer no further information. He called out Ed’s name. No response.
Ross’s uneasiness grew. He ran to the closest apartment building, pulled open the door, and shouted out Ed’s name again. Still no response.He ran to the nextbuilding and repeated the effort with the same dismal results. He called in and notified dispatch that he couldn’t find Nelson, cut across to the other side of the parking lot,and ran into another apartment building, where hiscries once again met with deathly silence. With the voice of the dispatcher—whowas now calling Nelson for a status check—fillinghis ears, Rossleft the building and sprinted to the far end of the parking lot. The uneasiness was now churning up into dread. He spotted a man looking out of a second story window.“Where’s the police officer?” he shouted in a voice filled with urgency.“I don’t know,” the man shouted back, “I heard several shots; then a bunch of people ran that way.” He pointed to the east.
The words sizzled through Ross like electricity, dread skyrocketing toward panic. He keyed his mic. “Report of shots fired!” he roared, “And I still can’t find Ed!Get me some help, now!”
Turning back toward Nelson’s car, Ross spotted another patrol car careening into the parking lot. It was his sergeant. Ross ran up to him, repeated his tormented findings, and headed back toward the apartment building from which he had just come.Peering into the night, he saw a dark figure running through the shadows a short distance away. He drew his gun and ordered the figure to stop. The person halted, and waited for Ross to approach. It was a teenage girl who identified herself as a local resident named AnitaCruz. She offered no resistance, but she didn’t help much either. “Where’s the officer?” Ross asked.
Cruzreplied by breaking into tears and sobbing, “I don’t know anything about that.”
Ross escorted the teen to one of the other officers who had now arrived on the scene, and told him to put her into his patrol car. Continuing his search, he soon located another teenage girl and took her into custody. While turning her over to another officer, he heard the sergeant’s voice breaking in on the radio. The voice held an urgent, helpless tone as the sergeant announced, “I found Ed over here by his car!”
Rosssprinted back to the waiting patrol car, and immediately spotted the sergeant crouching down in front of one of the nearby parked cars. The car blocked Ross’s view, but like a punch to the gut he knew Ed was there too. He rushed over to the spot and let his eyes fall on the still, dark form lying on the cool pavement below. Hopelessness and grief welled up from the pit of his stomach as the terrible truth set in. Ed was lying on his stomach, his face turned to the left, a wet blood stain on his back and another under his cheek. His eyes stared out blankly from a facevoidof life.
Not far away, NathanAshby and JustinShaw were still running, trying to find a way out of the mess they had gotten themselves into. The cop had gone down hard, probably dead, and now they had no wheels and no clear idea how to get out of town. Still, Ashby wasted no time pounding his own chest. “I got that mother f—ker!” he sneered out in triumph as they ran.
It was as if Ashby, a 17-year-old small-town gang banger, had been looking for an excuse to kill a cop. Although raised by decent parents, he had a real problem with authority, didn’t like cops, and felt like he had something to prove. He projected the image of a bad ass to his friends, but it was mostly a façade. Like most cowards, he preferred to pick on people who had trouble defending themselves, like the disabled man he and his homieshad rolled for a few bucksseveral months ago. That incident had gotten him locked up, and he was now on probation and facing hard time if he didn’t keep his nose clean. He also didn’t like being on the receiving end of violence. A few weeks earlier, he had been jumped by another gang, which had prompted him to steal a gun from a relative and carry it for protection. He knew his probation would be revoked if he got caught with the gun, and, in his over-inflated view of his own criminal exploits, he had convinced himself that a gun arrest would earn him a long jail sentence.He didn’t like the idea of doing hard time one bit, and he had made a point of bragging to his friends that he would blow away any cop who tried to arrest him.Just minutes earlier, he had been in a position to put up or shut up, and had refused to lose face.
Ashbyhad been playing the role of tough guy as usual. He, JustinShaw, also 17, and AnitaCruzhad been cruising around with nothing to do in a yellow Corolla station wagon. After stealing some beer from a convenience store several miles out of town, they drove through the countryside, drinking and discussing the idea of ripping off a small-time drug dealer they knew. As the evening dragged on,Ashby decided to show off his hardware. He pulled out the stolen gun, a Browning .22 semiautomatic pistol, poked it out of the car window, and cranked off rounds until its 10-round magazine ran dry.Handing the gun to Shaw, he headed back toward town while Shaw reloaded it. Once in town, they stopped at a trailer park, where they picked upShaw’s girlfriendErikaRauch. After spending a few minutes at Rauch’s place, they returned to the station wagon, piled in with the girls in back and boys in front, and left the trailer park. The streets were relatively well-lit and none of them were paying enough attention to notice that Ashby had forgotten to turn the headlights on.
They had barely pulled out onto the street when Rauchmentioned that a rival gang member had accused Ashby of being afraid of him.His fragile pride suddenly threatened, the teen’s face turned red with anger. He pulled out the .22 and started waving it around inside the station wagon. “Does this look like I’m f__kin’ afraid of anybody?” he snarled.
Ashby had barely put the gun down when a car coming from the opposite direction flashed its high beams at him, prompting him to switch on his lights. But as the car came closer, he could see it was a police car. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw the officer turning around to follow him. “We gotta get outta here,” he said.
