March/April 2014 Police Marksman
Focusing on the Hunt: The Bobby Smith Incident
By Brian McKenna
Description of Incident
Trooper Bobby Smith, a 33-year-old, 10-year veteran of the state police, was moving up fast on his quarry. The man in the red Pontiac had dared to run Smith’s checkpoint, and Smith was determined to stop him. Although Smith’s sole focus was on apprehending the fleeing motorist—a 38-year-old mentally disturbed man named Fred Anderson Jr.—Anderson had other plans. Having been addicted to LSD and other drugs since college, and suffering from the psychological consequences of his addictions, something had finally snapped and he was now obsessed with the idea of killing a cop. Dressed in fatigues and a military-style headband, he had a 12-gauge Remington Model 1100 shotgun lying across the front seat and had spray painted his license plates and inspection sticker in hopes of provoking an officer to pull him over. But the ploy wasn’t necessary—he had come across the state police checkpoint, which offered him several targets and an easy way to draw one of them into his trap.
Smith had no way of knowing this, of course, and he wasn’t giving Anderson’s motives much thought. As his powerful cruiser roared forward to close the gap with the Pontiac, he noticed Anderson leaning across the seat to his right, but didn’t give that much thought either. Neither did he notice the paint on the license plate. At this speed, with nothing but the lights from the two vehicles to illuminate the gloomy rural highway up ahead, he was concentrating on his driving. But driving was only part of the reason. As is often the case in police work, Smith’s competitive spirit had narrowed his focus down to just one goal—apprehending the suspect. Just last week a motorist had stopped his car along this same stretch of highway after a short chase, and then fled on foot across an open field. Though Smith—an outstanding athlete who made physical fitness a top priority—had easily caught the fleeing suspect, he was determined not be drawn into another foot chase.
Then without warning, the Pontiac’s brake lights glared and its nose dipped as it started skidding to a stop. There wasn’t time to stop before slamming into the rear of the car, or to think about anything except avoiding the accident. Braking hard, Smith swerved to the left and slid past the Pontiac. Things were happening very quickly now, and the motorist wasn’t wasting any time. Smith saw the Pontiac cut over onto the shoulder and its driver’s door swing open as he slid past. Then, glancing into his mirror to penetrate the gloom behind the car’s headlights, he could see a shadowy form starting to emerge from the driver’s seat.
Smith cut over onto the shoulder, braked to a stop a couple of car lengths in front of the Pontiac, slammed the transmission into Park, and threw the driver’s door open. As the door swung open, Smith thought back to his academy training. He had been warned against stopping in front of a motorist at night. This would blind you to the motorist’s actions while also lighting you up as a target, he had been told. Instead, he had been trained to continue on a little farther, turn around, and come back on the opposite shoulder while using his spotlight to illuminate the violator’s car. Smith remembered the warning and knew he should heed it, but the man had flagrantly shown contempt for the law by running the checkpoint and then nearly drawn him into a serious accident. Smith was determined not to let him get away.
But then, as he jumped out from behind the wheel and turned toward the Pontiac, the beams from the vehicle’s headlights bore deeply into his eyes. Instinctively, his left hand flew up in front of his face to defend his fragile vision. He knew he was a sitting duck. Out in the open, bathed in the headlight beams and facing an adversary concealed behind a blinding wall of light, he felt that his only option was to move.
I hope he’s running, Smith thought, as he moved rapidly forward and to his right in a wide arc away from the dangerous headlights. Then came raw fear. He had put himself at risk, he knew, but something told him it was much more than a risky mistake. Without thinking, he did what his training had hardwired him to do—he snatched his S&W .357 magnum from its holster and ordered the motorist not to move.
He kept moving, no longer completely blinded by the light but still unable to make out any detail in the darkness alongside the Pontiac. He had moved far out into the open traffic lanes, now at least 7 yards from his nearest cover at the front of his patrol car. Then, as his peripheral vision picked up the flashing lights of a backup unit rushing to his aid, he detected movement next to the Pontiac’s open driver’s door. “Don’t move!” he shouted as the revolver in his hand came up into firing position.
