The Herb Cuadras Incident
By Brian McKenna
Just about every department, precinct or district of any size has at least one officer who attracts action like a magnet. These go-getters possess that rare combination of awareness, aggressiveness and street smarts, along with a measure of good luck, which always seems to put them in the right place at the right time. For them, the street is a crime fighting goldmine. Officer Herb Cuadras was that kind of cop. The 27 year-old former marine only had ten months on the job, but he had already accumulated an impressive number of felony arrests, especially for the kind of community in which he worked. The city was a relatively affluent suburb of about 110,000 residents, made up of primarily residential neighborhoods, with a relatively low crime rate and little violent crime. Even in this environment Cuadras seemed drawn to serious crime, and he had the numbers to prove it.
But Cuadras wasn’t looking for any work tonight. A cool drizzle filled the blackness, it was getting close to the end of his shift, and he was holding a long report from a burglary arrest the night before. His sergeant had just cleared him to go to the station to finish the report and he was heading that way when a robbery-in-progress call came out. True to form, Cuadras was just passing the location, a restaurant that sat on the edge of a residential neighborhood.
The silent alarm was not a typical one. The broadcast was from a special alarm designed to apprehend a brazen stickup man who had been consistently robbing restaurants throughout the county for the past two and a half years, sometimes as often as once a week. The alarms were triggered by remote transmitters carried by many of the restaurant managers in the area. When tripped, they repeatedly broadcasted the restaurant name and location until reset, and the transmissions overrode all other traffic on the police frequency. The robber was of special concern, not just because of the number of robberies he had committed, but because they had become increasingly more violent. He had yet to kill anyone, but it looked like it would just be a matter of time. At first, his M.O. had been the same as most small business robberies, but he now routinely kicked in the front door, fired several rounds into the ceiling, pistol whipped the manager, and then fired several more shots before leaving.
One puzzling aspect of the robberies was the fact that they had stopped suddenly about a year before. When they started up again about six months later it was believed the perpetrator had been in jail, but there was no evidence to link anyone in particular to the crimes. As expected, it was later determined that the offender had in fact been incarcerated. The suspect, a 24 year-old man named James Carey, had been doing time for a crime that resonated with hatred and contempt for the police. After being stopped on a ped check, he had jumped and disarmed the officer who had stopped him, but the officer had managed to escape by jumping over a wall and ducking into the darkness. Ominously, Carey mailed the officer’s gun back to him a few days later with a note that read, “You got away this time, but not next time.” A fingerprint was lifted from the gun that identified Carey as the assailant. Although he was subsequently convicted, he received an amazingly short sentence and was released six months later. As subsequent investigation would disclose, the attack on the officer was not out of character for Carey—his life goal was to kill a cop. Tonight he would get another chance.
Officer Cuadras had planned out how he would respond long before the alarm call came in. During earlier briefings on the robberies the detectives had pointed out that the suspect usually left his car in nearby residential areas while committing the robberies. They recommended that officers respond to residential streets near the targeted restaurants and watch for him as he tried to leave the area. Cuadras turned onto the first street that led into the residential area behind the restaurant. As he doused his lights he immediately spotted a Monte Carlo up ahead. A shadowy figure was moving through the misty darkness toward the car and Cuadras instantly knew he had the right man. But he didn’t rush ahead; instead, he kept his distance to give the man a chance to get into the Monte Carlo and drive away. Cuadras’ instincts had been correct. The man entering the Monte Carlo was Carey, just moments away from the restaurant he had just robbed. He started the engine and pulled away from the curb, but he kept his lights off, apparently unaware of Cuadras’ presence behind him. Cuadras was too streetwise to try to stop an armed robbery suspect alone, intending only to follow Carey until he could get backup and make a high-risk stop.
Cuadras, cloaked in darkness, followed several car lengths behind his prey. Then, as they passed under a streetlight he saw Carey glance back at him in the rearview mirror. An instant later the Monte Carlo’s lights flicked on and it leapt forward, busting through a stop sign as it sped away. The aggressive young officer wasn’t surprised. He jammed the gas pedal to the floor, flipped on his roof lights and called in the pursuit.
The Monte Carlo made a hard right at the next intersection. Cuadras followed, only to be caught off guard by the sight of it stopped dead in the street. He braked hard and stopped short of the car, tense concern welling up in his chest. But then Carey pulled away again, this time very slowly. Cuadras was puzzled. It was obvious the man in front of him didn’t intend to give up, but this was hardly your typical pursuit. He concluded that Carey was just waiting for a better chance to make his escape. He called in his new location and waited for some sign that help was on the way, but it never came. The dispatcher didn’t acknowledge his call and there were no sirens wailing in the distance or other indication that he had been heard. Confused but not deterred, Cuadras continued to follow his slow-moving quarry.