The stage was set. EdNelson, the officer in the patrol car, was a 27-year-old, five-year veteran of the department. The department served a typical mid-sized Midwestern town that enjoyed a relatively low crime rate with very little serious violence. Nelsoncame from a law enforcement family—his father was a retired police officer and two of his brothers were also cops, both of whom worked for the sheriff’s department in an adjoining county. Well-liked by his brother officers and members of the public as well, he was easy going and friendly, with a good sense of humor and quiet self-confidence.
As he cruised past the wagon,Nelsonnoticed that it would make a good check,probably generate a ticket or two, and possibly lead to an arrest. It was an older, beat-up vehicle with no plates, cruising late at night with no lights and four teens inside. He had been en route to deliver some papers to a resident for his sergeant, but this looked too good to pass up.
As Nelsoncame out of his U-turn, the small station wagon had already pulled well ahead of him. He accelerated to catch up, but before he had gone far, the vehicle whipped a right into the Westview Apartments. The driveway into the complex was lined on both sides with parking spaces, many of them filled with residents’ cars. It terminated at its far end at a T-intersection with another driveway. The other driveway extended out of view in both directions, and gave access to through streets at both ends.
Nelson headed toward the intersection, concerned that the teens might be trying to leave the complex but also aware that they could have stopped anywhere. He had almost reached the intersection when he caught a glimpse of pale yellow off to his right. He glanced over and spotted the station wagon parked just inches from a silver Dodge to its left. Oddly, the space to its right was empty.Having already driven past it, he stopped, backed up, and stopped again, this time behind and just to its right.
Nelsonshifted into park and, without turning on his spotlight, stepped out of the patrol car. Before he had exited completely, two figures emerged from the rear of the wagon. It was the two girls, AnitaCruz and ErikaRauch. They had both come out of the rear passenger door, as there wasn’t room to exit from the driver’s side. There was no movement from the front seat. Nelson looked closer and saw the crowns of two heads, barely visible as they poked up over the back of the seat. The girls took a few steps toward him and then stopped at the rear of the wagon. Nelson stepped around the front of his patrol car to meet them.
“Hi,” they said.
Nelson eyed the girls suspiciously. He glanced at Ashby and Shaw, who were still scrunched down in their seats, and asked, “Do you girls live here?”
Both girls answered simultaneously, Cruz in the affirmative, and Rauch with, “No, we’re here to see a friend.”
“What’s his name?” Nelson asked Rauch as he tried to split his attention between the girls and the pair in the front seat.
“Steve,” Rauch replied, “SteveTaylor.”
Nelson glanced at the wagon’s rear bumper, shined his light on the empty spot where a license plate should have been, and asked, “Where’s the plate?”
Both girls replied that they didn’t know.
Nelson didn’t like the answers he was getting, but he was more concerned about the two figures in the front seat. Moving past the girls, he stepped up to the front passenger door, tapped on the window, and directed the beam of his flashlight down ontoShaw. “What’re you doin’ scrunched down like that?” he asked.
Shaw’s answer wasabrupt and tinged with insolence, “I’m f__kin’ tired.”
Nelson felt a spark of anger. “”You’re f__kin’ tired?” he shot back, “get outa the car, both of you! And stand over there by the wall!” he demanded, pointing to the back wall of a long garage that backed up to the parking spaces.
Nelson stepped back from the door asShaw and Ashby stirred in their seats in compliance with his commands.Shaw opened the door stepped out. Feeling suspicious, Nelson decided to change positions. To create some cover and distance, he circled around the back of the station wagon and over to the left side of the Dodge as Ashbyexitedthe wagon behind Shaw. Both boys walked up to the wall as ordered; thenmoved into the narrow corridor between the front of their vehicle and the wall. Ashby stopped in front of the wagon’s left headlight and waited, his arms folded across his chest, and Shaw stopped a few feet behind. As Nelson moved up alongside the Dodge toward them, Ashby casually moved his right hand down to his side, letting it come to rest just behind his hip. He was turned slightly away from Nelson,his movements and hand shrouded in dark shadows. The move had been so subtle that Nelson hadn’t noticed.
Nelson stopped about 10 feet away at the left front corner of the Dodge. “You got a license?” he asked.
Ashby’s answer was no surprise. “Don’t have it with me,” he said.
Nelsonrealized he couldn’t see Ashby’s right hand. It was time to call for backup. He turned away from the teen slightly, keyed his shoulder mic, and made the transmission that would start Ross on his way to the scene, “Zero five-one. Send me another unit.”
These words were only a low priority request for assistance, and they had come too late. As Nelson released the transmit button, he asked Ashby, “What’s behind your back?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned to speak into the mic again, apparently in an effort to repeat his request for assistance. At the same instant,Ashby’sright hand suddenly flashed into view, its fingers locked around the grip of the .22, and whipped it up into firing position less than 3 feet from Nelson’s face!
Startled but quick to react, Nelson spun around to his right and lunged away from his attacker. But bullets were already tearing into him by then! One entered his right arm near the elbow, and another tore into the left side of his back, an area that would have been protected by body armor had he been wearing any. The tiny but destructive projectile sliced through the lower lobe of Nelson’s left lung and into his aorta, causing a grievous wound, but the next one was even more devastating. It entered the back of his head and sliced through his brain, back to front. He stumbled on for about 15 feet more, then collapsed in front of a car parked just two spaces away. It was there that his sergeant finally found him almost 10 minutes later.
Although the sergeant, Ross and other officers worked feverishly to keep Nelson alive, it was too late, as would have been the case even if someonehad been with him when he fell. He was rushed to the nearest hospital, but pronounced dead about 45 minutes later after another futile attempt to revive him.
