Description of Incident
The headlights of the 4X4 pickup truck behind him filled his rearview mirror as Deputy Josh Shemenski, a 27-year-old, four-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, tried to locate 7825 Hickory Mill Court. Shemenski, his girlfriend Amber beside him as a ride-along, couldn’t help being annoyed by the big pickup riding his bumper, but he was also uneasily curious about why someone would tailgate a marked squad car down a deserted residential street in the middle of the night. He was en route to an unknown disturbance call in a remote gated community located in a sector of the county he seldom patrolled. He wasn’t exactly sure where Hickory Mill Court intersected the road ahead of him or how much farther he would have to go once he found it. The tailgating pickup truck was an added distraction he didn’t need right now, but it would be unsafe to ignore it. He kept a wary eye on the vehicle as he continued to look for the intersection.
He didn’t have to go far. There was an intersecting street up ahead on his right and as he drew closer, his headlights illuminated the name “Hickory Mill” on its street sign. As Shemenski made the turn, the pickup followed, its grille and headlights engulfing his rearview mirror in glittering chrome and bright light. Shemenski kept going, not knowing where the road ended and still naggingly distracted by the pickup. The road made a sweeping curve to the right into what Shemenski believed to be the beginning of a straightaway eventually leading to a cul-de-sac beyond. But he was dividing his attention between the road ahead and the pickup behind, and as he came out of the curve, he was surprised to see that the road ended abruptly at the cul-de-sac. At almost the same instant, he spotted a group of people arguing in the front yard of a house on the far left side of the cul-de-sac.
Suddenly, the shadowy figure of a man carrying a long dark object broke away from the small crowd and ran from left to right, apparently heading for the other side of the court. As the man came into the beams of the patrol car’s headlights, Shemenski could clearly see the object he was carrying. It was a long gun, its chunky form immediately identifying it as a shotgun. The man stopped and started to pivot toward Shemenski’s cruiser, swinging the deadly muzzle of the shotgun up into firing position as he turned.
“Here we go again!” Shemenski thought.
The suddenly deadly confrontation was ominously reminiscent of another shooting he had been involved in just 18 months earlier (see “Officer Down: Vehicle Ambush!” in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of The Police Marksman) and his response was the same. Without conscious thought, he drew his .40 caliber Glock and thrust it into firing position with his forearm resting against the steering wheel and the gun’s muzzle nearly touching the windshield. The draw had been flawless and lightning fast, but the shotgun was already pointing directly at him. Shemenski fired two quick shots through the windshield, filling the cruiser with blasts of light and sound as the slugs crashed through the windshield on their way toward their target. Instantly, the man threw his hands into the air, sending the shotgun flying as he fell to the ground. The shotgun landed at his feet a split second later, but he didn’t make any effort to reach for it.
The man now lying still and silent in the yard was a 26-year-old veteran with no prior arrests named Michael Rusk. The unknown disturbance that led to the shooting had been a family related incident in which Rusk had told family members he intended to commit suicide. By sheer coincidence, he had grabbed the shotgun and run away just as Shemenski entered the cul-de-sac, apparently with the intent to shoot himself.
Shemenski didn’t know all this of course, but with Rusk down and apparently out of the fight, he slammed the gear shift lever into reverse and sped backward to the mouth of the cul-de-sac just as the pickup truck roared past him on his left. As Shemenski jumped from his cruiser, the pickup came to a hard stop just yards from Rusk, who was now rising to his feet. Shemenski kept advancing, moving over to the right of the pickup truck with most of his attention still focused on the man who had just tried to kill him. To Shemenski’s relief, Rusk’s hands were empty and hanging loosely at his sides, but the deputy now had the truck on his left to worry about. Then things got more complicated and dangerous. An older man on his hands and knees suddenly came into view from in front of the pickup, scurried over to the shotgun laying in the yard, and picked it up!
Shemenski instantly dropped the muzzle of the Glock down toward this new target as his finger slipped into the trigger guard. But just as the deputy’s mind started to tell him it was time to pull the trigger, the older man threw the shotgun into the air. Inexplicably, the weapon flew end-over-end for several yards before landing muzzle down and becoming stuck straight up in the ground.
“Stay right where you are and don’t move!” Shemenski commanded, and then turned back toward Michael Rusk, who was still standing with his hands limp at his sides.
“Get your hands up!” he shouted.
Rusk just looked at him. Shemenski repeated the command, “I said, ‘Get your hands up!’”