Less than a block further on the Monte Carlo took off again. Cuadras gunned his engine to keep up and was closing the distance when Carey suddenly made another right turn. Cuadras followed him and again found Carey had stopped dead in the street. Cuadras braked to a stop just behind the Monte Carlo, now keenly aware of big trouble coming. He somehow sensed there would soon be a shootout and even visualized it happening. The thought brought tense fear, but Cuadras wasn’t one to let fear deter him. Determined to do whatever it would take to win, he braced himself for the attack and started planning a response. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was simple, direct and aggressive. As Carey started to pull away again, this time at an even slower speed than before—barely more than idle speed—Cuadras unsnapped his holster and tugged on his Smith & Wesson 9mm to make sure he could draw it quickly. Now sure of gun battle on Carey’s next stop, his plan was to immediately take cover in the V of his door, pull his gun and get ready to return fire.
Cuadras also knew this would be his last chance to let the dispatcher know his status and location. He grabbed the mic, made the transmission and focused on the threat developing before him. He didn’t have long to wait. He had barely hung up the mic when the Monte Carlo made a quick left turn and stopped abruptly—no brake lights this time—and its driver’s door flew open. Though startled, Cuadras was already on the move. He flung his door open and scooted quickly to his left, drawing the S&W as he went. Carey was already out of the Monte Carlo and moving fast. He spun toward Cuadras, a .45 in his right hand, and whipped the gun up into firing position.
With the appearance of the pistol, the scene shifted into dreamlike slow motion and Cuadras could see every detail of his adversary’s actions. Although this was unexpected and confusing, Cuadras felt like he now had plenty of time to think.
As if on autopilot, Cuadras thrust his gun up into the V of the door as two great balls of fire erupted from the muzzle of Carey’s .45. Cuadras was already returning fire, sending two slugs toward the chest of the now-charging Carey, who, with gun blazing, was quickly closing the short distance between the two vehicles. Oddly, the slow-motion scene was deathly silent—even the gunfire was muted—but the muzzle flashes from Carey’s gun lit up the night like cannon fire.
Though bewildered, Cuadras fought back unflinchingly. His quick initial actions had already saved him from two bullets. Carey’s first two rounds, apparently meant to take him out while he was still behind the wheel, had blown through the windshield and whizzed harmlessly through the space he had just vacated. But then things got worse. None of Cuadras’ shots were having any effect on his adversary. Without as much as a flinch, Carey kept firing as he advanced through Cuadras’ vigorous return fire.
One of Carey’s slugs sliced through Cuadras’ right bicep. Mercifully, it missed bone and went unnoticed by Cuadras for the time being. Carey’s next shot plowed into the rain gutter over the driver’s door and fragmented, sending a large chunk of lead crashing into the center of Cuadras’ forehead just above the hairline. It was a wound that could have been psychologically devastating to a less focused officer, but Cuadras didn’t even notice it until blood started flowing into his mouth from it. Everything seemed to be going wrong, but he stayed focused, held his ground and kept pulling the trigger.
Carey kept coming. He ran up to the driver’s door, jammed the big autoloader through the open window until it made contact with Cuadras’ upper body, and fired! Cuadras’ left shoulder exploded with pain as the slug tore through it at a downward angle and exited at the shoulder blade (Figure 1). Cuadras grimaced in pain but refused to worry about the wound. Carey was coming around the open door for another shot, again thrusting the .45 forward for a killing shot into Cuadras’ upper body. Cuadras twisted to his left, whipped his own gun up into firing position, and fired. At the same instant, excruciating pain seared through the hard fighting officer’s left elbow and his body involuntarily recoiled from the blow. He felt himself falling hard across the front seat.
Although unaware of it at the time, his bullet had also found bone and ligament. The round had crashed into Carey’s right elbow just before the man pulled the trigger, causing his right hand to flinch and his gun to jam. Without realizing it, Cuadras had just taken Carey’s gun out of the fight.
But Carey’s last round also had an unexpected, and potentially deadly, outcome. As Cuadras landed inside the patrol car, his right wrist slammed against the front edge of the seat, knocking the gun from his hand. It hit the floor, tumbled away and disappeared into the darkness under the dashboard. “Oh shit!” he thought. He felt naked and vulnerable, but determined to keep going.