Suddenly, a new, more terrible light burst forth from the darkness next to the Pontiac, punctuated by the horrific boom of a shotgun. At the same instant, Smith’s knees buckled under him and he went down, landing first on his buttocks and then falling backward onto the hard pavement.
Am I hit, Smith wondered, or did I just stumble? There wasn’t time to worry about that now. Focusing instead on the only thing that really mattered—fighting back—he immediately came up off the pavement into a semi-sitting position, thrust his gun toward his assailant, and fired.
As the potent magnum bucked in his hand, Smith saw something as incredible as it was terrifying. As another ball of fire belched forth from Anderson’s gun, sending a blossoming cluster of tiny fireballs screaming toward him, he could see a large number of them scatter as if met by a powerful counterforce. In Smith’s mind there could be only one reasonable explanation for what he saw: It was the hollowpoint from his magnum blazing its way through the fiery mass on its way to its target.
The strange sight was the last thing Bobby Smith would ever see. He was hit full in the face by an irresistible force, knocking him onto his back again. There was no pain; just stars flashing wildly inside his head and the feel of the warm pavement under him.
And then came more gunfire. Smith felt no pain, no impact from bullets hitting his vulnerable body, but believed the bullets were meant for him and feared that one would soon find its mark. None did. Deputies Don McDuffey and Mike Parker had made sure of that. The two deputies, who had had been assisting at the checkpoint, had followed just moments behind Smith as he initiated the pursuit, and it was the lights from their unit that he had seen just before he came under fire. They had pulled in behind the Pontiac an instant later, bailed out, and immediately engaged Anderson.
Smith’s single round had struck Anderson in the right thigh and severed his femoral artery, but the man hadn’t gone down. Instead, he had quickly turned his shotgun on the deputies, only to be met by their gunfire. Deputy McDuffey, who had been driving, was in the best position for a clear shot, and he made the best of it. He fired all six rounds from his .38 revolver, striking Anderson four times in both legs. Parker, who was in a much less advantageous position on the other side of the patrol car, fired only once, and missed.
Before Parker could fire again, Anderson dropped the shotgun and fell back into the driver’s seat behind him. A moment later, he stood again, now unarmed. Parker ordered him to put his hands on the roof of the car. Slowly, the man turned toward the Pontiac, hands half raised; then tottered and slumped to the ground. Feebly, he reached for the shotgun lying nearby, but it was a wasted effort. Even if he had been able to reach the weapon, he wouldn’t have been able to use it. Unknown to him or any of the officers on the scene, it had jammed after his second shot.
Anderson had missed with his first round (his knees had buckled from the shock of the sudden attack; see Unexpected Physical Reactions section in the analysis for further), but his second had struck Trooper Smith solidly in the face and head. Fortunately, he had loaded the weapon with birdshot, and Smith’s raised gun and hands had absorbed a good portion of the blast. Nevertheless, the wound had been a devastating one, tearing the flesh from Smith’s upper face and scalp, peppering his eyes, and obliterating his eyesight forever. Although he recovered from the facial and head wounds within a relatively short period of time, the blindness destroyed his career, caused him agonizing emotional trauma, and shattered his marriage. Still, Bobby Smith is a man of strong character with a passion for helping others. After a long and difficult struggle, he eventually overcame these adversities to make a new life for himself as a lecturer, author, and counselor who counsels police officers suffering from job-related stresses.
Despite the efforts of the officers and paramedics on the scene to stem the flow of blood from his legs, Anderson died while en route to the hospital.
Discussion & Analysis
Trooper Smith frankly admits that he made the very common and deadly mistake of ignoring various danger signs. There were several reasons for this, but perhaps the most serious of them was the fact that his focus was on apprehending Anderson rather than his own safety. Like many officers in similar situations, he allowed his emotions to get in the way of safety, and it cost him dearly. It is an easy mistake to make if we are not prepared, but there are things we can do to avoid it.