With a casualness that bordered on boredom, Rusk slowly lifted his hands into the air. The man no longer appeared to be a direct threat, but he was just a couple of seconds away from the shotgun and Shemenski knew there would only be one way to stop him if he made a dash for it. He hated the idea of shooting anyone in the back, but he felt he would have no other choice. To make matters worse, he realized he had inadvertently gotten too close to the man. With only about 10 feet separating them, he was acutely aware that he wouldn’t have time to secure his Glock in his holster if Rusk suddenly rushed him. If Rusk had any sense at all, he would realize Shemenski’s vulnerability to a disarming, and for Shemenski to assume otherwise would be dangerously foolish. Despite his concerns about the probable legal consequences of shooting any unarmed man, he feared he would be forced to shoot. Still, his only other alternative would be to put himself at grave risk of being disarmed. It was a tough position to be in.
“Get down on the ground!” Shemenski shouted.
Rusk just stood there without saying a word, apparently oblivious to Shemenski’s command.
“Get down on your belly!” Shemenski repeated, “Do it now!”
Though not openly hostile, Rusk didn’t seem to be taking the situation very seriously. Half-heartedly, he sluggishly lowered himself to the ground, but then sat down, drew his knees up toward his chest, and rested his forearms across them.
“Prone out, damn it!” Shemenski commanded again, “Get down on your stomach.”
Again, Rusk only half complied. Slowly, he leaned back onto the ground and then spread his arms out to his sides as if on a cross. But Shemenski persisted and after several more commands, the man finally rolled over onto his stomach.
With his adversary now under a reasonable degree of control, Shemenski tried to call for backup before approaching him, but he couldn’t get through to the dispatcher on his portable radio. Frustrated, he moved forward, cuffed the man, patted him down for weapons, and checked him for wounds. “Are you hit anywhere?” he asked.
“No. I don’t think so,” Rusk answered in an apathetic tone of voice.
“Any injuries at all?”
“Nope. I’m fine.”
“What the hell were you thinking? Why’d you do it?”
“Just drunk, I guess,” Rusk answered in a voice absent of any hint of hostility or regret, “I wanted to die.”
Shemenski later determined that the older man in the pickup truck was Rusk’s father. He had been summoned to the scene to by his son’s family to help calm him, and had fallen in behind Shemenski’s cruiser by sheer coincidence. Later, when he witnessed the shooting, he had understandably believed that his son had been shot and feared Shemenski would shoot him again if he reached for the shotgun. Reacting out of fear for his son’s life that overrode his good sense, he had thoughtlessly intervened to disarm him. It had nearly gotten him shot, but the instinct to protect our children can trump even our survival instinct.
Rusk was later convicted of brandishing a firearm and assaulting an officer, and given a suspended sentence with five years’ probation.
Several months after the shooting, Deputy Shemenski stopped Rusk for a minor traffic violation. Though Shemenski didn’t recognize the man at first, Rusk immediately recognized him and struck up a cordial conversation in which he said he was an Iraqi war veteran suffering from PTSD. He confirmed that he had intended to commit suicide that night, and indicated that he fully understood why Shemenski had fired at him. When Shemenski asked him why he had gone down so hard despite not having taken any rounds, he explained that that he had felt a bullet whiz past his head, jerked back out of the way and lost his balance. Shemenski’s near miss had been a lucky break for both him and Rusk. Rusk had been saved from taking his own life, and Shemenski had been saved from the pain of having to take the life of a veteran suffering from an unfortunate consequence of his service to his country.
DISCUSSION & ANALYSIS
What is especially remarkable about this shooting is the fact that it was the second time Deputy Shemenski had been compelled to shoot through his windshield (see “Officer Down: Vehicle Ambush!” in our Jul/Aug 2014 issue). Few officers are ever put into that position, yet it happened to Shemenski twice in 18 months. This once again proves that anything can happen in police work, and dramatically highlights the importance of practicing this vital shooting technique. However, the topic of shooting through windshields was already discussed in detail in our analysis of Deputy Shemenski’s first shooting. Therefore, we will use this opportunity to examine another crucial learning point related to this case—the importance of mental flexibility, especially as it pertains to making ambiguous deadly-force decisions under stress. It’s often hard enough to make correct use-of-force decisions in the heat of a violent encounter, but it’s even tougher when the circumstances suddenly change. And when the changing circumstances demand a quick life-or-death decision about an ambiguous deadly-force encounter, our mental flexibility can be stressed to the limit of human capabilities. Therefore, it is very important to do as much as we can to improve our mental flexibility.
The following analysis will address this point in greater detail, as well as a number of other crucial lessons from this incident—lessons that can save lives. Before you read the analysis, however, please review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.