Meanwhile, Carey dove to his right, rolled on the pavement, and jumped back up near the back of the patrol car. He stepped around to a point just behind the left taillight, slipped a fresh magazine into the .45 and pointed it at Cuadras (Figure 2). Inexplicably, he didn’t even try to clear the jam.
Cuadras knew how dangerous it is to do nothing when under attack, but he also knew Carey was waiting for him to move. Still unaware of the fact that Carey’s gun had jammed, he wisely believed that Carey would open fire again if he tried to dig for his own gun, back up his car to run over him or take any other aggressive action. On the other hand, he was a bloody mess, and he knew that he appeared to have taken several solid hits to vital organs, including the head.
After resolving not to let anything kill him, even if it meant taking additional hits, he decided to risk playing dead. He remained motionless and waited. A few moments later he felt the door, which had been resting against his left foot, come open. He mentally braced himself for the possible gunshots to follow, but they never came. After a wait of several long seconds, he felt his car start to ease forward. Without looking, he knew that Carey had driven away. (Cuadras hadn’t had time to shift into park before the shooting, and his car had crept forward until it had come to rest against the Monte Carlo’s rear bumper).
Cuadras stayed where he was for several moments longer. He was in great pain and knew he had suffered at least one head wound of an undetermined nature. These wounds gave him cause for concern, but then he thought about his children and how much they needed him. His next thought was the memory of his officer survival instructor at the academy. The instructor, a dedicated trainer with an imposing command presence and powerful teaching style, had insisted that mindset was the key to surviving any wound. Cuadras remembered him standing face-to-face with the recruits and growling, “The only cop who dies is the one that wants to die. If you want to live, you will live.” This thought spurred Cuadras into action.
Carey was getting away and he couldn’t let that happen. He took hold of the steering wheel with his good right hand, pulled himself up into the driver’s seat, spotted Carey’s Monte Carlo about four houses away, and went in pursuit.
Again Cuadras called for help, and again he got no response. He would later learn that the source of this dangerous and frustrating problem was an odd set of coincidences. The first time he called out the restaurant manager had tripped the alarm again, which overrode Cuadras’ transmission, and the next two transmissions were overridden by radio traffic from another responding officer, who had spotted and stopped another suspicious vehicle leaving the area at the same time. Then as a final twist, Cuadras had unknowingly hit the button on his radio when he fell across the front seat, locking out the police department frequency.
Although increasingly confused and frustrated by his unexplained inability to get help, Cuadras didn’t falter in his determination to apprehend Carey. The thought of the man trying to kill him angered him deeply, and it made him even angrier to think about what Carey might do to the next person who got in his way. A moment later he saw the Monte Carlo disappear while making a turn up ahead. He followed, but the Monte Carlo was gone. He scanned the area, looking deep into the wet darkness, and he spotted it in the middle of a muddy field. Carey had spun out while trying to make the turn and was now stuck in the mud.
Cuadras knew he would have to back off if Carey wanted another fight, so he lit up the Monte Carlo with his spotlight and kept his distance. Once again he tried to call in his location, but this time he was rewarded almost immediately by the sight of a patrol unit from a neighboring city in his rearview mirror. The other officer stopped, stepped from his vehicle and started to walk toward Carey’s car. It was obvious the officer didn’t know what was going on (as it turned out, he thought Carey was either drunk or had simply spun out on the wet pavement).
“Hold on!” Cuadras shouted, “That guy just shot me! He’s a holdup suspect.”
The startled officer immediately grasped the gravity of the situation. After drawing and taking cover behind his car, he waved Cuadras away. “Get outa here. I’ll take care of this,” he yelled, and then called for assistance on his walkie-talkie.
“I gotta get to the hospital,” Cuadras responded, and took off.
It was a long way to the hospital—about seven miles—but Cuadras stayed calm and focused. He kept telling himself he would be OK as long as he got to the hospital in one piece. The last thing he needed was to get into an accident, so he made a conscious effort to maintain a reasonable speed and be careful at every intersection. Though in great pain and bleeding heavily from his head wound, he focused on his driving and arrived at the hospital in good time.
The bullet to Cuadras’ head had caused only a flesh wound and none of the other wounds were life threatening either, but the elbow had been mangled. Full rehabilitation seemed hopeless and the doctors recommended that Cuadras take a medical pension. He refused. As determined as ever, he had the shattered elbow replaced with a plastic one, went through extensive rehabilitation and returned to full duty within nine months. About two years later he left the department to go to work for a larger neighboring department, where he recently retired as a patrol sergeant.