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 Trooper Smith 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.
- Like many officers in dangerous situations, Trooper Smith missed or ignored some important danger signs. What were they? What can be done to avoid this pitfall?
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- Trooper Smith was intently focused on apprehending Anderson. How did this fact affect the outcome? What can be done to combat this problem?
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- In spite of the fact that his instincts and training told him it could be dangerous, Trooper Smith decided to stop in front of Anderson’s vehicle. How prevalent is this problem? What can be done to alleviate it?
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- By stopping suddenly in front of Trooper Smith, Anderson was able to draw him into an ambush. How prevalent is this tactic? Why is it so effective? What can be done to guard against this tactic?
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- Trooper Smith was put at a very dangerous tactical disadvantage when he was caught in the headlight beams from Anderson’s vehicle. How important is it to be knowledgeable about light and proficient in its use?
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- Trooper Smith had been well trained to shoot from the sitting position, to stay focused on his ability to overcome injuries if wounded, and to fight back no matter what. What effect might this have had on the outcome? What does this have to say about the importance of training?
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- In what ways did Trooper Smith’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset?
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Trooper Smith sensed that something was wrong as he braked to a stop in front of Anderson’s car, but he didn’t know why. Even though he wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, he had already detected a number of danger signs at the subconscious level. The first of these had been the fact that Anderson ran the checkpoint in the first place. People don’t usually run checkpoints unless they have something to hide. It may be something as minor as an expired driver’s license or as serious as a multiple homicide. Or, as in this case, it may be a ploy to draw an officer into an ambush. A more obvious danger sign was Anderson’s activity in the front seat as Smith was catching up to him. There is reason for concern anytime an occupant does anything that looks like he might be reaching for something, but it is especially worrisome when the driver is willing to risk an accident by reaching around while traveling at a high rate of speed. However, the most blatant danger sign came when Anderson slammed on the brakes and immediately started to exit his car as Smith drove past.
Another danger sign that was present, but that went unnoticed by Trooper Smith because of his focus on more immediate concerns, was Anderson’s obscured license plate. It is easy to overlook the significance of this violation because it is only a minor infraction, but it should not be dismissed casually. Instead, we should at least consider the fact that an obscured/obstructed plate may have been deliberately tampered with in order to conceal the identity of the vehicle’s owner during the commission of a dangerous crime or, as in this case, to prompt an officer to stop the vehicle in order to set him up for an ambush.
Return to Question 1
Focusing on the Hunt
In retrospect, it is obvious that Anderson was setting Trooper Smith up for an attack, but Smith didn’t have much time to assess the situation, nor did he have the luxury of hindsight. Nevertheless, Anderson’s actions were threatening enough to indicate a heightened likelihood of violence, and Smith knew it. He even thought about changing his approach but, like many officers in similar situations, he declined to do anything to deal with the threat.
Why is this kind of inaction in response to danger signs so common among police officers? In Trooper Smith’s case, it was largely due to misdirected focus. Aggressive, enforcement-oriented officers like Trooper Smith are especially prone to this problem. In their zeal to apprehend the offender, they become so focused on the task that they either fail to notice the danger signs or choose to ignore them. This is not to say that officers shouldn’t be aggressive about finding and arresting offenders, but that goal should never take priority over safety.