- Deputy Shemenski was distracted as he approached and arrived on the scene of the disturbance. How can such distractions affect officer safety? What can be done to alleviate this problem?
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- A vehicle following close behind an officer is suspicious enough to raise some serious concerns, especially when there is little or no other traffic in the area. What options are there for dealing with this problem?
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- Deputy Shemenski had experienced another shooting 18 months earlier that was very similar to this one. In what ways might that earlier incident have affected the way he responded to this one?
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- Mr. Rusk put himself at grave risk by grabbing his son’s shotgun, but fortunately Shemenski was mentally flexible enough to withhold fire, thereby preventing a tragedy. How important is mental flexibility to our safety and the safety of others? What can we do to improve our mental flexibility?
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- When he suddenly realized how vulnerable he would be if Rusk tried to grab the shotgun or decided to charge him, Deputy Shemenski had to make a quick decision about how he would respond if either of these two ambiguous threats materialized. What can we do to improve our chances of making the right decision in this kind of difficult use-of-force situation?
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- In what ways did Deputy Shemenski’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset and warrior spirit?
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Distractions and Focus
As in his first shooting, Deputy Shemenski was caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a man wielding a shotgun as he arrived on the scene, though not to as great an extent and for different reasons. In the first shooting, he had fallen into the common trap of focusing so much on apprehending a fleeing offender that he was distracted from thinking about officer safety, but this time he was distracted by two separate matters, neither of which is very common to police work. The first was the more common of the two—he was having trouble finding his destination. Since he didn’t patrol that particular beat very often and had seldom responded to any calls in that particular subdivision, he wasn’t as sure of where he was going as he would otherwise have been. Then, as he drove down the unfamiliar streets trying to determine exactly where to make his next turn, he was further sidetracked by a much less common distraction—the pickup truck riding his bumper. With his attention now split between these two distractions, he came out of the curve to suddenly find the disturbance rapidly unfolding into an armed confrontation directly in front of him. It took a few milliseconds for his brain to make sense out of all that was happening, and by then it was too late to weigh his various options before engaging Rusk.
While things like confusion about the exact location of a call or a tailgater may not appear to be especially relevant to your safety upon arrival on the scene, this case shows how dangerous any distraction can be. Focus is essential to proper mental preparation and threat assessment, and even a minor distraction can lead to surprise, a missed danger sign, hesitation, or other dangerous delay in responding to an attack. Fortunately, Deputy Shemenski was sharp enough to overcome these distractions and aggressively counterattack before Rusk could open fire, but there is a lesson here for all of us: Always do your best to eliminate distractions and stay focused on safety as your first priority. Psych yourself up to be ready for anything, no matter how routine the situation may appear to be.
Deputy Shemenski’s lack of familiarity with the subdivision also highlights the importance of becoming familiar with not only your own beat, but every other beat you may be required to patrol. This is particularly difficult to do in agencies like sheriff’s departments in large rural counties with too few patrol deputies to provide adequate coverage. Deputies in these venues are often assigned to cover beats other than their own, and the beats often cover expansive areas with numerous remote locations that are seldom patrolled. While it may not always be possible to become thoroughly familiar with every street and location in the county, it is important to become as familiar with them as possible. In addition, GPS—or detailed up-to-date maps where GPS isn’t available—should be used any time there is any doubt about the location of a call. The time saved by not having to stop to get your bearings will usually more than make up for the time spent entering the address into the GPS or locating it on a map. More importantly, it will enable you to focus all your attention on your approach and arrival on the scene.
Return to Question 1
Deputy Shemenski’s arrival on the scene was made more dangerous by a lack of information about what was happening there. If the call had been dispatched as a domestic rather than general disturbance, or if Deputy Shemenski had found out that it was by asking for more information, he probably would have responded to the scene more slowly and with his headlights off for a lower profile approach. This would have enabled him to gather more information, and probably to spot Rusk with the shotgun, before being drawn into the midst of the dangerously escalating situation.
Information is power. The more you have, the better you can assess the possible danger and plan your response accordingly. Whenever possible, the time to start gathering information is before you arrive on the scene and the dispatcher is usually the key to doing so. Unfortunately, most departments put a low priority on training dispatchers for their key role in officer safety, and many put too little emphasis on officer safety when developing dispatching procedures. Dispatching isn’t an easy job, and we can’t expect our dispatchers to do it well without adequate procedures and training. Officer safety and the safety of the public should be the top priority. On the other hand, our safety and the safety of those we serve is ultimately our responsibility. Don’t hesitate to ask the dispatcher for more information if you need it.