Carey’s arrest and its aftermath provided the final bizarre twist to this incident. Although effectively unarmed because of his jammed gun, Carey refused to go easily. After he refused to exit the car a nearby canine unit was called to the scene, and the dog was sent in. Carey fought the dog off and had to be dragged out of the car kicking and screaming. Still unwilling to submit, he fought back as the officers handcuffed him and then had to be forced into one of the awaiting patrol cars. While en route to the holdover he managed to kick out a window in the patrol car, and had to be subdued again. After his arrival at the holdover he was placed in a holding cell to calm down. When an officer returned to book him about ten minutes later he found the man lying across his bunk in awkward stillness. Closer examination quickly confirmed what the officer already knew—the would-be cop killer was dead. His coat and shirt were removed, disclosing the wound to his right elbow and, although it had bled little, a hole in the center of his chest. A subsequent autopsy revealed that one of Cuadras’ bullets had taken off the top of Carey’s aorta. It was a mortal wound that should have killed him within three minutes.
Discussion & Analysis
Despite his wounds, the extreme danger he faced and the loss of his firearm, Officer Cuadras kept going and did whatever he could to win. Even his decision to feign death was a calculated risk—bolstered by an unshakeable resolve to stay alive even if meant taking more hits—aimed at keeping him in the fight. Fighting back doesn’t always mean taking aggressive action against an opponent. Sometimes it entails making a tactical withdrawal so you can regroup, and on very rare occasions it may even mean feigning death. The key is to keep going, keep thinking, and do whatever it takes to persevere, even if it is means taking a calculated risk based upon extraordinary circumstances. Officer Cuadras, is to be commended for having wherewithal to make a tough choice and the courage to carry it out.
The following analysiswill address this point 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 Cuadras and all our other fellow officers to learn as much as we can from this incident. Before you read the analysis, however, please review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.
- Discuss Officer Cuadras’ mindset during the pursuit, and how it affected his perceptions of Carey’s intentions. What can be done to alleviate this problem?
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- Discuss the various tactical options for dealing with sudden stops, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Officer Cuadras was ready with plan when Carey stopped suddenly and came out of his car shooting. How important is it to plan ahead for possible threats? Why?
- Discuss the sensory distortions associated with lethal encounters and what can be done to deal with them.
- Why do officers tend to focus on their radios during deadly encounters? Is this a serious problem, and if so, what can be done about it?
- Was Officer Cuadras’ decision to feign death a good choice? Why?
- In what ways did Officer Cuadras’ attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset? Discuss his ability to stay in the fight and keep thinking in spite of his injuries. How can we prepare ourselves to win even when seriously wounded?
Like any other good officer, Officer Cuadras was observant, self-confident, aggressive and street wise. As a result, he immediately recognized Carey as the robbery suspect and took appropriate action. He also had the good sense to try to follow Carey instead of stopping him alone. During the ensuing pursuit, he picked up on the significance of Carey’s odd behavior, and listened to his instincts when they told him he was about to become involved in a gunfight.
On the other hand, like many aggressive young officers, Officer Cuadras also felt invincible. This and his earlier successes had conditioned him to believe that Carey would either submit to his authority, or run. This led him to assume that Carey was planning to run, not fight, during the first phase of the pursuit. Thus, it was not until the last few moments before the attack that he realized the extent of the danger. As it turned out he recognized it before it was too late, but not a moment too soon. This gave him barely enough time to plan and initiate a response. Fortunately, his cool-headed, aggressive nature enabled him to use this time to quickly initiate an aggressive counterattack. It is important to keep in mind, however, that he might not have been drawn into Carey’s trap if he had detected his intentions sooner.
This case provides a clear example of the need to temper confidence with caution. Confidence is an essential component of winning mindset, but we must also remember that we are not invincible. People like Carey are not like most criminals. They don’t intend to give up, and they won’t run. They kill without remorse, and they won’t hesitate to kill you if given the chance. Don’t make the mistake of misreading unusual or suspicious behavior as a prelude to flight. Instead, assume that it may signal danger and prepare yourself accordingly.
Carey’s erratic way of running from Officer Cuadras was actually an unconventional prelude to a very common tactic used against unsuspecting officers during traffic stops and pursuits. The offender stops suddenly, often after disappearing around a corner, thereby forcing the officer to brake to a stop behind him. While all of the officer’s attention and effort is focused on avoiding an accident the suspect jumps from his vehicle and opens fire, often while charging toward the officer like Carey did.