Cruz and Rauch both cooperated—thoughreluctantly—withthe investigation. Investigators suspected that they had deliberately helped set OfficerNelson up for the attack, but there wasn’t enough evidence to charge either of them. Ashby and Shaw were arrested later that night by several sheriff’sdeputies while trying to escape in a vehicle being driven by a friend. After being stopped, Ashbytold Shaw he wanted to shoot the deputies, but changed his mind after Shaw pointed out that there wasonly one round left in the gun. Ashby then ditched the gun inside the car and both teens surrendered without incident.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Ashby had been holding the gun in his lap while he and Shaw were slouched down in the front seat.Turning to Shawhe had bragged, “I’ll kill the motherf__ker before I go to prison,” and Shaw had replied, “Straight up. But we’re not going to jail.” That remark, coupled with the evidence of his other involvement in the killing, bought Shaw a life term. He is currently appealing his conviction. Ashby was also convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
DISCUSSION & ANALYSIS
To some extent it was tragically bad luck that led to Officer Nelson’s death. Through sheer misfortune, he happened to cross paths with the wrong person at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Still, had it not been for a series of relatively minor errors on his part, the outcome would probably have been much different. As is so often the case, he died not because of one big mistake but because of several smaller ones, most,if not all,of which are all too common in police work. But it is also important to recognize that this series of mistakes started with a common mental oversight.
Officer Nelson, an enthusiastic young officer who liked to make self-initiated arrests, let his focus on apprehending offenders get in the way of danger awareness.He failed to recognize several danger signs for what they were, assuming instead that they were signs of guilt over some as yet undetected offense. This ultimately led to his death.
The following analysiswill address these points in greater detail, as well as a number of other key lessons from this incident—lessons that can save lives. We owe it to Officer Nelson and all our other fellow officers to learn as much as we can from this incident. Before you read the analysis, however, you may want to review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.
1. What danger signs were present prior to this shooting? Why do officers sometimes miss danger signs? What can be done to correct this problem?
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2. Why do you think Officer Nelson approached the station wagon instead of staying by his patrol car and ordering Ashby and Shaw to come back to him? What are the advantages of this tactic? Do you use it regularly? Why?
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3. What tactical advantages does your spotlight offer? What about your high-intensity flashlight?
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4. What does this case demonstrate about the importance of slowing down and obtaining backup? When alone in this kind of situation, what is the best way to control the suspects while you await assistance?
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5. What role might anger have played in Officer Nelson’s actions in this case? How important is it to keep your anger in check?
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6. Officer Nelson didn’t see Ashby’s gun before Ashby shot him. How likely is this to occur on the street? What can be done to reduce this risk? What does this case demonstrate about the importance of watching the hands? What can be done to correct this problem?
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7. When Officer Nelson asked Ashby what he had behind his back, he gave Ashby permission to move. What else could he have done? Would it have been safer in this kind of situation to be in a better position to control the subject’s actions before asking to see his hands?
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8. What is the best way to respond to a sudden close-range attack like the one in this case? How important is it to return fire? Why?
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9. Ashby drew when Officer Nelson turned his head away to call for backup on his shoulder mic.What is the best way to avoid this problem?
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10. Officer Nelson responded to Ashby’s sudden attack by turning around and running in a straight line away from him. Why do you think he responded in this way? Why is it so dangerous to exit the Hot Zone in this manner? Would it be better to move laterally? Why? What is the best way to avoid this problem?
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11. Officer Nelson’s options for dealing with Ashby’s attack were limited by the confined space in which he was standing. How might that have influenced the way he responded? What can be done to avoid this problem?
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Misreading Danger Signs
There were several things about this encounter that indicated possible danger. Ashby’s attempt to elude, then hide from Nelsonwere very strong signs that this was no “routine” traffic stop. The girls’ attempt to distract Nelson by meeting him outside of the car, and their untruthful answers to his questions also indicated they were trying to hide something, which should always be viewed as a danger sign. In addition, the station wagon had no plates, Nelson was dealing with four teens in a beat-up old car late at night, and no one had any identification. Of even greater significance was Ashby and Shaw’ssloppy attempt to avoid detection by ducking down in their seats. The fact that they did this under circumstances in which there was no hope of avoiding detection indicated that they were desperate or even afraid, and therefore potentially dangerous. Worse yet, such an action can be an attempt to draw the officer deep into the Hot Zone for an attack.
It appears that Officer Nelson picked up on these danger signs as time went on, because he cautiously moved to the far side of the Dodge after asking the boys to get out, and soon thereafter called for backup.But this realization of possible danger appears to have been delayed, as indicated by the fact thathe established no control over the teens before approaching them,failed to use his spotlight, anddidn’t call for back up until later. From what those who knew him have to say, there is very good reason to believe that he initially misread the danger signs. He was known to be a self-motivated,hard-working officer who liked to make self-initiated arrests. Success at it had brought him the self-satisfaction of a job well done, and he had never run into any violent resistanceor close calls in the process. This can lead to complacency and a narrow view of suspicious behavior as solely indicative of attempts to conceal criminal activity rather than danger.Aggressive, goal-oriented officers like Officer Nelson are especially susceptible to this kind of fatal misinterpretation of danger signs.