Vehicle Following an Officer
Fortunately, Mr. Rusk had no hostile intensions toward Deputy Shemenski, but his actions in following the deputy highlight something that should be of concern to us all. A vehicle following close behind an officer is suspicious enough to raise some serious concerns, especially when there is little or no other traffic in the area. The driver could prove to be someone following the officer by pure coincidence, or as in this case, someone heading to the same location as the officer with benign intentions. But he could also be someone intending to interfere with the officer, a predator with a grudge against cops looking for a fight, or even a terrorist following the officer into an awaiting ambush.
Absent any overt danger signs, this kind of situation doesn’t necessarily call for a high-profile response, but it does require a response of some kind. If nothing else, it should raise your awareness level and prompt you to carefully scan for additional danger signs. Beyond that, the following options should be considered in light of the particular circumstances:
• Call for backup to stop the vehicle. This isn’t always possible, especially in remote areas, and it may also be inadvisable when you are en route to a call that cannot be delayed. However, when possible, it is generally the safest option.
• Stop and let the vehicle pass, and then stop it if the circumstances will allow. This is the simplest solution, but it also has the serious shortcoming of making you vulnerable to gunfire from the vehicle as it passes. Therefore, it is best done when you can turn into a parking lot, driveway or side street first, and then stay low in your seat with your foot on the brake and transmission still in gear as the vehicle passes. This will make you a smaller target and enable you to immediately accelerate and maneuver out of the hot zone if you come under fire. It also requires some thoughtful preplanning and a careful choice of where to pull over.
• Speed up and see if the motorist continues to follow. If so, try to pull farther ahead of him and then find a parking lot, intersection or other wide spot in the road where you can suddenly turn around, exit your cruiser, and confront him from behind cover. In most cases, this will call for confronting the motorist at gunpoint, but in some situations, taking cover with your gun at your side may suffice. Also, consider using roadside cover if possible to guard against being struck if the motorist tries to run you down or crash into your vehicle. In addition, many roadside objects are superior to car bodies as cover. Again, preplanning and careful selection of the pull-over spot are essential here.
Return to Question 2
As was the case in his earlier shooting, Deputy Shemenski immediately responded to Rusk’s attack with an aggressive counterattack, but more quickly and with greater accuracy than before. While other factors probably contributed to his success, his experience in the first attack deserves a good deal of the credit. Our subconscious mind largely controls our response to danger, at least initially, and it is uniquely suited to that task because it detects, processes, and acts on visual and other input much more quickly than the conscious mind does. It takes in an incredible amount of data, sorts through it, assesses it, and then decides how to respond to it, all at lightning speed. The reason it can do this so quickly is because it doesn’t take the time to mull over all the data and carefully consider various options before making a decision like the conscious mind does. Instead, it searches through its memory banks at hyper-speed, finds the memory of a previous event that is very similar to the one currently confronting it, and uses that event as a pattern for its response.
If it can’t find the memory of an appropriate event to use as a guide, it either reverts to its instincts or hesitates while trying to figure out what to do next. In Shemenski’s case, however, his earlier shooting provided his subconscious mind with a highly appropriate memory of a very similar threat and an effective means for countering it. The result was an incredibly short lag time, followed by a remarkably smooth and rapid draw from behind the wheel, and—though not accurate enough to score a hit—far more accurate gunfire than before.
Since the vast majority of officers are never involved in even one shooting, let alone two that are as similar to one another as Shemenski’s, we can’t count on real-life experience to provide us with the memories we need to deal with every threat we may encounter on the street. Fortunately, our amazing brains also have an answer to that problem: As illogical as it may sound, the subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between the memory of a real event and one that is simulated. Nor does it know the difference between the memory of a real event and one that is only imagined. Therefore, our memory files don’t have to be filled with memories of real-life experiences in order to be effective in preparing us for real-life threats. We can use imagined or simulated events to create the memories instead. That’s why realistic mental imagery exercises and scenario-based training are such outstanding ways to train for real-life lethal encounters.
Moreover, our subconscious minds don’t have to find a memory of a past incident that parallels a current threat exactly in order to come up with an effective way to deal with it. As can be seen from facts in this case, the closer the memory parallels the current threat the better, but it doesn’t have to be an exact match. Also, the larger the number of similar memories on file—whether based upon real, imagined or simulated past events—the greater becomes the brain’s ability to quickly recognize, assess and respond to an ever wider variety of similar threats. Thus, the more we use mental imagery and participate in scenario-based training, the shorter becomes our reaction time and the better we become at responding to dangerous situations. Take advantage of as much scenario-based training as you can and use mental imagery to gain further “experience” in responding to violent encounters.