Carey’s reason for varying his speed during the pursuit remains a mystery (he may have been trying to decide what to do next, searching for the right spot to make his move, purposely trying to confuse Cuadras, etc.), but we can be sure that he didn’t get what he bargained for. Officer Cuadras was ready for him, and was able to initiate a counterattack that ultimately cost Carey his life. Still, although Officer Cuadras’ counterattack was very effective in many ways and notable for its boldness, it could have been even better. Its shortcoming was that it left him trapped in the hot zone where the only way to win was to outshoot his adversary. Fortunately, his aggressive return fire allowed him to defeat Carey, but other officers in similar situations may not be so lucky.
There are several options for countering this threat, but only if you are aware of it and ready with a plan. Most assailants who use this tactic do so after rounding a blind corner, so be especially cautious at such times. On the other hand, this is not always the case. It can happen any time, and it is especially effective when, like Carey, the driver is devious enough to bypass his brake lights by using the emergency brake. Keep your distance and be on your guard against this possibility, especially when following a suspicious vehicle, attempting to stop someone who fails to pull over right away, etc.
One variation of this tactic eliminates the sudden stop altogether. Instead, the attacker stops normally, but then immediately leaps from his vehicle and rushes the officer before the officer can react. Again, the key here is to be aware of this threat at all times, and have a tactical plan for dealing with it.
There are three basic tactics for responding to sudden stops from a more advantageous position than the center of the hot zone / without having to remain in the center of the hot zone. The best choice for any given situation will depend upon the circumstances, but all will enable you to catch your assailant off guard while simultaneously improving your tactical position
Exit the Hot Zone by immediately accelerating forward around the suspect’s vehicle. If there is room to get around the suspect vehicle, duck low in your seat and accelerate around it to a location several car lengths beyond. This maneuver will unexpectedly move you to a safer position, confuse your assailant, and make you a fast-moving target if he tries to shoot at you. After you are well past the suspect vehicle, stop your squad car with its front end angled sharply to the right. This allows you to exit your patrol car with its body between you and the suspect vehicle while also blocking the suspect’s most likely escape route. After exiting, move to the front of your unit to take advantage of the engine block for cover. From there you can keep a visual on the area, or return fire if necessary, from a position of relative safety while awaiting assistance. Of course, if good roadside cover is within easy reach, consider using it instead of your car. Roadside cover is often preferable, especially if you can get to it undetected, because the suspect will probably expect you to remain with your car and will direct his fire in that direction.
Run Down Your Attacker
Duck down in your seat, and run him down. This is often the best option, because it is so simple and direct and can be executed immediately. An automobile’s size, weight and speed make it a very effective weapon, and the sight of it hurtling straight at him will often force your assailant to stop shooting and jump out of the way. Even if he keeps shooting it should cause him to rush his shots with a significant loss in accuracy.
Back Out of the Hot Zone
Stop immediately, slide down as low as you can in your seat, drop the transmission into reverse, and back away as quickly as possible to a safer position. This may not be the best option, because it takes more time than the other two, it may be hard to find reverse under stress, and you may have traffic behind you to contend with. On the other hand, it has been used with great success in several cases, and it’s clearly preferable to staying where you are when circumstances prevent you from moving forward.
It is important to keep in mind that all three of these tactics can also be used any time you are attacked while seated in your car, as long as you get moving fast enough. One obstacle to quick movement is the time it takes to shift from park into drive or reverse. Even though it doesn’t take long, every millisecond counts in an ambush. It also requires some thought and coordination, both of which are in short supply when operating under great stress. To alleviate this problem, it is a good idea to get into the habit of leaving your transmission in drive, or putting it into reverse, after pulling up behind every motorist you stop. Leave it there for several moments while you scan for danger signs, and don’t shift into park until it appears safe to do so.
Of course, there may be times when it isn’t possible to improve your position before returning fire. When that happens, like Officer Cuadras you must face the threat head on and fight back from your vulnerable position at the center of the hot zone. In that case, again like Officer Cuadras, your response must be immediate and aggressive. Unfortunately however, you may not even have time to exit your cruiser before returning fire. In the tense, deadly milliseconds that often determine the outcome in a gunfight, your best option may be to save a precious second or two by drawing and firing from behind the wheel instead. This has been done to good effect by several officers in situations similar to Officer Cuadras’, but it requires skills that many officers have never developed. More training is needed.