Similarly, officers often fail to take proper notice of danger signs because of anger, concern for others, or other strong emotions. Trooper Smith readily admits that he was angry at Anderson for running the checkpoint. This clouded his judgment to the point that he declined to change his approach even though he knew his current course of action was risky. To combat such emotions, we must make a conscious effort to keep them in check by always staying focused on safety as our first priority. One very effective way to accomplish it is to make a habit of always asking ourselves: “What is there about this situation that makes me vulnerable and what can I do about it?” “What can go wrong here and what will I do if it does?” Besides making us more aware of potential hazards and helping us plan ahead, this helps keep us from allowing our emotions to dominate our actions. The key is to continually ask these kinds of questions on every call we handle and every street contact we make, no matter how “routine” they may appear to be. Through repetition, this will eventually become a habit that will help keep our minds free of distracting emotions, open to new information, and adaptable to changing circumstances, all of which are vital to our safety. Once this “game” is ingrained as a firm habit, it is still best to continue “playing” it regularly at the conscious level, but even when you fail to do so, your subconscious mind should be habitually playing it without you being aware of it. This gives you a safety cushion for those times when you may not be at your best mentally
Return to Question 2
Trusting Your Instincts
Trooper Smith readily admits that he also failed to adequately trust his instincts. He realized that stopping in front of Anderson’s vehicle could be dangerous, but chose to set his suspicions aside in favor of quickly apprehending the man. What we need to remember is that our subconscious mind detects input from our environment in much greater volume and at much greater speed than the conscious mind, processes that information much more rapidly than the conscious brain, and then communicates its findings to us in raw emotions. An uneasy feeling is often our subconscious mind telling us that it noticed a potential danger that requires our attention. When that feeling is one of outright fear, it is probably an urgent alarm from the subconscious to let us know that it has detected a clear threat calling for immediate action. The true causes of the uneasiness or fear often cannot be consciously articulated at the time, but they are usually based upon actual danger cues nonetheless. So don’t blow them off. Acknowledge them, raise your awareness level, and immediately do something to improve your current situation; e.g., change your approach or position, take cover, retreat, etc. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything drastic, nor should fear or uneasiness ever be used as an excuse to apply unreasonable force, but we must adjust our approach accordingly. In this case, for example, Trooper Smith would have improved his situation if he had turned his squad car around and re-approached Anderson’s car from the front with his spotlight illuminated, as he had initially considered before quickly dismissing the idea. Another option would have been to retreat to the front of his squad car, and take cover until help arrived. Though not as safe as the former option, this simple tactic would have provided Trooper Smith with good cover from Anderson’s gunfire.
In all fairness to Trooper Smith, and to further reinforce this point, it is important to keep in mind that he did in fact go with his instincts just seconds later. As he headed back toward Anderson’s car, his instincts suddenly shifted into red alert. Perhaps it was a barely perceptible glint of light off the shotgun as Anderson stepped out of the car, a clank as the weapon banged against the open door, or the mere fact that Anderson had already exited the car but wasn’t running, as one might expect under the circumstances, but he knew he was in big trouble. There was no doubt in his mind that he was in danger, and he instantly did something about it. Without conscious thought, he drew his gun. Although this action failed to prevent Anderson’s attack, drawing his gun enabled him to effectively return fire just moments after it started.
Return to Question 3
Trooper Smith was drawn into a very dangerous and commonly used trap. Anderson suddenly slammed on his brakes as Smith pulled in behind him, which forced Smith to focus all his attention on avoiding a collision. There are several versions of this particular tactic. Sometimes, like Anderson, the assailant simply stops at some point while the officer is following behind him; sometimes he starts to pull over normally and then slams on his brakes; and sometimes he stops suddenly after rounding a corner, cresting a hill, or otherwise temporarily disappearing from view. The purpose of this tactic is to get the officer to stop directly behind the assailant, where he is extremely vulnerable as the assailant jumps from the car and rushes him. In some cases, the officer may collide with the suspect’s vehicle, thereby becoming disoriented and/or injured by the collision or even stunned by the airbag, making him even more vulnerable to attack.
Trooper Smith initially countered Anderson’s tactical plan by driving around Anderson’s car before stopping. This was a good move, but it only took care of part of the problem. Although it prevented a collision and kept Smith from having to stop behind Anderson’s car, it still left Smith in a precarious position. In fact, he had stopped directly in his assailant’s line of fire, was bathed in light, and was unable to see Anderson behind the headlights. Granted, Smith’s academy training had warned him against stopping in front of a motorist’s car to avoid being caught in the headlights, but he was unaware of the fact that sudden stops are commonly used to ambush officers. If he had been aware of this highly effective tactic, and fully drilled in how to deal with it, he would have had other options available to him:
First, as had been recommended during his academy training, he could have proceeded well past Anderson, turned his patrol car around, and approached the Pontiac from the front on the opposite shoulder while using his spotlight for greater illumination. Although this can be an effective option, it gives the suspect time to drive away, flee on foot, take cover and prepare to attack, or initiate any other action he wishes. In addition, this tactic exposes the driver’s side of the patrol car to the motorist’s gunfire. To alleviate this last problem, it is important to angle the patrol car sharply enough to the left to allow you to exit and take cover behind it without exposing yourself to danger any more than necessary.