Return to Question 3
Though it is easy to understand why Rusk’s father intervened in the shooting, there can be no question that it was a very dangerous thing to do. Fortunately, he didn’t add to his mistake by holding onto the shotgun too long or moving its muzzle toward Deputy Shemenski, but his actions nevertheless put him at great risk. Shemenski was already under a lot of pressure as he approached Michael Rusk, and Mr. Rusk’s sudden appearance out of the corner of his eye startled and confused him. Then, before Shemenski could fully comprehend what was going on, Mr. Rusk picked up the shotgun. It was a dangerous action that could have led to tragedy. If Mr. Rusk had hesitated before pitching the shotgun, for instance, Shemenski might have finished telling himself to pull the trigger before he realized what was actually happening. In that case, there wouldn’t have been time to change his mind and then stop his trigger pull before he shot Mr. Rusk. It takes time to detect changes in circumstances, decide what to do about them, and then change our actions accordingly. It may not take more than a few milliseconds, but milliseconds mean everything in a gunfight. When milliseconds count so much and things are changing fast, mental flexibility can make the difference between life and death. Nevertheless, people under stress sometimes do reckless things that appear threatening to us, and there is seldom anything we can do to prevent it. But there is something we can do to improve our chances of making the right decision when that happens—we can take action to improve our mental flexibility:
Mental Flexibility Training
Like any other skill, mental flexibility can be significantly improved with practice. Because of its realism and capacity to produce stress in trainees, scenario-based training that throws crucial unexpected changes into the mix is the best tool for developing this vital mental skill. However, it is very important to construct the scenarios in a way that doesn’t discourage the trainees. This is not to say that every scenario should be easy or that no trainee should ever be allowed to fail a scenario. To the contrary, training needs to be challenging, and failure can be a valuable learning experience that highlights mistakes and emphasizes the need to improve. But the ultimate goal should be to create a learning experience that enables every trainee to leave with a positive attitude and increased confidence. The key is to make the scenarios increasingly more challenging, offer constructive feedback, and, as much as possible, gear the pace to each individual trainee.
It is also important to construct scenarios that do more than just test the trainees’ observation skills. While it is necessary to present scenarios that require the trainees to distinguish between a gun and a cell phone, for example, more advanced scenarios should require trainees to identify and respond appropriately to pre-assault indicators, behavioral characteristics of armed individuals, and the body mechanics associated with threatening and non-threatening behaviors, like differentiating between how the hand is held when reaching for a gun as opposed to reaching for a wallet. Since these cues often precede the actual observation of the assailant’s weapon, an officer who accurately identifies them will have more time to make a decision, which improves his chances of making the right one.
Mental imagery can be used in lieu of scenario-based training if necessary, but only to a limited degree. This is because there is no way to create unexpected changes in a mental imagery exercise. Nevertheless, it is possible to consider various key crucial decisions before they occur on the street. For example, imagine the circumstances in which you would have to make the transition from your firearm to your baton, or from your ECD to your firearm, or in which it would be inadvisable to shoot someone holding a gun. Consider the body language associated with handling a firearm with the intent to shoot someone in contrast to body language associated with the intent not to shoot. Think not only about pre-assault indicators, but also about indicators that someone is calming down. Think about these matters, and then use mental imagery to place yourself into scenarios in which you have to deal with them. While not as effective as scenario-based training, mental imagery can supplement it, and can also be used as a reasonable alternative to it when it isn’t otherwise available.
Mental flexibility can also be enhanced by improving your observation skills. Even though we like to think of ourselves as trained observers, the truth is that few of us have ever been taught how to be better observers. Such training has traditionally been severely lacking or non-existent in law enforcement, but that has been changing in recent years. Training is now available that expands the ability to see and accurately process more of our surroundings, even when engaged in focused activities like approaching a downed assailant. Although the eyes capture images of everything within their field of view just as a camera does with everything in its viewfinder, they don’t actually see anything. Rather, the images are sent to the brain, which then interprets them. However, since the brain can only process a small amount of visual input at a time, it misses much of what the eyes pick up, especially when focused on something that it perceives as very important.