The key to combating this dangerous phenomenon is awareness. We must constantly remind ourselves that the behaviors associated with guilt and/or attempts to conceal violent intentions often look the same as those associated with attempts to conceal criminal activity. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean we should overreact by initiating high-profile felony tactics in response to every suspicious thing we see. Often, a shift to a higher level of awareness combined withplanning what to do if the potential danger manifests itself is all that is needed. Even when an immediate action is called for, it can often be a subtle, low-profile change in tactics. In this case, Officer Nelson could have remained next to his vehicle, lit up the suspects’ with his spotlight, and ordered them to come back to him. This is hardly a high-profile tactic, but it is much safer than moving into a darkened area controlled by several suspicious subjects.
Return to Question 1
Entering an Area You Do Not Control
When Officer Nelson left the cover of his patrol car and approached the suspects, he significantly diminished his ability to control the encounter. If he had stayed next to his patrol car, he would have been able to take advantage of its cover, concealment and illumination. This would also have clearly displayed tactical superiority and a greater command presence, which would have given him a certain psychological advantage. Moreover, it would have enabled him to order each of the occupants back to his patrol car individually. In this way, he could have stayed behind cover while carefully observing their movements as they came back to him, which would have made it very difficult for Ashby to keep his gun out of sight without making it obvious that he was trying to hide something. Once each of the occupants reached the patrol car, he could then have dealt with them individually and further assessed the danger before ordering the next one out of the station wagon. Finally, this tactic would have enabled him to freeze the action and call for backup any time he wanted.
By approaching the wagon instead, he had very little cover, no concealment, and just the limited illumination provided by his flashlight.Further, it diminished his command presence, and brought him into the midst of four suspicious subjects in an area he could not effectively control.
Ordering subjects to come back to you is one of the most basic tactical principles of officer safety; yet many officers regularly overlook it. Our natural aggressiveness often pushes us to rush more than we should, and, since we almost always get by with it,we tend to become complacent. In the process, we often forget to put this and other essential tactics into practice when called for. To alleviate this problem, we must keep in mind that tactics, like body armor and seat belts, are there to protect us when somethingunexpectedly goes wrong. When not used, we tend to forget about them or even see them as a nuisance, which makes it easy to forget how important they really are. To counter this tendency, we need to practice essential officer safety tactics whenever applicable until they become a habit. Only then will they be there when needed. In addition, proper tactics should be drilled into officers during training and reinforced by their supervisors until they become second nature.
Return to Question 2
Illumination and Use of the Spotlight
One of the few tactical advantages that we regularly have over our adversaries is superior sources of illumination. Our flashlights give us a distinct advantage by throwing out a powerful beam that brightly illuminates potential threats while also distracting and temporarily blinding anyone who looks directly at them. When available, the spotlight has the same advantages, and then some. Besides providing a much brighter light than a flashlight, it is fixed in place. In one sense this limits its usefulness, but it also offers one major advantage. Since it is stationary, the officer using it can focus it in one place, leave it there, and then make an approach or change locationsbehind a bright, distracting curtain of light.
In this case, Officer Nelson could have flooded the station wagon in bright light from his spotlight, then approached it from an angle outside the beam, or better yet, stayed behind the cover of his patrol car and ordered the occupants back to him one at a time (see previous section).By failing to use the spotlight, he not only lost this advantage, but also significantly reduced his ability to see clearly. This may have been one of the reasons why he didn’t spot Ashby’s gun when Ashby exited the station wagon and moved up to the wall.
While we don’t know for sure why Officer Nelson didn’t use his spotlight, it appears that he was in a hurry and/or distracted by the girls. They were already getting out of the wagon when he stopped, and he may have wanted to exit his car quickly before they got too close. This is a valid concern, but once he was out of his car, he could have reached back inside, flipped the spotlight on, and aimed it at them. Even if he hadn’t turned it on then, he could have returned after contacting the girls and turned it on before approaching Shaw and Ashby. But this would have required that he slow down and take his time. Unfortunately, like many officers in similar situations, he rushed ahead instead.
Return to Question 3
Despite the fact that he was dealing with multiple subjects under very suspicious circumstances, Officer Nelson made the common mistake of over-committing himself without backup. There are several possible reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, he may have felt rushed by the girls’ actions, or he may have been so focused on finding out what they were doing that he misread the danger signs. He may also have been reluctant to create the appearance that he was overly cautious or unable to handle things alone. Another possibility is that he was overconfident or complacent from years of experience without serious incident. Very likely, it was a combination of many if not all of these, because they are all common in our line of work.
Because of the prevalence of such influences, it is especially important to compensate for them by establishing and maintaining control at all times through the use of proper tactics and adequate manpower. Officers must get over the notion that there is something wrong with asking for assistance, and recognize that it is their responsibility to obtain enough help to properly control every encounter. In addition, it is equally important thatdepartment policies and supervisors reinforce the use of backup by insisting that their officers request assistance whenever appropriate. This serves to remove any stigma or awkwardness associated with asking for backup, and also helps officers get into the habit of doing so.
This is especially important when handling suspicious persons and circumstances, which is exactly what Officer Nelson’s initial traffic stop had become by the time he finally located Ashby. For some reason, these calls are not widely recognized as particularly dangerous. Many officers and agencies view them as relatively low risk, when in fact they have led to the murders of more solo officers over the past 10 years than any other activity except ambushes and traffic stops/pursuits (35 officers, or 15.5 percent of the totalnumber of the solo officers murdered).By contrast, that percentage is cut in half when more than one officer is on the scene (7.3 percent of the total number of assisted officers murdered).Considering these figures, it should be a matter of routine for every officer, and a matter of policy for every agency, to make every suspicious person call a two-officer call.
