Trust Your Instincts: The Steven Marshall Incident
By Brian McKenna
DESCRIPTION OF INCIDENT
Temperate summer air streamed through the open driver’s window of Officer Steve Marshall’s patrol car as he cruised through the tranquil city streets. The city was unusually calm for a Saturday evening at the end of a tough week. Marshall, a 27-year-old, four-year veteran of the mid-sized urban police department, liked to stay busy and the shortage of work was starting to bore him.
It was also adding to the odd sense of dread that had been plaguing him for some time. The feeling had been lurking at the edge of his mind for two months and he couldn’t do anything to shake it. He had tried to attribute it to his emotional response to the National Law Enforcement Memorial ceremonies in D.C. the previous May. It was the first time he had attended the ceremonies and it had been a surprisingly emotional experience for him. It was also at about that time that the gloominess had started, he kept reminding himself, but that didn’t explain why the feeling had persisted for so long. In fact, rather than dissipating, it had been growing in recent days, intensified by the fact that he was working alone again. It helped to have someone to keep his mind occupied when he wasn’t busy, but his regular partner Tim Preston, one of the department’s FTOs, had been training a new recruit recently.
As his shift dragged on into its fourth hour, Marshall stopped at a red light behind a grey older-model Ford Mustang. The battered sports car immediately grabbed his attention. It had that look about it, and it was missing its rear license plate. A document resembling a temporary tag was affixed to the lower right corner of the rear window—the required location for temporary tags in his state—but it just didn’t look right. And it wasn’t readable, giving him PC to check it out. The light changed, and the Mustang made a right turn onto Belleview. Planning ahead as he had been trained to do, Marshall decided to stop the Mustang at a location about a block away, just past Highland Avenue. He called out the stop and flipped on his roof lights.
The Mustang slowed as it approached Highland, but instead of pulling to the curb, it turned left at the intersection. That action made Marshall uneasy and the motorist’s next move only added to his suspicion. A redneck bar sat on the opposite corner facing Belleview, with its rear parking lot accessible from Highland. The Mustang turned into the parking lot there, continued past two parked cars, and slipped into the last parking space, squeezing itself between the last car and a wood privacy fence along the far side of the lot. The privacy fence also ran along the back of the lot, separating it from an alley that ran from Highland to the backyards of several private residences along Belleview. A section of the fence was missing near the point where the motorist stopped his car, but even with this opening in the fence, the secluded corner was well-insulated from its surroundings and the eyes of passersby.
By this time, Marshall had already notified the dispatcher of the change of location. He watched the driver closely as he braked to a stop and hung up his microphone. The driver, a hard-featured middle-aged man, stopped the car, turned in his seat, and looked squarely into Marshall’s face. After a short pause, he pushed his door open and started to step out of the car. Marshall wasn’t wasting any time; he was already out of his patrol car, baton in hand and ready for a fight. He slid the baton into its ring and stepped forward. The motorist looked intently at Marshall and came to a stop.
“Get back in the car!” Marshall ordered.
The man turned back and sat down behind the wheel. Marshall advised him of the violation, and asked for his driver’s license and proof of insurance. The driver silently dug through his wallet, pulled out his license, and handed it over. “I’m afraid I don’t have insurance,” he said.
Still cautious, Marshall took the license and glanced down at it. It identified the driver Randall Snyder, 50, with an address not far from their present location.
“Where are your plates,” Marshall asked, “and what’s that in your back window?”
“The bill of sale. I just bought this car last week, and they told me to put it in the window.”
After explaining that it was illegal to drive a car without temporary tags Marshall returned to his unit to run Snyder for wants, local arrest record, and driver’s license status. The wants and record check came back clean, but Snyder’s driver’s license was suspended for financial responsibility. Department policy required that motorists with suspended driver’s licenses could be cited and released, but their vehicles had to be towed.
As Marshall stepped out of his patrol car to re-contact Snyder, he saw the man starting to exit the Mustang again.
“Stay in your car!” Marshall commanded.
Snyder sat back down behind the wheel and pulled the door shut as Marshall moved up to the driver’s door.
“Your driver’s license is suspended, Sir,” Marshall said, “I’m going to have to write you a ticket. Let me see that bill of sale, please.”
Snyder handed the document over. After verifying the name and VIN, Marshall returned to his patrol car, using care to keep an eye on Snyder as he moved. He sat down behind the wheel, called for a wrecker and started to issue the citations, one for driving while suspended and the other for no license plates. The nagging feeling that something was wrong hadn’t dissipated. In fact, although Marshall couldn’t put his finger on the cause, the feeling was now stronger than ever.