Another alternative would have been to proceed well past Anderson to a safe location, and stay there instead of turning around. Once there, he could have angled his patrol car sharply to the right to shield him from gunfire as he exited and then took cover along its right side.
In some cases, however, there may be no alternative but to stop directly in front of the motorist. Traffic conditions, the terrain, a dead end street, or other circumstances may preclude you from proceeding well past him, or it may be that the need to prevent his escape is so great that you believe you have no choice. In such cases, it is especially important that you at least angle your car sharply to the right, and then take cover behind it instead of approaching the motorist on foot. This allows you to quickly get into position to monitor the suspect’s actions, and assess the situation from cover while awaiting backup. Also, keep in mind that the suspect may try to ram your patrol car in order to escape, so be ready to jump out of the way and go for other cover if that happens. Or, if there is good roadside cover close by, it may be safer to go there immediately, as roadside cover is often superior to the limited cover offered by a car body.
It is also important to point out that stopping in front of the suspect vehicle presents another possible serious hazard: If the backup officers deploy in standard high-risk stop positions to the rear of the suspect vehicle, your position in front puts you directly in their line of fire. Fortunately, there are several ways to alleviate this risk. One is to move your patrol car to a safer position as soon as backup arrives. Depending upon the circumstances, you may want to move across the street and cover the suspect/s from there, or drive back to a position behind the suspect vehicle to assist with standard high-risk procedures. Another option is to abandon your vehicle for roadside cover if you can get to it safely. Depending upon the terrain, lighting conditions, and other factors, you may also be able to make your way on foot to a position behind the suspect vehicle to assist from there. Lastly, if you must remain in front of the suspect, you can angle your car sharply to the right, move to the rear of your patrol car, and direct your backup officers to modified high-risk positions. The first backup officer (who will act as the contact officer) should stop well to the left of the suspect vehicle and about a half a car length behind it, while the second backup officer stops about two or three car lengths behind the suspect. This will allow you and the contact officer to triangulate your lines of fire on the driver’s side of the vehicle while the second backup officer covers the passenger side of the suspect vehicle from a distance that also keeps him out of your line of fire (see Illustration 2).
In some cases, it may not be possible to drive past the motorist after he stops suddenly. In that case, one option is to drop the transmission into Reverse and back out of danger. This technique takes more time than continuing forward and it may be hard to find the Reverse notch on the shift lever under stress, but it may be your only reasonable option, so it’s a good idea to practice it to a reasonable level of proficiency.
If the motorist is already out of the car and making his attack as you come to a stop, you can often run him down. Or, when all else fails, ram his car to slam it into him, and then back away as soon as possible. This latter option will probably deploy your airbag and may cause you some injury, but it will disrupt his plan of attack and will probably disable him. Moreover, the adverse effects on you will be minimized if you are ready both physically (another good reason to wear your seatbelt) and mentally for the collision. This is clearly an extreme measure, but it may be your only alternative, so think about it.
One last alternative is to immediately go on the offensive. Draw and fire, either after exiting your vehicle and taking cover behind the open door if you have time, or from behind the steering wheel if you don’t. Your adversary will be expecting you to be distracted into momentary inaction or panic, so your immediate and aggressive counterattack will probably catch him off guard while also enabling you to effectively return fire.1
The key here is to keep in mind that any sudden stop has a very high potential for violence. When a motorist stops suddenly, you must assume that it is probably a prelude to attack. What other reason would someone have for making such a dangerous move when an officer is following him? There may be another explanation, such as confusion or surprise on the part of the driver, but it is much more likely that he is setting the officer up for an ambush. Always anticipate this possibility anytime you are stopping a car, especially during pursuits and other known high-risk situations, and have a plan. This will keep you from being caught by surprise, and enable you to quickly respond with a highly effective countermeasure if necessary.