Of course it does little good to call for backup too late, as this case so graphically demonstrates, or to become overcommitted before it arrives. The safest way to handle a dangerous encounter until backup arrives is to freeze the action.Keep your distance, take cover whenever possible, draw your gun if you think you may need it, and order everyone to remain where they are. Once this is done, do nothing except scan for danger until your backup arrives. This is generally the only way a single officer can establish and maintain effective control over more than one suspect.
Return to Question 4
It is worthwhile to note that Officer Nelson apparently became angry when Shawtold him he was slouched down in his seat because he was “f__kin’ tired!” This is evident by the way he repeated it back to Shaw in an angry tone and then immediately ordered both teens out of the vehicle. This response, though understandable, made things much worse. Besides givingAshby and Shawmuch greater mobility, it may also have clouded Officer Nelson’s judgment to some extent, thereby causing him to rush things and fail to watch Ashby’s hands more closely.
Anger is an asset when it can be harnessed and used as motivation to win, but it can also be very dangerous when it starts to influence decision-making during potentially dangerous situations. It isn’t always possible to suppress anger completely, but we must strive to keep it to an absolute minimum, and not let it influence our tactical thinking.
Although it cannot be proven, there is a good possibility that Shaw answered Officer Nelson like he did for the specific purpose of making him angry so he would let his guard down. Violent offenders have an instinct for this kind of psychological tactic, so be very wary of anything a suspect says or does that seems to be purposely calculated to angeryou.
Return to Question 5
Failure to Watch the Hands
It was never determined howAshbymanaged to keep his gun hidden from Officer Nelson’s sight until the instant before he fired it. At first, it may have been because he had it under the driver’s seat, or because Officer Nelsondidn’t take a good look inside the station wagon when he was standing outside talking to him and Shaw.
Later, after exiting the station wagon, Ashby still managed to keep the gun hidden despite the fact that he was out in the open. This was probably because Officer Nelson was moving over to the other side of the Dodge. It is difficult to watch anyone closely when on the move, especially when there are others around and obstructions like parked cars blocking your view. Furthermore, the darkness made matters much worse. As mentioned earlier, it would have been much safer to light up the station wagon with the spotlight, freeze the action, call for backup, and then call the occupants back to thepatrol car one at a time. Only in this way would it have been possible to effectively control all of them and maintain a proper visual on their hands as they moved.
It is also important to get into the habit of watching the hands of everyone you deal with.Make a point of watching people’s hands all the time, even when off duty. This requires conscious effort at first, but when done often enough, it will eventually become a habit.
Return to Question 6
Permission to Move
When Officer Nelson asked Ashby what he had behind his back, he inadvertently gave him permission to launch his attack. What initially looked like an act of compliance suddenly turned deadly, andNelson, now caught off guard, had no time to mount an effective counterattack.
Officer Nelson had made a lethal mistake, but he can hardly be faulted for doing so. Despite the risks, most officers routinely ask suspects what they have in their hands,order them to show them their hands, etc. We must break this dangerous habit and learn to deal with these situationswith a much greater level of control.
A much safer option is to not say anything until you are in a more advantageous position. Why let the subject know that you suspect him of being armed and then give him permission to move his hands while you are in no position to stop him from attacking you? Instead, casually move to a better tactical position (e.g., create greater distance, move in behind him, go to cover, etc.), be ready to immediately draw and shoot if necessary, and keep a close watch on his hands as you move. Once in a more advantageous position, draw if you have sufficient grounds to believe he is armed, and order him not to move. After making it clear that you will take appropriate action if he makes any sudden moves or fails to comply with your commands, order him to turn away from you and stay put. Then, if possible, wait for backup before you issue any further commands to disarm him.
When you don’t feel your suspicions are strong enough to justify holding the subject at gunpoint, maintain your advantageous position as you order him to show his hands(preferable after obtaining backup) and be ready to respond with lethal force if necessary. Even though this option provides considerably less control than holding the subject at gunpoint, at least it allows you to more safely assess the situation and puts you in a better tactical position if he attacks.
If it isn’t feasible to move to a safer position, it is better to move in close before asking to see the subject’s hands than to maintain a typical reactionary gap. Though thisgoes counter to the convention, it makes a lot of sense in many ways. Maintaining the accepted reactionary gapleaves you too far from your adversary to prevent him from drawing and using a weapon, but too close for him to miss. In effect, you reduce your options for countering an attack while doing very little if anything to make yourself a harder target. By contrast, moving in close puts youinto position to deflect his weapon as you simultaneouslycounterattack.
However, in all fairness to Officer Nelson, it important to note that he was probably too far away to deflect Ashby’s attack before it was too late. Hence, an in-depth discussion of how to deflect and counterattack would go beyond the scope of this analysis. On the other hand, this topic is too important to ignore. Therefore, we have devoted another article exclusively to it.To read the article turn to “How to Win an Extreme Close Quarters Gunfight: REACT!” on page __, or click here.)
Return to Question 7
Close-Range Armed Attacks
Since Officer Nelson was probably too far away to deflect Ashby’s gun, he only had two other choices: return fire or exit the Hot Zone. Unfortunately, he chose the latter with tragic results (see “Exiting the Hot Zone” section of this analysis for further). Under the circumstances, it would have been better to return fire. Because it is all but impossible to outdraw someone who is already drawing his gun, he would probably have taken one or more hits in the process, but at least he would have had a fighting chance.In fact, his chances would have been better than it may seem.Less than 10 percent of all gunshot wounds are fatal, and if you can fight back, you can win. Aggressive return fire would have given Ashby something else to think about, disrupted his plan of attack, and possibly thrown off his aim, especially once he started taking hits.This is often your best option when under fire. In fact, it will frequentlyturn the tables on your assailant and carry you on to victory.