He picked up his mic and asked the dispatcher to have Preston meet him there, but the dispatcher advised that Preston was out of service. Marshall paused briefly as he considered calling for another backup officer. He knew Preston would understand why he wanted assistance, but it would be too distracting to try to explain it to anyone else. He decided to go it alone. He called his lieutenant on his cell phone instead and asked him a few simple questions, already knowing the answers but hoping it would help. He had a feeling that verbalizing his situation would jar something in his mind so he could pinpoint what was bothering him, but it didn’t do any good.
There was nothing left to do except complete the stop. Marshall approached Snyder again, issued him the two tickets, and told him his car would have to be towed. Snyder’s face hardened. “Why are you being such a hard ass?” he demanded, “you’re takin’ away my livelihood.”
“It’s not my decision, Sir,” Marshall firmly replied, “It’s policy; I’ve got no choice.”
Snyder didn’t look happy but he didn’t argue. He dug the car keys out of his pants pocket and handed them over to Marshall without comment. “You’ll have to leave now, Sir,” Marshall said.
Sullenly but still with no argument, Snyder stepped out of the car and walked away.
Marshall had turned his attention to the business of towing the Mustang, and was checking the VIN when he suddenly caught sight of Snyder out of the corner of his eye. The man was coming toward him, and his unexpected appearance instantly put Marshall on alert. Marshall turned to face him. “What can I do for you?” he sternly asked.
There was nothing threatening or hostile about Snyder’s demeanor. “I’ve got some of my stuff in the car, and I need it to get by,” he said, “Is it OK if I take it with me?”
Marshall hesitated. He usually refused to grant such requests, but for some reason he decided to permit it this time.
“Go ahead,” he said.
He moved to the right side of the Mustang while Snyder stepped up to the driver’s door and leaned inside. Cautiously, Marshall wrapped his hand around the grips of his 9mm Sig Sauer and unsnapped the holster. Marshall watched Snyder closely as the man picked up a brown paper grocery bag, held it with its open mouth facing the officer, and filled it with clusters of papers taken from the console between the front seats. That done, he started to back out of the car. Marshall turned to his left and headed toward the back of the Mustang, intending to move around to the other side so he could send Snyder on his way again.
Something slammed into the right side of Marshall’s neck like a jackhammer, stunning him into a foggy daze. In the short time it had taken Marshall to turn and take a couple of steps, Snyder had pulled out a two-inch S&W Model 10 and opened fire (it was never determined where the gun had been concealed, but it was probably inside the bag or under the seat.) Though Marshall had heard no gunshot, the impact from the .38 slug had been devastating. After slicing through the flesh at the front of his right shoulder near the collarbone, causing only a flesh wound, it had crashed into his neck, bore through the right carotid artery, and shredded the vega nerve before lodging about a quarter inch from his spine.
Marshall stumbled to the rear of the car, where Snyder jumped him. His mind swimming hazily, Marshall knew Snyder was trying to grab something away from him but couldn’t tell what it was. Dazed and confused, but unflinching in his will to fend off the attack, he fought back with all the strength he could muster. Suddenly, he was free of his assailant, stumbling backward, now drawing his gun. But Snyder fired first. The bullet tore into Marshall’s upper right hip just a split second before the stunned officer could pull the trigger. It had passed through Marshall’s holster first, slowing it down so it caused only a superficial wound, but Marshall flinched with the impact. The Sig discharged uselessly into the ground as Marshall stumbled and fell to the pavement.
Snyder abandoned his attack, quickly retreated to Marshall’s squad car, and stopped alongside its left front fender for cover. Marshall, now prone, looked under the car, spotted Snyder’s moving feet through a groggy haze, and fired two quick rounds at them. Both shots missed; one altogether and the other striking the patrol car’s left front tire. Snyder responded by snapping off another shot over the hood of the car but it was rushed and poorly aimed. It missed.
Marshall rolled away from the car, got to his feet, and ran to a car that was backed into a space along the back wall of the bar. He took cover at the right rear corner of the car as Snyder fired again. The round went wide to the left, hitting the wall behind the officer. Snyder fired twice more. The first round hit the windshield of the parked car and ricocheted harmlessly into the wall, and the other went to the right, also hitting the wall. His revolver now empty, Snyder turned and fled through the hole in the fence, and then down the alley, leaving the grocery bag and its contents behind on the hood of the Mustang. Inside the bag was a box of ammunition for the now-empty gun.