Every officer should be trained to draw and fire while seated in a patrol car, not only because the skill may be needed during a traffic stop or other call, but because of the risk of an ambush. Ambushes are becoming increasingly more prevalent against police officers, and many occur while the victim officer is sitting in his patrol unit. In addition, police cars are getting smaller and their front seats more cluttered, making it harder to exit quickly, lay across the seat to get out of the line of fire, or escape out the passenger door. This safest way to train officers to draw and shoot from behind the wheel by using a junked vehicle equipped with discarded radios, MDTs, gun racks, plastic training shotguns, etc. Since there is an increased risk of an accidental discharge while drawing from behind the wheel, start with slow deliberate draws with inert plastic training guns and work up to full speed. Then graduate to AirSoft and/or SimunitionsTM and finally to live fire. One other concern related to this kind of training is the cost of destroying large numbers of new windshields, but donations of secondhand windshields can be solicited from local glass repair shops instead. Another option is to remove the windshield altogether and shoot through the empty opening.
Training is also needed in order to properly execute other sudden stop tactics discussed above. Awareness of the threat of being trapped in the hot zone is important (see next section), but awareness should be reinforced through the use mental imagery and, for maximum effectiveness, realistic training. To accomplish this with minimal risk of personal injury or damage to vehicles, the suspect vehicle can be simulated with four traffic cones, with a fifth cone used to simulate the attacker. For greater realism, innovative trainers may be able to rig up rolling cardboard targets on pull cords or other creative means to move the “suspect” out of the “car” and toward the officers. For backing out of the hot zone, officers can practice backing up at increasingly higher speeds while quick peeking over the backs of their seats, and, to add stress, cones can be set up for them to maneuver around.
Even without the benefit of any training regarding sudden stops, Officer Cuadras did a very good job of planning an impromptu response. Instead of freezing up or letting fear overwhelm him when he saw the attack coming, he simply accepted it and started to plan his counterattack. Unfortunately, his possibilities were limited by a lack of awareness of other options; but it is to his credit that he quickly identified the threat, immediately made a plan to deal with it, and then instantly implemented it as soon as he came to a stop. It may not have been an ideal plan, but it enabled him to do something, and doing something—even if it isn’t perfect—is far better than doing nothing. By planning ahead, he didn’t have to take the time to decide what to do once the bullets started to fly, which in turn enabled him to move into the V of the door and return fire more quickly. This quick return fire, though not as effective as he had hoped, may well have saved Cuadras’ life. Even though it didn’t appear to have any effect on the man at the time, the round to Carey’s chest may have disrupted his performance in an indiscernible, yet significant enough way to cause him to miss some shots that might otherwise have hit vital organs. It may also have been a factor in Carey’s decision to flee rather than continue the attack. Finally, the round that struck Carey’s right elbow caused his gun to jam, which kept him from shooting Cuadras again and probably contributed to his decision to leave as well.
Like many officers in similar circumstances, Officer Cuadras experienced sensory distortions during the shooting. The first of these was auditory exclusion, or the blocking of sound, which in this case included the sound of gunfire. In addition, he experienced heightened detail, especially with regard to the muzzle flashes from Carey’s gun.
Fortunately, Cuadras’ robust winning mindset kept him so focused on overcoming the threat that he wasn’t particularly distracted by these distortions. Still, they did cause him some confusion because, like many officers, he wasn’t aware of their prevalence in lethal encounters. In some cases officers can become so distracted by sensory distortions that it affects their performance, which can lead to fatal errors. Moreover, sensory distortions will sometimes make officers doubt their mental stability or even their sanity in the aftermath of the shooting. This can adversely affect their emotional recovery. To alleviate this problem officers should be made aware of the fact that these sensory distortions are likely to occur.
Officer Cuadras also experienced the shooting in slow motion. This is a very common phenomenon, and one that can be very distracting and confusing to officers who are not expecting it. Again, Officer Cuadras’ strong will kept him from being overly distracted by this time distortion, and even enabled him to use it to his advantage. Although surprised by it, he accepted and even welcomed it as an opportunity that gave him extra time to assess and respond to the threat. He was able to see every move Carey made in great detail and then decide how to deal with it. This is a very positive way to deal with this phenomenon, and officers who know that it can happen are more likely to react to it in a similarly positive way.
Use of Radio
Although Officer Cuadras was very frustrated by his inability to reach the dispatcher, he handled the problem very well. Rather than panicking or focusing on his efforts to correct the problem, he did the best he could to use the radio and then focused on the more important task of dealing with Carey. As important as it may be for summoning help, the radio should never keep you from focusing on your most important task—neutralizing the threat. Officer Cuadras instinctively knew this and focused his attention where it needed to be. It is also important to consider that it’s unlikely that backup would have arrived in time to help even if his radio had been working properly. Ultimately, winning the encounter is not the responsibility of others—it is yours. Don’t let the radio or anything else distract you from that goal.