Officer Nelson could also have helped his situation by stepping wide to his right, thereby taking him out of Ashby’s immediate line of fire while also moving him to cover behind the Dodge’s engine block. This quick lateral movement, when combined with cover and rapid, aggressive return fire, might even have enabled him to win the fight without injury.
Still, it isn’t easy to shoot back with a tactical disadvantage, especially when it catches you off guard.This is where training can make a difference. Interactive firearms scenarios that require officers to respond to sudden close-range attacks will help inoculate them against the fear and stress, let them experience the feeling of shooting back when under fire, and fix the importance of fighting back in their minds. It instills the conviction that they CAN KEEP GOING even if shot, and increases their confidence in their ability to WIN even when the odds are against them.
An old, largely forgotten but still viabletactic that Officer Nelson couldhave usedto his advantage would have been to use his flashlight as a distraction. Since it was already in his hand, he could have thrown it at Ashby’s face while drawing his own gun.This can be an effective response even if the flashlight (or any other item being carried by the officer) misses its intended target, because we humans instinctively blink, flinch away, duck, throw up our hands, etc., when we detect something flying toward us, especially if it is coming at our head. However, this tactic must be initiated immediately to be successful. For this reason, it is a good idea to make a habit of carrying something in your support hand at all times with the intent to use it as a distraction if necessary.
Return to Question 8
Use of Shoulder Mic
Ashby deliberately chose to open fire when Officer Nelson turned away to speak into his shoulder mic the second time. He had already been given permission to move and he capitalized on that advantage when Officer Nelson took his eyes off him. Like many violent offenders, Ashby had been waiting for just such an opportunity, and he took advantage of it without hesitation.
It is very important to avoid any action that forces you to take your eyes off any potential assailant, no matter how briefly. Learn to return every piece of your equipment to your belt, including cuffs, OC spray, baton, CEW and gun, without looking down at them, and make this a habit. This not only keeps you focused on the potential threat in front of you, but also lets the suspect know you are alert, not easily distracted, and highly proficient with your equipment. Streetwise predators pick up on body language quickly, and will often decide not to take on an officer who obviously knows what he is doing.
When it comes to your walkie-talkie’s extended microphone, this hazard can be avoided by placing it just above the second button down of your shirt. This eliminates the need to turn your head away to use the radio, and also makes it easier to key the mic in the event that you have your gun drawn. Instead of having to take your eyes off your sights while you reach up to your shoulder mic, you simply move your support hand back to your chest without changing your stance. This subtle improvement can make a big difference when youmust call for backup while holding an adversary at gunpoint.
Return to Question 9
Exiting the Hot Zone
Rather than counterattack, Officer Nelson tried to escape. This is sometimes an acceptable option, but—in a final and tragic misfortune—he made the mistake of moving in the wrong direction. When fleeing from unexpected danger,we tend to want to run away from it in a straight line like Officer Nelson did. Unfortunately, this maneuver does nothing to move you out of your assailant’s line of fire. It makes you a slightly smaller target as you get farther away, but it won’t force the shooter to move his point of aim to keep you in his sights. It is far better to move to one side, because this forces your assailant to rethink his attack, then move his gun, re-aim, and gauge his shot properly to hit you. In addition, it takes less time to move laterally than it does to turn all the way around. These differences can be measured in milliseconds, but milliseconds can make the difference between life and death in a gunfight.
The problem here is that, like Officer Nelson, we human beings generally follow our first instinct when caught off guard without a plan. To combat this tendency, we must practice constant situational awareness and be ready with a plan if attacked. This is done by making a habit of remaining constantly aware of escape routes, cover, distances, positioning, etc.Continually scan your environment for these important tactical considerations, plan how you will use them if needed, and remain on the alert for danger signs. If Officer Nelson had done this, it is likely that he would have been able to quickly move between the cars to his right for cover. From there, he could have retreated to a position of greater safety and/or drawn and returned fire. This might have saved his life.
Return to Question 10
During the last few crucial moments before the attack, Officer Nelson was hemmed in by the parked cars and the garage wall, which severely restricted his mobility. This not only limited his tactical options, but it may have influenced his mindset as well. It is very distressing, even frightening, to be hemmed in when in a threatening environment, which can raise anxiety levels, cause distractions, cloud judgment, and otherwise adversely affect performance. For these reasons, it is very important to avoid confined spaces when making contact with suspects, especially under high-risk or suspicious circumstances. Sometimes this is inevitable, but always be aware of your environment and don’t let it limit your mobility any more than necessary. And when you can’t avoid confined areas, at least be aware of it so you can plan accordingly.
Return to Question 11
•Assume that every suspicious situation or behavior may be dangerous and adjust your thinking and tactics accordingly. This will help you avoid the trap of misreading danger signs.
• Whenever possible, make suspect(s) come to you rather thangoing to them.
• Use your superior sources of illumination to your advantage.
• Avoid rushing ahead when alone. Instead, slow down, freeze the action and wait for backup.
• Anger is an asset when harnessed and used as motivation to win, but it must be kept in check so it won’t negatively influence decision-making. An offender may deliberately try to make you angry so you will make a mistake.