Marshall pulled the walkie-talkie off his belt and tried to call for help. His voice—nothing more than a raspy whisper because of his damaged vega nerve and vocal cords—went unheard. Growing weak from loss of blood and still stunned by his wound, he shuffled back to his cruiser, reached through the open passenger door window for the microphone and weakly called for help; then slumped to his knees. Meanwhile, several people inside the bar had heard the gunfire and looked outside in time to see the gunfight. The bartender called 9-1-1 while others grabbed towels and rushed outside to help the wounded officer.
Officer Preston and his trainee, followed almost immediately by their sergeant, arrived on the scene less than three minutes later. Marshall spotted Preston running toward him, rose to his feet, and stumbled forward to meet him. His neck blazed with fiery pain, and he was dizzy from shock and blood loss. He collapsed into Preston’s arms. “Tell my wife I love her,” he gasped as Preston gently leaned him against the fender of the squad car.
“You’re gonna be OK. Stay with me, Steve,” Preston said, “keep fighting!”
Preston lowered his wounded partner to the ground, tore open his shirt, ripped off the front panel of his vest, and cut his T-shirt open. Blood flowed from Marshall’s neck like the stream from a broken faucet, but the other wounds appeared superficial. Preston took a towel from one of the patrons, pressed it against the neck wound, and kept it there until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later and the paramedics took over. Though Marshall’s dulled senses kept him from noticing it at the time, Preston stayed by his side, keeping up a continuous flow of encouraging words until he was handed over to the emergency room doctors at the hospital.
In the meantime, Preston’s trainee, Officer Ken Michaels, had contacted several witnesses who had seen Snyder run down the alley from the rear of the parking lot. Acting on this new information, he and other responding officers had quickly located Snyder hiding in a vacant apartment not far from the scene. Snyder surrendered without a fight and later confessed to shooting Marshall, but claimed he had acted in self-defense after Marshall fired the first shot without provocation.
Officer Marshall’s wounds came perilously close to killing him. The gunshot wound to his neck had caused extensive damage and profuse bleeding. His doctor later told him he would have bled to death if Preston hadn’t stopped the bleeding when he did. After a lengthy stay in the hospital and recovery period of nearly six months, he returned to full duty. He is still assigned to the same beat with Tim Preston as his partner. Snyder pled guilty to attempted aggravated murder of a police officer and eight other felonies. He is currently serving a 44.5-year sentence.
DISCUSSION & ANALYSIS:
Officer Marshall instinctively knew something might be wrong from the moment he started to pull Snyder over, but failed to take appropriate action to deal with his concerns. However, he is far from alone in making this mistake. With only very rare exceptions, danger signs are always present before an officer is attacked. Sometimes they are subtle, sometimes not, and there is usually more than one. For a variety of reasons, officers often fail to notice these danger signs, fail to recognize them for what they are, ignore them, or fail to react appropriately to them.
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.
- Officer Marshall instinctively knew something might be wrong from the moment he started to pull Snyder over, but failed to take appropriate action to deal with his concerns. What factors might have influenced him to react in this way? What factors might cause other officers to fail to deal appropriately to danger signs? How important is it to trust our instincts when they tell us that danger may be present? Why?
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- Contrary to his normal practice, Officer Marshall granted Snyder a request that put him at risk, and it almost cost him his life. Is it ever alright to grant such requests or otherwise violate practices? If so, when? What can we do to mitigate the risks in such cases?
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- In what ways did Officer Marshall’s actions attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset?
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- Even though Officer Marshall wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, Officer Preston stayed by his side and kept up a continuous flow of encouraging words until they arrived at the emergency room. How important is it to speak positive words of encouragement and hope to a seriously wounded officer or other victim? What if the victim is unable to hear you at the conscious level?
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Responding to Danger Signs
Danger signs, some more subtle than others, began to appear from the onset of Officer Marshall’s contact with Snyder. The most obvious of these was the way Snyder chose the location for the stop, even leading Marshall to a very specific location well out of public view. Snyder’s obvious intention to exit the car was another danger sign, as were more subtle signs, like his initial angry response to Marshall’s decision to tow his car, followed by a ready acceptance of Marshall’s explanation without further argument. People who are unhappy with an officer’s actions often put up more of an argument, or plead for a break. Similarly, the timing of Snyder’s request to get his belongings was rather unusual. Instead of making the request immediately after learning his vehicle would be towed, he waited until Marshall was starting to focus on something else. As is often the case, none of these things alone created a clear danger sign, but they signaled a need for caution, especially when taken as a whole.