Return to Question 4
There can be no doubt that Trooper Smith was put at a severe disadvantage when he stopped in front of Anderson’s headlights. Although this fact dramatically demonstrates a hazard we must be careful to avoid, it also demonstrates the value of superior lighting in low-light situations. This is important, because superior Illumination is one of the few tactical advantages we possess in almost every low-light confrontation we face. We may be outgunned and/or outmanned, but adversaries rarely possess even a decent flashlight to put up against our high-intensity flashlights, spotlights and takedown lights. As long as we don’t negate this advantage through poor tactics, we can use this to our advantage. Therefore, it is important to understand and train to a high level of proficiency in the proper use of light. We must also remain constantly aware of the lighting conditions around us, possess a good grasp of the hazards to avoid, and watch for ways to use light to our advantage.
Return to Question 5
Training played a key role in the outcome of Trooper Smith’s shooting. As has already been mentioned, he had not been trained to expect sudden stops or to how to effectively respond to them. This is no surprise considering the fact that most officers and trainers were not aware of this hazard at the time. Even now, more than 20 years later, sudden stops are not a particularly well-known hazard and countermeasures for dealing with them are not often presented in training. This is unfortunate, because this tactic is very effective, deadly, and more prevalent than most of us realize. Trainers must make their officers aware of this threat and train them in how to deal with it.
On a more positive note, Trooper Smith had been trained to shoot from the sitting position. Consequently, he was able to quickly return accurate gunfire from the sitting position after falling to the ground. Unfortunately, this was the only shot he was able to make, but he still managed to strike Anderson’s femoral artery, thereby inflicting a serious, potentially mortal wound. It is also worth noting that, with the ever-improving firearms training over the past two decades, many of today’s officers would probably have fared better. If Trooper Smith had been trained in officer down drills to shoot while lying on his back, as is the case in many modern firearms training programs, he could have returned fire even sooner and without having to raise himself up to the sitting position. This would have enabled him to shoot before Anderson fired his second shot, and to make the shot from a position well below Anderson’s line of fire. Clearly, the value of firearms training geared to the realities of the street cannot be overemphasized.
Trooper Smith also received excellent training from his defensive tactics and officer safety instructor at the academy, Lt. Aubrey Futrell. Lt. Futrell had repeatedly emphasized the importance of persistence, of always fighting back no matter what. He had pushed the recruits hard both mentally and physically in order to develop in them the habit of persistence and mental toughness. This habit is a key element in winning lethal encounters. In addition, he had driven home the fact that gunshot wounds are rarely fatal, and that the human body can stand up to a tremendous amount of damage if one has the right attitude. He had told the recruits to fight to remain conscious if wounded, to focus on their ability to overcome their injuries, and to remain calm and in control no matter what happened. Moreover, Lt. Futrell had driven home his message with passion and confidence. In fact, when Trooper Smith was lying grievously wounded in the street, he remembered his old academy instructor’s positive message, and it gave him the strength and confidence to remain calm and in control in spite of his frightening injuries. Those of us who are officer safety instructors can play a pivotal role in equipping our trainees to overcome adversity and win against all odds. Trooper Smith’s experience should serve as an inspiration to be tireless in our efforts to provide the best possible training to our officers.
Return to Question 6
Unexpected Physical Reactions
Trooper Smith’s knees buckled in response to Anderson’s first shot. This is a natural reaction, similar to freezing up, that can sometimes occur when we are caught off guard by a highly stressful event, but Smith didn’t know that. Confused by his body’s unexpected response, he didn’t know if he had tripped, fallen, or been shot. Fortunately, like any true warrior, he didn’t let this distract him from fighting back, or else such a distraction could have led to debilitating confusion or even panic.