To overcome this problem, the aforementioned training consists of a series of various visual exercises that train the brain to process more of this visual input, and to do it with greater recall and clarity. Originally developed in World War II to train combat pilots to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft, these exercises have recently been adopted and modified for use by law enforcement. Since then, they have proven to be very effective in increasing the ability to perceive and process visual input, thereby improving threat identification and mental flexibility. However, since the skills thus developed are perishable ones, significant long-term retention of them requires a commitment to practice the exercises frequently (at least twice a week for no less than 15 minutes per session) for several months, and then to continue with regular maintenance exercises thereafter. Nevertheless, the benefits can be very impressive. Officers who are committed to keeping themselves and others safe will do well to take the training (available through Observation On Demand, LLC and Snipercraft, Inc. ) and follow through with the required practice.
Stress clouds thinking, inhibits good decision making, and can lead to rigid thinking and mental tunnel vision. That being the case, one of the best ways to improve mental flexibility is to reduce stress, and one of the best ways to reduce stress is with combat breathing (see Sidebar 2). Combat breathing requires concentration and is best learned while seated or reclining in a quiet, low-light environment. But it doesn’t take much practice to master it, and once mastered, it can be done anywhere with little effort, including while responding to potentially dangerous situations or any time you feel uneasy or anxious during a call or street contact. Just three breathing cycles will release stress, clear thinking, and improve observation skills, and even one or two cycles will help calm you when there isn’t time for three.
More important, however, is the fact that combat breathing can be made into a habit that will enable you to use it in a wide variety of situations with little conscious effort. Simply choose a trigger word seldom used in common speech (e.g. aardvark, plutonium, etc.) or a trigger action (e.g., tapping your foot, touching your thumb and ring finger together, etc.), and repeat it over and over again as you practice combat breathing. This will eventually train the subconscious mind to associate the trigger word/action with the act of combat breathing to the point that it will automatically initiate the process anytime you activate the trigger. Job-related triggers can also be used, such as the sound of a siren, for example. By practicing combat breathing while listening to a recording of a siren, you can create a subconscious trigger that starts the process every time you activate your siren to respond to a hot call or engage in a pursuit, both of which require that you keep stress under control. Another useful trigger to consider developing is the act of taking hold of your radio mic, which can subconsciously activate combat breathing every time you use your radio.
Combat breathing (also referred to as deep breathing, autogenic breathing, etc.), is controlled cyclic breathing that lowers blood pressure and stress levels, and reduces the negative effects of adrenaline. Each cycle contains four steps, as follows:
Step 1: Inhale deeply through the nose to a count of four, filling the lungs completely from the bottom up.
Step 2: Hold to a count of four.
Step 3: Exhale slowly through the mouth to a count of four, emptying the lungs completely from top to bottom.
Step 4: Hold to a count of four.
Repeat the cycle at least three more times.
Three cycles will achieve full results, but fewer can be used when there isn’t time for three. The number count for each step can be varied somewhat, as long as it is kept constant throughout the process. The key is to breathe in a methodical, controlled manner while completely filling and emptying lungs with each cycle. Elite warriors, athletes, martial artists, and other top performers have been using this technique for centuries as a proven method of controlling the negative effects of stress and improving performance under pressure.
Another way to reduce stress is through the use of proper approach, positioning, use of cover, and other sound tactics. Besides achieving a tactical advantage over your opponent, proper tactics give you a greater sense of control and confidence in your ability to handle the situation safely, which substantially reduces stress. In addition, they give you a little more time to assess possible danger signs before reacting to them, which further improves mental flexibility.
Finally, confidence in your training and capabilities also creates a greater sense of control, and the greater your sense of control, the less stress you experience. Fear of something you cannot control creates panic and/or rushed, fear-induced decisions. By contrast, fear tempered by a feeling of control is a powerful motivator that clarifies focus and inspires determination and a winning attitude. But confidence must be based upon competency; otherwise, it is nothing more than a dangerously false sense of security. This is another reason why good training is so important. Besides developing the skills we need to win, it builds a realistic sense of self-confidence that reduces fear and stress, which in turn further improves performance, decision-making under pressure, and mental flexibility. Train hard, and train often.