These facts, and perhaps others too subtle to be perceived at the conscious level, were not missed by Officer Marshall. His instincts told him something was wrong, but he didn’t respond to them as effectively as he should have. This is a common problem among police officers. After countless successes when dealing with potentially dangerous situations, almost always without serious incident, we become accustomed to success. This breeds a false sense of security that can prove very dangerous.
To counter this problem, we must learn to trust our instincts for what they are—warnings from our subconscious mind. Danger signs are often subtle and unseen at the conscious level, but the subconscious mind perceives far more input and processes it much more quickly than the conscious mind. When its assessment of the incoming data determines that danger may exist, it sends us a warning in the form of feeling of concern, uneasiness, fear or alarm. If we trust our instincts enough to listen to this silent message, we can be detect potential dangers more readily and react to them much more quickly.
In this case, Officer Marshall recognized the potential for danger and responded to it to some extent, but his response was too limited. Although he became more cautious, began watching Snyder more closely, and asked the dispatcher to have Officer Preston contact him there, he declined to ask for another assist car when he learned that Preston wasn’t available. This was because, whereas he knew Preston would quickly size up the situation and understand what to do, he thought he would have a hard time explaining his concerns to anyone else. When working with a partner on a regular basis, it is important to resist the temptation to rely on one another so much that we discount help from anyone else. Some officers are also hesitant to ask for backup because they don’t want to give the impression they can’t handle things on their own, or because they are concerned they may appear to be overly cautious.
Although such concerns are understandable, we must never allow them to intrude on our responsibility to establish and maintain control of every contact we make. The control of potentially violent situations before they escalate out of control is our highest duty, and that requires singular focus on getting the job done safely. There is no room for pride or other emotions. If you think you might need backup, trust your instincts and ask for it. Then, unless your safety or the safety of others dictates immediate action on your part, wait for help to arrive before committing to any further action. When your assist officer arrives, take the time to brief him, tell him what you need, and coordinate your approach to the situation. Any good officer will appreciate why you asked for help even if your suspicions prove to be unfounded.
It is also important, as Officer Marshall is quick to point out, to look below the surface when dealing with violators and suspects, especially if something seems wrong. Violent offenders are very good at hiding their true intentions. So don’t assume the subject won’t attack just because he has been cooperative so far, as this can often be a ploy to cause you to drop your guard. Don’t assume anything. Instead, be suspicious of everything, remain ever vigilant, keep digging for more information, and always expect the unexpected.
Return to Question 1
Granting Requests that May Jeopardize Safety:
Officer Marshall is still puzzled about why he let Snyder retrieve his personal property from the car. This is something he rarely permitted, but he made an exception in this case. It was a mistake that almost cost him his life.
Most people appreciate getting a break, but violent offenders often view kindness as a sign of weakness to be exploited. Cop killers often try to manipulate the situation in order to find a gap in the officer’s defenses and capitalize on it, like Snyder did. With the predatory instinct of a cop killer, he complied with Officer Marshall’s directions until Marshall let his guard down, and then pounced on the opportunity without hesitation or mercy. It was only after Officer Marshall courageously counterattacked that he changed his mind. Then, when it became apparent that Officer Marshall was a tougher opponent than he expected, he turned tail and ran.
We should treat people with decency and respect, but this doesn’t mean we must extend courtesies to them that put us at risk. Safety rules are in place for a reason, and we should never depart from them without seriously considering the risks. On the other hand, every situation is unique, and there may be times when we find it necessary or advisable to make an exception to the rule. In that case, we must ratchet up our awareness level, and modify our tactics accordingly. In this case, for example, it would have been much safer for Officer Marshall to either deny Snyder’s request, or, if he felt that it was appropriate to grant it, retrieve Snyder’s personal property himself after taking action to properly establish and maintain control of the situation. This could have been done by frisking Snyder for weapons, and then ordering him to a position where he could not effectively launch an attack, preferably with a backup officer keeping an eye on him during the process. To do otherwise would have made Marshall vulnerable to attack while he retrieved the property. If you choose to grant a request that even hints at compromising your safety, be especially suspicious, proceed cautiously, and utilize proper tactics.