One of the best ways to guard against this threat is to maintain a high level of situational awareness. Since vigilance helps us detect attacks sooner, it can reduce the surprise they cause, which in turn helps reduce the severity of our physical responses to them. On the other hand, anything can happen on the street. No matter how vigilant we are, there can be no sure-fire guarantees that we won’t be caught by surprise. Therefore, it’s very important to be aware of the possibility of freezing up or collapsing so we won’t be overwhelmed if they happen. This will greatly improve your ability to push past them and focus instead on fighting back, as Trooper Smith did. Similarly, it is important to be aware that tunnel vision, slow or accelerated motion, distance distortions, selective hearing, auditory exclusion and other perceptual distortions are very likely to occur under extreme stress. Even though these phenomena may not be as debilitating as collapsing or freezing up, they can be very distracting, and thus dangerous, if we aren’t ready for them.
The shooting tore Trooper Smith’s world apart. The permanent loss of his sight was the most devastating result, but his career was also shattered forever. He had worked hard to become a state trooper, was deeply committed to the work, and took great pride in wearing the uniform. Coming to terms with that blow was almost as hard for him as dealing with his blindness. Then, to make matters worse, despite the exemplary support from his fellow troopers, the department abandoned him. Finally, his last hope of making a positive contribution to his beloved department was crushed when, even with the support of several high-level officers in the organization, the superintendent refused to give him a position as an instructor at the academy. This left him hopelessly severed from the career he loved so much. In addition, the pressure from his ordeal soon ruined his marriage, and made life overwhelmingly difficult for him. Before long, the despair drove him to the brink of suicide, but being the kind of man he is, he soon dismissed the idea when he thought about the grim effect it would have on his family.
Eventually, with the support of family and friends, faith in God and strength of character, Trooper Smith overcame these devastating hardships and turned them into something that would have a much greater impact on law enforcement than anything he could have ever anticipated. He used his ordeal as a learning experience, took what he had learned from it, and put these lessons to work helping others. He soon discovered a latent talent for public speaking, fueled by a passionate concern for his fellow officers, and has been using it for years now to speak to officers across the country about how to deal with the stress and emotional consequences of police work. Moreover, he earned his PhD in counseling/psychology, authored two books about the stresses and emotional trauma of police work, and founded the Foundation for Officers Recovering from Traumatic Events (FORTE), a nonprofit organization that provides treatment for officers suffering from emotional trauma. Trooper Smith’s story serves as an inspiring example of how to deal with adversity. When faced with tragedies, we can feel sorry for ourselves and allow them to destroy us emotionally, or we can follow his example and find ways to use our trials to benefit others.
What can be learned about the emotional trauma of the job from Trooper Smith’s experience? First, his attitude about shooting Anderson illustrates an often overlooked aspect of how we deal with the emotional aftermath of taking a life. Despite the fact that his bullet inflicted a wound that contributed to Anderson’s death, Trooper Smith felt no remorse about it. Contrary to what many officers think, this is not unusual. Some officers are deeply troubled by taking a life, but others feel little or no remorse at all. These feelings depend upon the circumstances, the officer’s personal belief system and personality, and other factors. Anything from extreme remorse to euphoria about coming out of the shooting alive is normal, and the extremity of the reaction should never be interpreted as a reflection of the officer’s moral character (Trooper Smith, for example, is a deeply religious person with very high morals, yet he justifiably felt no regrets). On the other hand, it is also very important to forgive the suspect regardless how strongly we feel about the incident. It’s easy to be angry with him for wounding you, forcing you to take his life, and/or creating the legal, family, social and other problems that often come with the use of deadly force, but you will never be able to move forward as long as you stay bogged down with anger and resentment. It is vital that you forgive him so you can get on with your life.