Return to Question 4
Ambiguous Deadly-Force Decisions under Stress
Deputy Shemenski’s decision not to shoot Mr. Rusk was based upon his ability to quickly and accurately observe and identify the potential threat he faced. This was a critical decision requiring mental flexibility, but moments later he found himself in another situation that highlighted the need for a much greater level of mental flexibility. When he suddenly realized how vulnerable he would be if Rusk tried to grab the shotgun or decided to charge him, he had to make a quick decision about how he would respond if either of those threats materialized.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to execute either decision, because doing so would likely have led to serious consequences. While most of us in law enforcement would agree that either action on the part of Rusk would have posed a serious threat to Shemenski’s life, the use of deadly force would probably have been misunderstood by the media and public, and hard to explain in court. In fact, depending upon how his decision was articulated and the perspective of the judge or jury deciding the case, it’s possible that it would have been seen as not being a serious enough threat to justify the use of deadly force, especially in some of the more liberal parts of the country. This is not to say that Deputy Shemenski’s decision was the wrong one, because there would have been good reason to fear for his life if Rusk had gone for the shotgun or charged him. But the point here is that the situation fell into one of those grey areas in which the need for deadly force is ambiguous. Most deadly force decisions are relatively simple to make (e.g., an armed perpetrator points a gun at you; so you shoot him), but not always. In this case, Shemenski came uncomfortably close to having to make one of those “but not always” decisions.
The reason why this kind of decision requires even more mental flexibility than Shemenski’s earlier decision not to shoot Mr. Rusk is that it involves more than just correctly observing and identifying a potential threat. In addition, it involves making a crucial judgment about an ambiguous legal issue that would be difficult to make under even the most favorable circumstances. Worse, the observations and other factors that go into making that judgment are often dangerously incomplete and/or rapidly changing. In such high-stress situations with lives on the line, it’s easy to make a mistake that can have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.
So, what can we do about this problem? First, as with any other decision requiring mental flexibility under stress, the ability to make appropriate decisions in ambiguous deadly-force situations can be improved through stress reduction, increased confidence, enhanced observation skills, and proper training.
Among these, training is the most important, but it must go far beyond the training required to develop any other kind of mental flexibility. The training should begin with the establishment of a solid foundation of knowledge regarding department policy, statutory law, and case law related to police use of force. Well thought-out classroom lectures that encourage questions and discussion can be used to build this foundation, but this is just the beginning. The goal is to develop an understanding of use-of-force law that is sufficiently in-depth to enable officers to respond appropriately to a wide range of tough, real world situations, and this cannot be achieved with classroom lectures alone. Much more is needed. Case studies about actual incidents involving questionable use of force, followed by in-depth classroom discussions about why the officer’s actions were justified or unjustified, are one very effective way to do this. Another is to thoroughly study and discuss key court decisions regarding use of force, starting with the two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Tennessee v Garner and Graham v Connor. This encourages deep thought and helps officers gain a better understanding of the way the courts view and analyze use of force by police.
Finally, this knowledge should be honed to a fine edge through the use of scenario-based training that requires officers to make tough use-of-force decisions. Scenarios that challenge observation skills (e.g., distinguishing between a cell phone and a handgun) aren’t good enough. Trainees should also be put into tough situations in which they must make increasingly more challenging shoot/don’t shoot decisions under stress. They will no doubt make some mistakes, but the time to learn from such mistakes is during training, not on the street when lives are at stake. (See the “Reluctance to Shoot” section of the analysis in “Officer Down: Slowly Developing Threats” in our May/June 2014 issue for a more detailed discussion of this training.)
Return to Question 5
Some law enforcement agencies allow their officers’ spouses, children, girl/boyfriends, etc., to participate in their ride-along programs. By increasing our loved ones’ understanding and appreciation for what we do, these programs can improve our family relationships and solidify our all-important support system. However, they can also put our loved ones in danger and make the job more dangerous for us as well. In a violent encounter, it is only natural to want to protect someone we care about, which can distract us from staying focused on our most important goal—neutralizing the threat, or, as in this case, establishing and maintaining control of the situation after the threat has been neutralized.
Deputy Shemenski later commented that his natural course of action in a case like this one would have been to stop immediately after Rusk went down, exit his vehicle, hold the man at gunpoint and call for backup, but he chose to create distance between him and Rusk instead. Then he dangerously advanced across open ground toward Rusk, who was down but not yet secured and still within easy reach of the shotgun. Though not aware of it at the time, he now believes his actions were motivated by a subconscious concern for Amber’s safety. Considering the importance of staying focused on dealing with any threat we encounter, ride-alongs by family members, girl/boyfriends, and others close to the officer should not be permitted. However, loved ones may be allowed to ride along with other officers, preferably those on another shift or in a different district.