The Marine Corps had taught Officer Cuadras to respond to any sudden attack by aggressively counterattacking, and that is exactly what he did. Although he was seriously wounded in the process his gutsy counterattack made him a winner. Normally, it is best to exit the hot zone immediately when under sudden attack, as long as you have the resources and time to do so, and then counterattack as needed. However, when this isn’t possible or practical, the next best option is to immediately initiate an aggressive counterattack. In most cases this will disable your assailant, drive him away or convince him to surrender. Besides, the only other alternative is to give up, and that’s not an option when your life is on the line.
Officer Cuadras was criticized by some of his fellow officers for feigning death, but could see no other reasonable option. He had lost his gun and was trapped inside his car. In addition, he had the presence of mind to consider the fact that he was covered in blood, most of it from an obvious head wound, which would make the ruse all the more convincing. Moreover, even if he could have retrieved his gun, he would have had to rise up to use it, which would probably have exposed his head to Carey’s gunfire. All things considered, he had to assume that Carey would renew the attack if he dared to move, whereas feigning death might prevent any further attacks. Finally, while considering the risks Officer Cuadras made up his mind that he wouldn’t die even if shot again. This remarkable attitude exemplifies the kind of mindset that will often overcome wounds that would otherwise be fatal.
Ordinarily, it is a fatal mistake to do nothing in the face of a lethal threat, but in a sense feigning death is in fact doing something. It is the use of deceit to avoid further wounds and, as in this case, to buy time so you can take further action later. Cuadras’ decision certainly entailed serious risks, but the alternative was worse. It was a calculated risk worth taking.
Officer Cuadras was not carrying a backup gun at the time of the shooting. Ordinarily it is very dangerous not to have a backup gun when an officer loses his duty weapon, but this case was far from ordinary. Since Carey decided to flee after his gun jammed, it didn’t make any difference. But Cuadras is convinced that he wouldn’t have tried to draw a backup gun even if he had been carrying one. At the time he believed that Carey’s .45 was still functional and as deadly as ever, and quite reasonably assumed that he would be shot again if Carey saw him make any movements.
On the other hand, if Carey had cleared his jam and opened fire on Cuadras again, Cuadras would have had to abandon his ruse and shoot back. In that case, it would have been much easier for him to draw a backup gun than to try to find his duty weapon. A backup gun would have at least given him a fighting chance, and, considering his dogged determination to persevere, that is probably all he would have needed to win the fight.
A backup gun would also have enabled Officer Cuadras to pursue Carey more safely after the shooting. His decision to chase Carey, although commendable for its courage and tenacity, was one that would have put him at great risk if Carey had been able to clear his weapon and initiate another attack. Even though Officer Cuadras didn’t intend to engage Carey in another gunfight, and planned only to follow him until help arrived, it was very risky for him to pursue while unarmed. A backup gun would have corrected this problem.
Officer Cuadras is well aware of these considerations, and streetwise enough to know that he may not be so lucky if he ever confronts a similar situation in the future. As a result, he now carries a backup gun without fail.
It is also important to consider that backup guns can offer a significant advantage when shooting from behind the wheel. When carried on the upper torso, (e.g., on the vest cover under the shirt or in a pouch on an external vest) it can be drawn with less interference than when drawing the duty gun. Unlike drawing from the duty holster, there is no seatbelt to get in the way, and no MDT, radio equipment, shotgun, patrol rifle, etc. While the steering wheel still presents a problem, it is far less to worry about than all the other obstacles just mentioned, and with a little practice it is an obstacle that can be overcome. Other carry positions for backup guns will also alleviate this problem to some extent, but the vest carrier is by far the best, as long as you rig your shirts so they will stay closed with VelcroTM instead if zippers or buttons. Sew two or three pieces of VelcroTM under the flap of the shirt between the second and fifth buttons. If the shirt closes with a zipper, simply leave the zipper down to about the fifth button, and let the VelcroTM hold the flap shut. This will eliminate the need to unzip the shirt before drawing. Button-down shirts require somewhat more effort, because you must remove the buttons first and then sew them back on over the button holes before installing the VelcroTM.
After the shooting, investigators learned that Carey’s main life goal was to go one-on-one with a police officer and kill him. This is not unusual for a cop killer. Although most people, including hardened criminals, will not use deadly force against a police officer, we can never know when we might cross paths with someone like James Carey. This harsh reality must never cause us to become overly cautious or indiscrete in the use of force, but we can’t afford to ignore it either. Accept it, and use it to renew your commitment to be prepared at all times.