• Watch the hands!
• Don’t ask to see a suspect’s hands unless you are in a good tactical position to counterattack if he pulls a weapon.
• Place your extended microphone on the front of your shirt instead of your shoulder.This will enable you to key it without taking your eyes off what’s in front of you.
• Immediate, aggressive return fire is often your best option in a sudden close range attack, especially when combined with lateral movement, and/or the use of cover. This is often your best option when under fire.
• If you must exit the Hot Zone, move laterally rather than in a straight line away from your attacker. It is also important to be aware of routes of escape, available cover, etc., at all times so you can reach them quickly if necessary.
• Avoid confined spaces when making contact with suspects.
1 F.B.I. (2011). Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2011.Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, table 36 http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/2011/tables/table-25> at 4 April 2013.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian McKenna is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood (Mo.) Police Department, where he served in patrol, traffic, mobile reserve and training. He is a 32-year police veteran, with a strong background as a police trainer at both the recruit and in-service levels, and served his department as lead firearms instructor and various other training functions. He is a state-certified police instructor, a certified force science analyst, and holds a Master’s Degree in human resource development. Brian is a member of ILEETA and IALEFI, writes extensively on officer safety topics, and trains officers nationwide in winning mindset and other topics related to officer safety. His book Officer Down: Lessons from the Streets is based upon this column and is available for purchase at http://winningedgetraining.com/odnowavail.html. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.we-training.com.
TELL US ABOUT IT!
Police Marksman intends to run an “Officer Down” article by Brian in every issue. In order to find incidents that provide relevant case studies, we would like to draw from our largest available resource—you, the reader. If you have, or can obtain, factual information on actual incidents you think we can use, please contact Brian at:
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HOW TO WIN EXTREME CLOSE QUARTERS GUNFIGHTS: REACT!
Despite dramatic improvement in police firearms training over the past few decades, cops are still dying in wholly unacceptable numbers from extreme close quarters gunfights. While there has been a significant overall decrease in felonious police deaths since the latter part of the last century, nearly 49 percent of the police officers murdered with firearms over the past 10 years were killed within 5 feet of their assailants, and 18 percent more were killed at a range of 6-10 feet.
This is not surprising when we consider the obstacles to defending against this threat. A large part of the problem is that gun fighting at contact and near-contact range is very different than gun fighting at further distances. In reality, an ECQ gunfight is more like a street brawl than a gunfight. Marksmanship has little to do with winning, and speed is far more important than pinpoint accuracy. These are extremely brutal, fast-moving attacks that often come with little or no warning, and the skills learned in most police firearms training do little to help defend against them.
Since these attacks are fast moving, ferocious and fraught with unpredictable variables, the countermeasures for responding to them must be immediate, fierce and flexible. To accomplish this, any effective technique should be based upon five core principles that can best be remembered with the acronym REACT:
No countermeasure, no matter how effective it may otherwise be, will do you much good if you are not ready to use it when needed. Considering the speed at which ECQ attacks occur, you must be mentally prepared to react immediately whenever you approach anyone on the street. Learn a technique that works well for you, practice it thoroughly and often, and then make it a habit to always be ready use it on every street contact, whether the subject appears to be dangerous or not.
Since you can’t outdraw someone who is already drawing his weapon, don’t try. Instead, deflect his muzzle away from you. Focus on his weapon only for as long as it takes to deflect it, and then keep going. It is tempting to become fixated on his gun, but this can lead to a dangerous tug-of-war for it and increase the risk of being disarmed. So deal with the most immediate threat first by deflecting his weapon, but then instantly switch your focus to neutralizing the force behind it—the assailant.
If you are too far away from your attacker to deflect his weapon, immediately dodge to one side. As long as you move quickly enough, this will move you out of his line of fire before he can adjust his aim and pull the trigger (experimentation has shown that, although his eyes will follow you, his gun will remain where it is for an instant).
F.B.I. (2011).Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2011. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, table 36.
The next step is almost simultaneous with your evasive action. If you are close enough to deflect his weapon, charge forward as you deflect it, blending your evasive action and forward charge into one simultaneous move. If not, turn and charge directly into your assailant as soon as you have dodged out of his line of fire. This should catch him off guard and enable you to get into contact range before he can adjust his aim to match your movements. Then, before he can think what to do next, you should already be blitzing him with your counterattack (see below). In either case, he will probably be expecting you to freeze, back away, or try to outdraw him. As a result, it is very likely that your sudden forward movement will catch him by surprise, disrupt his plan of attack, and make it a lot harder for him to maneuver his weapon into position to shoot you before it’s too late.
The counterattack must be immediate, overwhelming in its ferocity, and able to neutralize your opponent before he can react effectively to it. While there is general agreement on these basic elements of the counterattack, the specific means for achieving them vary depending upon the technique used.
The most obvious means of counterattacking is to shoot the offender as you charge into him. Some trainers prefer headshots here, as rounds to the head are the most likely to incapacitate immediately, but others prefer body shots for several reasons. First, since your gun is held at a lower level, the shots are delivered below the suspect’s arm, making it easier for you to get off several quick shots without him blocking or otherwise interfering with them. Also, since it is very hard to miss the torso at contact range and the torso offers the bulkiest mass, there is less chance of endangering innocent bystanders with misses or over-penetration. Regardless of the target chosen, it is essential that the gunfire be delivered as quickly as possible and kept up until the threat is neutralized.