Similarly, if there is anyone else you feel is responsible for what happened, you must forgive him as well. This includes you. Often, officers feel compelled to pick these events apart, looking for what they could have done to improve the outcome. This can quickly lead to self blame and self doubt, which can be very counterproductive and emotionally destructive. Instead, we must accept the fact that we are only human, that we often have only limited or no control over what happens, and that the suspect is responsible for his own actions. Even if we believe there was something we could have done differently, in the final analysis, it was his decision to initiate violence, not ours. For our own good, we must forgive him for that, but we must also forgive ourselves for any doubts we may have about our role in the incident.
Forgiveness is also necessary when it comes to the other troubling aspects of police work. Trooper Smith points out that police officers often see themselves as martyrs, harboring anger and resentment toward others, including suspects, the legal system, spouses, administrators, etc. We are used to having the authority and power to control events, and when we encounter situations we cannot control, we tend to take it personally and feel like we are somehow a failure. As a result, we often turn our anger on others. In order to forgive ourselves and others, we must accept what happens, learn from it, and decide to make the best of it.
We must also acknowledge our feelings and talk about them with someone we trust. This is why it is so effective to participate in peer group counseling with other police officers who have been through similar situations. Peer counseling allows us to discover that others have feelings similar to ours, and gives us the opportunity to be honest with people we can trust with our emotions.
Our first and most important priority is to win the fight, but once the smoke clears, we must go on with our lives. We cannot allow emotional trauma to destroy what we fought so hard to preserve, and our loved ones also deserve better than that. We must take care of our mental health so we can continue to enjoy life and be a joy to the people we care about most. The traumatic events in Trooper Smith’s life, and his courageous response to them, have a lot to teach us about how we can accomplish this.
Despite the fact that Trooper Smith went down with Anderson’s first round, believed he may have received a debilitating wound, was caught out in the open with nowhere to go and only limited mobility, he stayed focused on fighting back. He didn’t hesitate, dwell on his vulnerability, or worry about his possible wounds, but immediately returned fire, delivering a mortal wound to his adversary. This kind of focus is a key attribute among winners. They don’t quit, they don’t worry about how bad off they happen to be or the odds against them, but focus solely on doing whatever they have to do in order to win.
Unfortunately, Anderson fired at the same instant with devastating effect, taking Smith out of the fight and changing his life forever. But even then he didn’t give in to his misfortune. It was a long, tough road, but he overcame every challenge life threw at him, kept his faith, made the best of things, and ultimately used his experiences to help others. Though not as dramatic as winning a gunfight, persisting over the long haul against a world that seems to be conspiring against you takes every bit as much courage, if not more. Trooper Smith’s story is an inspiring example of what it takes to be a true warrior long after the smoke clears.
Return to Question 7
- Make a habit of always making safety your first priority.
- Trust your instincts
- Always anticipate the possibility of a sudden stop on every traffic stop you make, and be ready to respond with appropriate countermeasures.
- Understand and train to proficiency in the proper use of light.
- Persistence and mental toughness are keys to winning lethal encounters. These are habits that can be developed by pushing yourself hard both mentally and physically during training.
- A high level of situational awareness will help reduce the likelihood and severity of unwanted physical responses to unexpected violence. It is also important to be aware that unwanted physical responses and perceptual distortions may occur under the stress of combat.
- Forgiveness is an essential ingredient in dealing with the emotional aftermath of a lethal encounter. It is very important to forgive the suspect, yourself, and anyone else you believe to be responsible for the incident or its outcome.
- When under attack, stay focused on winning, regardless how bad things may appear to be. Keep fighting, no matter what.
- Fortunately, more and more law enforcement agencies are now training their officers to shoot from behind the wheel. This is a wise move, not only because of the frequency of sudden stop attacks during traffic stops and pursuits, but because of the alarming rise in ambushes against police officers, many of which are initiated against unsuspecting officers while they are seated in their patrol units. See “Officer Down: Fighting Back; The Herb Cuadras Incident” in the Nov/Dec, 2013 issue of The Police Marksman for a brief discussion of how to conduct this kind of training.
- This article originally appeared the March/April 2007 issue of The Police Marksman. The analysis has been updated with new information for the new Police Marksman
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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 and 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 website at www.we-training.com