Carey’s reaction to his wounds is also something to be considered. His chest wound should have killed him within three or four minutes, but his hatred of the police and the intensity of his focus kept him going for at least fifteen minutes longer. Incredibly, he also had the strength to put up a vigorous fight against a canine and several officers, and then to kick out one of the windows in a patrol car. We must always keep in mind that highly motivated and/or agitated people can display superhuman strength and endurance. Never assume that your firearm, or any other weapon for that matter, will have the desired effect. Always be ready to keep shooting, to keep doing whatever it takes until the threat has been eliminated.
Officer Cuadras displayed many of the characteristics common to officers who possess a strong winning attitude:
Appropriate Use of Fear
Instead of letting fear overwhelm him, he acknowledged it and then used it to focus on the need to plan and initiate an effective counterattack. Fear is an instinct meant to mobilize us into action when in danger, and when used in this way it becomes a powerful asset.
Appropriate Response to Pain
Officer Cuadras refused to let his painful wounds distract him, choosing instead to focus on winning. He was far from immune to the pain from his shoulder and elbow wounds (wounds that break bones tend to be much more painful than those that do not), but he didn’t dwell on it or let it frighten him. He acknowledged the wounds, and then continued to realistically assess the situation and do what he had to do to win. By contrast, an officer who dwells on his wounds may actually intensify their effects, sometimes to the point that a relatively minor wound can lead to shock or even death. Moreover, if you focus on your wounds, you may be distracted from your primary concern—your attacker—thereby leaving yourself vulnerable to further attacks.
Officer Cuadras thought about his family, and used those thoughts to bolster his winning attitude. Such thoughts create a powerful motivation to win and officers should use them to their advantage. Focus on your family or something else that his very important to you, and let these thoughts inspire you to keep fighting no matter what.
Officer Cuadras possessed a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Carey’s sudden attack didn’t faze him. Nor did the lack of communications, the fact that his bullets seemed to be completely ineffective, or the loss of his gun. Each time, he persisted, reevaluated, focused on the threat, reacted, and overcame. Even later while driving himself to the hospital, he kept thinking and planning. Realizing that an accident would substantially delay his arrival he made a conscious effort to slow down and use caution when approaching intersections. This kind of adaptability is crucial to winning mindset.
It appears that all these characteristics came more or less naturally to Officer Cuadras, but other factors came into play as well. His Marine Corps training and officer survival instructor had a lot to do with it. So did a lot of his other academy training, which gave him the skills and confidence needed to stay in the fight.
In addition, he had stumbled upon an informal kind of mental imagery without knowing anything about this important skill. Like many officers, he had dreamed about being involved in a lethal encounter and not being able to respond effectively to it (in this case, he was attacked with a knife but missed his adversary with every shot). After experiencing the dream two or three times, he decided to do something about it. He made up his mind to go back to sleep with the express purpose of having the dream again but with a different ending. Determined to win, he thought about how he would do it, and then willed himself to re-dream the dream as planned. He continued to have the dream after that but successfully re-dreamed it each time. He varied the endings, sometimes allowing himself to be wounded while fighting back, but he always won in the end.
This is what mental imagery is all about. After achieving a relaxed physical state, the participant imagines, in as realistic detail as possible, a lethal encounter and wins it. This instills the “experience” of overcoming an armed assault in the participant’s memory, which in turn gives him the confidence and mental strength needed to win the real thing. Even though the experience is a contrived one, the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between imagined experiences and real ones. This may appear to be a rather unconventional technique, but studies have shown that it is a potent learning tool. It is a very effective way to prepare for armed combat, as this case so aptly demonstrates.
➢ Don’t assume that unusual or suspicious behavior indicates a desire to flee; it may be a prelude to attack instead.
➢ Remain mentally and tactically prepared for the possibility of a sudden stop at all times during traffic stops and pursuits.
➢ Always have a plan.
➢ The various sensory distortions that sometimes occur during lethal encounters can be very distracting and confusing if you are not expecting them; so be ready for this possibility.
➢ Don’t let the radio distract you from dealing with your primary concern—the threat before you.
➢ Ordinarily it is best not to feign death, but in rare instances like this one it may be your only reasonable alternative.
➢ Always carry a backup gun.
➢ Stay focused on winning despite any fear, pain or anything else that might threaten to distract you from that goal.2
- Blum, L.N, Ph.D. (2000) Force Under Pressure: How Cops Live and Why They Die. Lantern Books, NY, NY. p. 68
- This article originally appeared the Jan/Feb 05 issue of The Police Marksman, and later as Chapter 7 of Brian’s book, Officer Down: Lessons from the Streets. The analysis was updated with new information for the new Police Marksman.
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 as well as in 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 police 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 only available for purchase on his website. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at www.we-training.com.
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