However, caution must be used to avoid jamming your gun into his body, because this could push the slide out ofbattery and prevent the gun from firing. The best way to avoid this problem is to hold your gun against your side, just slightly forward of your armpit at about navel level while firing. This keeps the muzzle well away from the offender’s body while also making it harder for him to grab it.
Another technique for preventing a jam is to hold the slide with your support hand as you fire. Despite the fact that this technique ties up your support hand when shooting and makes it necessary to rack the slide before you can take another shot, it is probably the most certain way to ensure that the weapon will fire even if unintentionally pressed against the suspect’s body. Moreover, it provides you with an extra margin of safety against a disarming in two ways. First, it makes it harder for your assailant to wrench the gun out of your hand. Second, if he does manage to disarm you after your first shot, he will have to figure out how to clear the spent case before he can use it against you. It may appear that there is a risk of getting burned or shooting yourself in your support hand or forearm when discharging your pistol in this manner, but it is actually quite safe with proper training. (For more information on this technique, contact Don Gulla at Don.Gulla@Arrestling.com.)
Finally, a third alternative is to hold your gun canted outward slightly with its butt touching your chest near the solar plexus, cup your support hand around your gun hand from the front, and then clamp down with both hands. This keeps the gun in close to your chest where it is hard for your assailant to reach it, and allows you to fire multiple shots without racking the slide after each one. Furthermore, it locks the gun into the strongest possible biomechanical position, where it is extremely difficult for your assailant to take it away from you even if he manages to get hold of it. Like the Arresting technique discussed above, this technique is very safe with proper training. (For further information, contact Shawn Beane at email@example.com.)
On the other hand, some officers and trainers prefer to counterattack with devastating empty-handed techniques. As you charge into your opponent, step alongside him and deliver a rapid series of traumatic injuries to key targets on his body; e.g., gouging a thumb deep into one eye, crushing his throat, smashing his groin, breaking his knee, etc. If delivered one right after the other, these high-trauma injuries should quickly disable him. The key is to inflict intense trauma to a major target, which will briefly distract the suspect and cause him to instinctively react to protect it, thereby leaving other key targets open to subsequent attacks. Before he can recover from the first trauma, follow up immediately by attacking another key target, and then another and another until he is no longer a threat.
Another empty-handed option is to immediately employ a disarming technique. While officers have successfully used such techniques in the past, doing so requires more precision and a higher level of proficiency than any of the other techniques discussed above. Unless you have learned and extensively practiced disarming techniques to near perfection, it is highly recommended that you avoid them.
Each of these two categories of countermeasures offers some important advantages. The armed response is easier to learn, because it uses the officer’s most familiar weapon for the counterattack. In contrast to their skill with empty-handed techniques, most officers have practiced drawing their duty weapons often enough to become very proficient at it under stress. In addition, most officers have developed a very strong propensity for reaching for their sidearm when threatened with armed violence, and this is a hard habit to break psychologically. For those officers, it can be very hard to develop enough confidence in any unarmed response to use it decisively on the street, no matter how good they may be at it. Lastly, although gunfire is not 100 percent guaranteed, it is an extremely effective way to quickly disable an opponent when delivered rapidly at close range.
On the other hand, by enabling officers to leave their guns holstered, empty-handed techniques make the risk of pushing the slide out of battery a moot point, and significantly reduce the chances of being disarmed. They are also slightly faster than drawing and firing, and eliminate the risk of an innocent bystander being hit by the officer’s gunfire. Finally, some officers are hands-on oriented, preferring to use unarmed tactics when in close. Many of these officers will find it easier to learn and confidently execute empty-handed techniques on the street.
Cliffe, S., Imminent Threat Defense Systems LLC (November 2, 2011). Personal communication.
Take follow-up action!
Your attacker will probably instinctively back away as you move in on him, so be ready. Keep moving and keep up the counterattack until he is no longer a threat. After he is incapacitated, back away, move to cover if available, reload if necessary, call for assistance, and continue to scan for possible additional threats until help arrives.
Because of the wide range of variables involved in ECQ armed attacks, there are no easy answers for dealing with them. The foregoing discussion presented a brief overview of many of the best available techniques for countering this threat, but there is a lot more work to be done. Individual officers should take any ECQ training provided by their department very seriously, drill often in the techniques offered, and use visual imagery to further enhance their training. If they feel their departmental training isn’t sufficient, they should attend additional training that better fits their needs, even though it means they will have to go outside their agencies to find it. Considering the seriousness of the threat, such training is well worth the investment in time, sweat and money.
Trainers have an even greater obligation. With the safety of their officers resting on them, they must always put forth their best effort. In view of the unacceptably large number of officer deaths from ECQ attacks, ECQ training must receive much greater emphasis at both the academy and in-service levels, including the use of regular drills and frequent dynamic one-on-one exercises. At the same time, trainers must seek out the best available ECQ training for new ideas and techniques, keep an open mind, and consult earnestly with fellow trainers as they continually strive to find ever better ways to deal with this threat. It is hoped that the information presented here will serve as a catalyst for this vital search for answers.
The author would like to thank Chief Jeff Chudwin of the Olympic Fields (Ill.) Police Department; Steve Cliffe of Imminent Threat Defense Systems LLC; Don Gulla of Arrestling.com; Chuck Humes of the Toledo (Ohio) Police Department; and Brian Willis of Winning Mind Training, for their invaluable assistance with this discussion of close-quarter combat techniques.