Another alternative in a situation like this one is to make a custodial arrest. There is always a certain risk in making an arrest, but appropriate arrest techniques will minimize this risk and, once completed, the arrest establishes control over the suspect that is far superior to anything else you can do in the field. The decision to make a custodial arrest also gives you an excuse to call for backup if you are uneasy about the situation (see previous section), because most departments require, or at least encourage, officers to obtain assistance before making an arrest. If a suspect’s actions are suspicious enough to cause you concern, and you have probable cause to arrest him, it is usually best to make the arrest. Back off a safe distance, take up a position that gives you the tactical advantage, and—when available—cover as well, call for backup, and then wait for it to arrive before making the arrest.
Return to Question 2
Marshall suffered the first blow of the fight; a devastating wound that left him stunned, weakened and at a severe tactical disadvantage. Nevertheless, he fought back. His response wasn’t perfect, but he fought back and that was good enough! Time and again, this has proven to be the single most important element in winning lethal confrontations. Even when tactically flawed or poorly executed, a determined counterattack will usually turn the tide. The act of shooting back will end the fight at least 80 percent of the time. Even if your return fire doesn’t incapacitate him, it will often convince him to surrender or, like Snyder, flee the scene.
By refusing to give in to the confusion, weakness and pain caused by Snyder’s sudden and brutal attack, and immediately returning fire instead, Officer Marshall reversed the momentum. Snyder, his initial aggression now checked by Marshall’s counterattack, was forced to take the defensive. He had to rush things while, with his own life now on the line, he reconsidered his rapidly disintegrating action plan. In addition, when Snyder’s gun ran dry, Officer Marshall’s actions discouraged him from reloading and moving in for the kill. Now on the defensive, he decided to run, leaving the dangerously vulnerable Marshall behind and safe from further harm. Officer Marshall’s tough resistance to an otherwise devastating attack provides an inspiring example of what it takes to win.
Officer Marshall also sought cover as soon as possible, an action that probably saved him from taking any more hits. Although there is no factual evidence to indicate that his use of cover shielded him directly from any of Snyder’s rounds, this action certainly made him a more difficult target and further disrupted Snyder’s plans. With his hopes of a quick victory now shattered, Snyder decided to run instead.
Another example of Officer Marshall’s winning mindset was the fact that he fired under the patrol car at Snyder’s feet. Rather than worrying about his wounds or desperate situation, he focused on what he could do to fight back. Snyder’s feet were not ideal targets, but they were vulnerable to Marshall’s counterattack. When no better target is available, a hit to any body part is better than no hit at all, and it lets your assailant know he is in for a fight. Officer Marshall sensed this, and took aggressive action to capitalize on it. This kind of optimism is characteristic of the warrior spirit. True warriors don’t dwell on the negative; instead, they assess their assets—no matter how limited those assets may be—and stay focused on how best to use them to win.
Return to Question 3
Aiding a Wounded Officer
A lot of the credit for Marshall’s survival belongs to Officer Preston. Acting largely on what he had learned at a Calibre Press seminar just two months earlier, he didn’t allow the severity of Marshall’s neck wound to overwhelm him or to discourage Marshall. Instead of giving in to the natural tendency to react with fear and distress, he responded with encouragement. Words can have a powerful effect on the victim at a time like this. If they contain negativism, fear or hopelessness, they will probably only make matters worse, whereas words filled with encouragement and hope are likely to inspire the mental strength needed to overcome even the most devastating wounds. Also, it is important to keep in mind that even unconscious people can often hear spoken words and be influenced by them at the subconscious level. This can have a strong influence on the victim. Regardless of a wounded officer’s apparent level of consciousness, it is essential for all responding officers to give him encouragement and positive verbal messages, as Officer Preston did in this case.
Return to Question 4
- Trust your instincts, and take appropriate action in response to them.
- Don’t hesitate to call for backup.
- Remain vigilant, look beyond the immediate circumstances, and expect the unexpected.
- Never put yourself at risk in order to give someone a break.
- Fight back, no matter what
- When attacked and at an apparent disadvantage, assess your assets—no matter how limited those assets may be—and stay focused on how best to use them to win.
- Use positive words of encouragement when assisting a wounded officer, regardless how serious the wound may appear to be.
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 Website at www.we-training.com
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
Tel. 314/921-6977 (call collect)
- The incident recounted here is true, but the names of persons and places were changed to insure the privacy of those personally involved. In order to preserve confidentiality and clarity, some facts may have been altered slightly, but the essential elements of the story remain unchanged.
- This article originally appeared the July/August 2001issue of The Police Marksman. The incident description and analysis have been updated with new information for the new Police Marksman.