Besides the factors already mentioned, there is another reason why Deputy Shemenski responded to Rusk’s attack so quickly. After his first shooting, he had vowed to never be caught in such a vulnerable position again, and had striven hard to live up to that promise. As a result, though distracted as he rolled up on the scene, he wasn’t surprised when Rusk turned on him with the shotgun. In fact, he had almost expected it to happen, and was thus able to respond to it very quickly. His earlier shooting had taught him that some individuals who have no fear of killing and will stop at nothing to get what they want. All officers are aware of this fact at the intellectual level, but many don’t really believe it in their innermost being. In fact, when asked about the emotions they experienced when attacked, police officers who have been involved in lethal confrontations almost universally say their first emotion was not anger or fear, but surprise! This is understandable when we consider that the vast majority of the people who resist arrest are simply trying to escape. While they often put up a tough struggle, they are not willing to engage an officer in lethal combat. But on rare occasions, we come across individuals who don’t care, and even some who have literally made it a life goal to kill a cop. Winners accept this harsh reality, and plan ahead to deal with it. When considering the possibility of engaging in a lethal encounter, they don’t think about “if it happens,” but “when it happens” and what they will do about it. They don’t look forward to violence, but they fully accept that it comes with the job and are committed to being ready when it does.
Deputy Shemenski also made a practice of using mental imagery to help prepare him for violent resistance, not so much in the more formal sense of getting into a state of deep relaxation and carefully rehearsing violent encounters in detail, but more as an informal “What if game.” Like most winners, he was in the habit of thinking about various threats he may face and planning ahead how to deal with them, which in turn helped him respond more quickly to Rusk’s attack. Finally, Shemenski possesses a natural aggressiveness that enabled him to immediately take the fight to his adversary. Fighting back is the most important element in winning, and in this case it paid off even before Rusk could fire a shot.
Return to Question 6
- Always do your best to eliminate distractions and stay focused on safety as your first priority. Psych yourself up to be ready for anything, no matter how routine the situation may appear to be.
- If a motorist is following close behind you, your options for dealing with him are: 1) call for backup to stop him; 2) let him pass and then stop him; or 3) speed up to see if he follows, and if so, increase your distance, find a place to turn around and confront him at gunpoint.
- Since we can’t depend upon actual experience to prepare us for the threats we may encounter on the street, we must gain experience through mental imagery and training. Take advantage of as much scenario-based training as you can and use mental imagery to gain further “experience” in responding to violent encounters.
- Mental flexibility is crucial to preventing and winning violent encounters, but it can also be crucial to avoiding tragic outcomes from foolish mistakes made by citizens under stress. Ways to improve this essential mental skill include: 1) scenario-based training geared specifically to that purpose; 2) mental imagery; 3) training geared to improving observation skills; and 4) stress reduction.
- The ability to make appropriate decisions in ambiguous deadly-force situations can be improved through stress reduction, increased self-confidence, enhanced observation skills, and most importantly, training. This training should include well thought-out classroom presentation, case studies, careful study of key court decisions regarding use of force, and scenario-based training that requires officers to make increasingly more challenging shoot/don’t shoot decisions.
- Be ready to deal with the lethal violence by accepting that it can happen, planning ahead for it, and always standing ready to fight back no matter what.
TELL US ABOUT IT!
The 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:
7412 Lynn Grove Ct. Hazelwood, MO 63042 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel. 314/921-6977 (call collect) Cell: 314/941-2651
TELL US ABOUT IT!
In our last issue, we recounted and analyzed Deputy Shemenski’s first shooting, in which, as in this case, he responded to an ambush by returning fire through the windshield of his cruiser. The 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.
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, 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 email@example.com or visit his Web site at www.we-training.com.
1 A comparison between force-on-force and firearms simulator scenarios is in order here. Firearms simulators are easier to set up, require less space, and need only one instructor, but their capacity to adapt their scenarios to the trainees’ actions is limited. By contrast, since human role players can quickly detect and assess a wide range of actions by the trainees and then adapt their responses accordingly, force-on-force training is far superior to firearms simulators for developing mental flexibility. However, force-on-force training requires more manpower and time to set up, creates serious safety concerns that must be addressed, and requires that role players be carefully selected, instructed in the objectives of each scenario, and supervised. Some role players have a tendency to lose sight of the learning objectives, and therefore try to turn the scenarios into a competition instead, which can be very counterproductive to the learning process. The ultimate goal should be to provide each trainee with a valuable training experience that will equip him to make better decisions on the street, and every role player must be firmly committed to that goal. Considering the pros and cons of these two training options, probably the best approach is to use firearms simulators in the earlier stages of mental flexibility training, and then advance to the harder but more flexible force-on-force training as the trainees become more proficient.
2 For more information, contact Observation On Demand, LLC at:
Observation On Demand, LLC
3 For more information, contact Snipercraft, Inc. at: