Jan/Feb 2015 Police Marksman OFFICER DOWN
Verbal Warnings and Action vs. Reaction: The Adam Thomas/Scott Caldwell Incident
By Brian McKenna
DESCRIPTION OF INCIDENT
Officer Adam Thomas looked past his partner to get a look at the adult bookstore on their left as they cruised past it. The store, situated just one door down from the intersection they had just crossed, was a prime target for armed robberies and other problems because of its late hours, windowless exterior, and steel front door that precluded seeing inside. Aware of its vulnerability to holdups, Thomas and his partner Scott Caldwell made a point of checking the place whenever they drove past it, and it paid off this time. The door flew open and a young man holding a grocery bag burst through the open doorway. He had barely made it outside when he spotted the passing squad car and locked eyes with Thomas. With eyes wide open in panicked amazement, he spun to his right and took off for the corner.
“Go get that guy!” Thomas yelled.
Caldwell took a quick look over his left shoulder. “I see him,” he responded, “He’s runnin.’ Hold on!”
Braking hard and making a quick U-turn on the wide city street, Caldwell gunned the cruiser’s powerful engine and headed back toward the intersection, but the man had already disappeared. Most likely, he had rounded the corner and headed up the street to the right. Caldwell followed the same path in an effort to overtake their quarry, but the fleeing man was nowhere to be seen. Instead, they stumbled upon something that only added to their suspicions—a Chevrolet Cavalier double-parked just a short distance up ahead of them with its lights on. The little Chevy was facing the same direction they were, and it looked like its engine was running.
As Caldwell slowed to a stop behind the car, Thomas lit it up with his spotlight, revealing just one occupant, a man with a shaved head behind the wheel. Though neither officer knew it at the time, the man was a 30-year-old gang banger named Maurice Antoine. A three-striker on parole after serving 12 years for an attempted murder in which he had shot his victim in the back of the head during a robbery, he was well acquainted with violence as a means for getting what he wanted.
“There’s no way he got into that car that quick,” Thomas commented.
“Nope. No way,” Caldwell agreed as the Cavalier started idling forward.
Wanting more information, Caldwell ran the Cavalier’s plate on their cruiser’s mobile data terminal. The response only further raised his suspicions—the plates were registered to an address in the southeast part of the city, far from their current location and in the part of town that housed most of the city’s street gangs. Caldwell passed the information on to Caldwell as the Cavalier continued on at a pace well below the speed limit. Then, as the Cavalier crept up to the stop sign at the next intersection, its left turn signal came on.
“That’s a dead end street,” Thomas warned.
“I know,” Caldwell replied, a ting of anxiety in his voice.
The cross street went on for blocks to the right, but ended just one short, poorly lit block to the left. Both officers were wondering the same thing: Why is he drawing us into this particular spot? After coming to a slow, deliberate stop, the Cavalier paused longer than necessary before making a cautious left turn into the darkened dead end. Then, to further raise the officers’ suspicions, it pulled slowly to the curb before Caldwell could activate his roof lights. Caldwell pulled in behind it, his roof lights still dark, but flipped on his spotlight to light up the Cavalier’s interior.
Thomas took the same precaution with his spotlight, but then the officers made a decision that entailed great potential for grave consequences—bowing to peer pressure, they failed to call out the stop. It was the kind of mistake that neither of them would normally make. Both were streetwise, safety-conscious, and aggressive. Known for being in the right place at the right time, they attracted action like a magnet and had the arrest numbers to prove it. Caldwell was considerably older at age 39, and was far more experienced. Though with the department for only two years, he had been in law enforcement since his early 20s, having served previously as a deputy sheriff, border patrol agent, and federal corrections officer. Thomas was both younger, 26, and less experienced, but he had been a sworn officer with the department a year longer than Caldwell. Prior to that, he had been involved with the department since his teens as a police explorer, intern, and community service officer. Both of them knew better than to stop a suspicious subject without calling out, but they had been razzed earlier that night at roll call by a senior officer about hogging the radio with self-initiated stops. The officer had made his complaint in a good-natured way, and there was no denying that the radio was usually busy.
They understood his reasons, but every officer knows how important it is to keep communications advised of their location, especially when dealing with suspicious persons and other higher-risk situations.
Adding to the seriousness of their decision, the officers also failed to log the stop into their computer as they rushed to exit their vehicle, leaving the dispatcher and everyone else blind as to their location.
Without any solid evidence that Antoine had been involved in a robbery, or even that a robbery had occurred, they chose to approach the Cavalier using unknown-risk tactics, but with an elevated level of caution and as a coordinated team. Caldwell approached along the driver’s side to make contact with Antoine, staying next to the car body with his hand gripping his holstered 9mm Sig 229, while Thomas approached the passenger side with his .40 caliber Glock 35 drawn and held down next to his thigh. As Thomas moved forward, he lit up the back seat with his flashlight and scanned it for any signs of danger. Seeing none, he moved up farther and stopped just behind the right-front passenger door. From there, he started to lean forward to light up the front seat and get a better look at Antoine.
In the meantime, Caldwell had stopped behind the B-pillar to make contact with Antoine, who had to turn around in his seat to look at him. “How’s it goin’?” Caldwell asked.
“Good, good,” the man replied in a casual, nonthreatening tone.
Thomas was now in position to see things clearly, and what he saw sent a chill down his spine. Antoine was holding a silver revolver—later found to be a stolen stainless-steel Ruger Security Six—in his lap where Caldwell couldn’t see it.
“Hey, did you come out of that bookstore back there?” Caldwell was asking, unaware of the danger.
“Nope,” the man replied with no hint of fear or hostility, “wasn’t me.”
Thomas wasn’t about to give Antoine a chance to bring the gun into play. Without hesitation, he leapt to a point just forward of the Cavalier’s windshield, pointed his Glock at Antoine, and yelled, “Gun! Drop that gun!”
Caldwell’s eyes widened.
Antoine’s gun whipped upward in Caldwell’s direction.
Having already made up his mind to immediately open fire if Antoine tried to use the gun, Thomas pulled the trigger the instant he saw movement. But he was a split second too late; Antoine had already gotten off his first shot, sending a .38 caliber slug screaming past Caldwell’s scalp so close that the muzzle blast parted his hair.
Thomas fired again.
Antoine fired his second round, missing Caldwell by a wider margin this time as the startled officer sprang to his left to a point just outside the driver’s door, drew his Sig, and opened fire.
Thomas fired again and again.
Caldwell, seeing his adversary now slumped over slightly and apparently disabled, ceased fire and started to retreat back to the squad car for cover. He had fired four shots, all of them going low and hitting around the door handle. Only one had penetrated the door, carving its way into Antoine’s left hand and arm after passing through.
Thomas also ceased fire, but only for the moment. He dropped his flashlight and, like his partner, headed for the cover of the squad car. He had fired six rounds through the windshield, but was unaware of where they had hit or what affect they had had on the gunman. Unlike Caldwell, he hadn’t seen Antoine slump over.
Thomas kept firing as he moved, sending one volley of .40 caliber slugs through the front passenger door window, another through the rear passenger door window, and one final round through the back window before his slide locked back.
Now back at the relative safety of the patrol car and empty, Thomas reloaded and called for help: “Six twenty-four, shots fired! Shots fired! Robbery suspect.”
“Ten four” the dispatcher replied, “Shots fired. Units start for shots fired.”
Then came an urgent request from an unidentified officer, “Where are they?”
“Florida, south of the F Street Bookstore,” Thomas replied.
With adrenalin pumping through his system and his mind focused on what to do next, Thomas had inadvertently broadcasted the wrong location. He had almost gotten it right, but they were actually a block north, not south of the bookstore. In the ensuing confusion, it took four minutes for their first assist car to arrive.
In the meantime, Caldwell and Thomas could see no activity from inside the Cavalier and decided to investigate further. With Caldwell providing cover, Thomas cautiously approached the Cavalier. As he drew closer, he saw Antoine’s eyes staring at him and his head nodding slightly, leading him to believe the man might still be alive. Unable to see Antoine’s hands or the gun, Thomas again ordered him to drop his gun. But the gunman, now eerily motionless and silent, gave no response. It was only then that Thomas saw a gunshot wound to Antoine’s head, and rightly assumed he was dead. Now reasonably certain that the danger was past but still cautious, Caldwell moved up to the driver’s door, opened it, and recovered Antoine’s gun from between the doorsill and driver’s seat.
Ironically, it was just moments later when the dispatcher broadcasted a robbery in progress at the F Street Bookstore. The man they had spotted fleeing from the bookstore had in fact robbed it at gunpoint, but Antoine wasn’t him. He had been telling the truth when denied having run from the store; however, it was no coincidence that he had been sitting in his car just around the corner. Subsequent investigation revealed that he had been the getaway driver, and the robber had run past him, shouted a warning that the police were on his tail, and then cut across the street and disappeared between two houses on the other side.
Thomas was correct in his belief that Antoine was dead, but it wasn’t the head wound that killed him. All except one of the 16 rounds Thomas had fired were solid hits, and it was a combination of multiple hits to center mass that took the gunman’s life. Thomas’ alertness, quick action, and proficiency with his sidearm probably saved Caldwell’s life, and possibly his own as well.
Antoine’s death was not accepted lightly by his fellow gang members, however. Not content with leading his own life of crime, he had been making a name for himself by training younger gang bangers in the finer points of conducting pedestrian and business robberies, and the gang wasn’t happy to see him go. Soon after the shooting, rumors of retaliation against the officers began flying, and at one point one of Antoine’s fellow gang members drove by Caldwell’s house and stared down his wife. He was quickly arrested, and other suppression efforts by the department’s gang unit soon quelled the problem.
Antoine’s mother also filed a lawsuit against the officers, but the case was dropped two years later.
Though he initially escaped arrest, Antoine’s accomplice in the robbery, a fellow gang member, was later arrested and subsequently convicted of multiple charges, including armed robbery and conspiracy along with gun and street gang enhancements. Though not charged with felony murder, he was nevertheless sentenced to 100+ years in prison.
Both officers were named Officers of the Year by their state’s robbery investigators’ association, and awarded exceptional service citations by their department. Officer Caldwell now serves as a field training officer and Officer Thomas was recently promoted to lieutenant in the department’s patrol division.
DISCUSSION & ANALYSIS
As soon as Officer Thomas saw the gun in Antoine’s hand, he made up his mind to shoot him if he tried to turn it on Caldwell. The decision was made, carved in stone, and he had only to see the slightest movement of the gun in his partner’s direction to carry it out. Nevertheless, Antoine beat him to the first shot. This happened not because Thomas was indecisive or too slow, but purely because of how the human brain works. It was simply a matter of action vs. reaction, and the only way it could have been avoided would have been if Thomas had shot without warning. This brings up two important questions related to officer safety: What can we do about the dangers created by the action vs. reaction phenomenon? And: Under what circumstance should we shoot without warning? These are difficult questions to answer, but our safety and the safety of others demand that we do the best we can.
The following analysis will address these questions, 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.
- Officers Thomas and Caldwell decided to cautiously employ unknown-risk traffic stop tactics in response to the danger signs they detected. Do you agree with this decision? Why? How important is it to trust our instincts when they warn us that danger may be present? What is the best way to deal with street encounters where danger signs are present but high-risk tactics don’t appear to be appropriate?
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- Officer Caldwell stood behind the B-pillar of the Cavalier when conversing with Antoine and Officer Thomas moved just forward of the vehicle’s windshield as soon as he saw Antoine’s gun. What effect do you think these positions had on the outcome? How important is positioning to officer safety?
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- Both officers used Contact and Cover to their advantage in this case and it paid off for them, but many officers fail to employ this important tactic properly. Why do you think this happens so often? What can we do about it?
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- Officer Thomas’ inability to shoot before Antoine did clearly demonstrates the dangers posed by the Action vs. Reaction phenomenon. What can we do to alleviate this serious problem?
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- In the understandable belief that Antoine would comply with an order given at gunpoint, Officer Thomas decided to issue a verbal command when he spotted Antoine’s gun. Would it have been better for him to shoot Antoine without warning? Why? Can the use of deadly force without warning in this kind of situation be justified? How? What can be done to help prepare to make the right shoot/don’t shoot decision in ambiguous use-of-force situations?
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- While there are good reasons why Antoine was shot so many times, multiple gunshot wounds to would-be cop killers are often construed as grossly excessive uses of force, especially in these times of political pressure to severely limit police use of force. What does this say about the importance of thoroughly explaining our actions in all use-of-force incidents? How can we help ensure that this is done?
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- Officers Thomas and Caldwell failed to call out when they stopped Antoine because of peer pressure. What does this tell us about the role peer pressure plays in officer safety? What can be done to help ensure that peer pressure is used to improve officer safety rather than damaging it?
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- Officers Thomas and Caldwell decided to approach Antoine before their backup arrived. Would it have been safer for them to wait for backup first, and if so, what would have been the best way to secure Antoine after backup arrived on the scene?
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- It is obvious that Antoine was fully committed to killing Officer Caldwell and had no qualms about doing so. What does this tell us about the cop killer mindset, and how we should prepare to deal with it?
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Responding to Danger Signs
Officers Thomas and Caldwell picked up on a number of important danger signs—the startled subject running from the store, the occupied Cavalier double parked just around the corner from it, the vehicle’s registration in an area known for its gangs, the driver’s careful obedience to all traffic laws, and the fact that he pulled over at a place of his own choosing—and they proceeded cautiously as a result. However, since the robbery hadn’t been reported yet, they couldn’t be more certain about the risks involved. Doubting whether the situation justified a high-risk stop, they opted to cautiously employ unknown-risk tactics instead.
Given that they were riding together in a two-man unit, this approach offered a significantly higher degree of safety than would have been the case if a single officer had initiated the stop alone. Solo officers in a similar situation should at the very least obtain backup before approaching the motorist. Too often, officers call for a backup officer and then make their approach without waiting for him to arrive, or fail to properly coordinate with him after he does arrive. Either mistake thoughtlessly wastes the essential advantage offered by a properly utilized backup officer.
But regardless of how much backup is available or how well it is used, it is safer to use high-risk tactics when there is evidence that a robbery or other violent crime may be involved. While it may be questionable whether such tactics were justified in this case, the fact that Thomas and Caldwell considered using them provides strong evidence that they were. We often dismiss our instincts because of fear of being accused of overreacting, but we have to keep in mind that our instincts are much more reliable than we realize. Our brains are hard wired to pick up on anything that may be threatening to our existence, and to warn us when they are detected. Often the warning is communicated through feelings of fear or uneasiness, but sometimes the threats are obvious enough to be noted at the conscious level, as happened in this case. Regardless, our brain’s warning system is amazingly accurate in detecting threats, and we need to take it very seriously.
This is not meant to excuse reckless responses to vague concerns about our safety, or to justify the use of excessive force. Our duty to protect lives and legal survival demand that we must apply force only when objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, but we need to take notice of our instincts and adjust our responses accordingly. Often this means nothing more than raising your awareness level and planning ahead, but in other cases, it requires shifting to higher-risk tactics and then explaining your actions later if they are called into question. In this case, for example, the officers could have justified the use of high-risk tactics by articulating the danger signs they detected before initiating the stop. Though some may not agree with this point of view, consider the fact that it is easier to explain one’s use of extra caution than to allow a potentially dangerous situation to escalate into a lethal confrontation.
On the other hand, there are times when the need for high-risk tactics is not as clear as in this case, yet your observations and/or instincts are telling you unknown-risk tactics will not suffice. In such questionable-risk situations, we can often ramp up our tactics slightly without shifting to the kind of high-profile tactics that may draw a citizen complaint or supervisor’s reprimand. For example, Officers Thomas and Caldwell could have called Antoine out of his vehicle using high-risk vehicle stops tactics, but with their guns either holstered or held out of view. Their verbal commands could also have been simpler than those used in a high-risk stop if they wished. Instead of removing Antoine from the car with detailed, step-by-step instructions, for instance, they could have just told him to exit with his hands in plain view. Even though these commands are less effective than those used on a full-fledged high-risk stop, they are lower profile while still providing you with the tactical advantage of having the driver come to you. The thoroughness of the commands can vary depending on the perceived threat, but the key is to keep your distance, stay behind cover, direct the motorist back to you in a controlled manner, and be ready to shift to higher profile tactics if necessary.
The use of questionable-risk tactics may be of greater importance today than in the past because of the current climate of deep distrust and anger toward officers in the wake of the Brown shooting, accidental death of Eric Garner, and other highly politicized police use-of-force issues last year. These events and their aftermath have created a highly volatile environment that threatens to make officers dangerously hesitant to use force, or to even make a display of force. It can be argued that such concerns should never supersede officer safety, but it is unrealistic to ignore their influence in today’s culture of unbridled criticism of the police. Rather, we must acknowledge that these concerns exist, and develop more discreet tactics for dealing with questionable-risk situations.
Return to Question 1
Regardless of whether unknown-risk tactics were suitable for the perceived risks in this case, it is important to recognize that Officer Caldwell approached and positioned himself next to Antoine’s car in a textbook manner for an unknown-risk stop, and it probably saved his life. His positon behind the B-pillar worked as the tactic was designed to do by forcing Antoine to twist awkwardly around in his seat in order to shoot at him. As a result, Antoine’s shots went wide and saved Caldwell from taking one or more rounds to the head.
The position Officer Thomas chose to take after spotting Antoine’s gun, though rather unconventional, also proved to be very effective. As soon as he spotted the gun, he immediately stepped forward to a point just ahead of the windshield, where he could get a much clearer view of Antoine and target a larger portion of his body. This also allowed him to shoot at a significant downward angle instead of having to back away from the passenger door, squat to get a clear shot, and then fire across the front seat at a trajectory parallel to the ground. By depressing the muzzle, he kept his shots low while also helping to ensure that his bullets would have to pass through a considerable mass of the front seat, floor and/or the lower portions of the vehicle’s body before exiting the passenger compartment, thereby losing most if not all of their energy. This reduced the likelihood of his rounds striking Caldwell or any of the occupied homes across the street. It was a smart move that highlights the importance of positioning with regard to officer safety.
Return to Question 2
Contact and Cover
Besides taking up good positions, Officers Thomas and Caldwell used Contact and Cover to gain a vital tactical advantage over Antoine, and it paid big dividends by enabling Thomas to spot Antoine’s gun and respond accordingly before Antoine could use it effectively. Unfortunately, unlike Officers Thomas and Caldwell, many officers tend to waste this advantage by acting independently and/or failing to act as a team. To correct this problem we must establish areas of responsibility, and then coordinate our efforts to our fullest advantage. Contact and Cover does exactly that by assigning the contact officer to do everything that involves direct contact with the suspect/s (questioning, search¬es, arrests, etc.) while the cover officer takes a position of advantage that allows him to view the suspect from another angle and safer distance. From there, he watches the suspect(s) closely while also scanning for peripheral threats, danger signs, and to a lesser extent, any effort by the suspect(s)’ disposal of evidence.
Almost always when officers fail to use Contact and Cover properly it is not because it is difficult to apply, but because the cover officer’s role goes against the grain of most officers. The cover officer must stay out of the action and remain constantly vigilant in order to do the job properly, which takes a lot of patience and requires both physical and emotional distance from the encounter. Cops by nature want to get into the action and they quickly grow impatient when not directly involved. We must learn to overcome this tendency through awareness and training. First, we must keep in mind that any encounter can escalate into a lethal attack in an instant. This case should serve not only as a constant reminder of this brutal truth, but also of how effective Contact and Cover can be in dealing with it. Don’t waste the advantage offered by a backup officer by failing to use this tactic.
The importance of Contact and Cover should also be reinforced through training, both in the classroom and by incorporating scenarios that require its use into force-on-force exercises. In addition, road supervisors should insist that their officers practice Contact and Cover anytime an assist officer is on the scene, and then lead by example by taking the role of cover officer when backing them up. This not only reinforces the training, but it also provides a strong incentive for cover officers to resist the temptation to ignore their crucial area of responsibility.
Return to Question 3
Action vs. Reaction
Officer Thomas was haunted for a long time by the belief that he had been too slow in responding to Antoine’s attack. Even though he had the drop on Antoine and had already made up his mind to shoot him if he raised the gun, he wasn’t able to pull the trigger fast enough to beat him to the first shot. Thomas’ apparent slowness in responding to Antoine’s actions nearly cost him his partner’s his life, and he understandably felt like he had failed. But he wasn’t to blame. While the human brain is remarkably quick to respond to danger, its speed it limited by human physiology. Everything we do starts with observations and decisions made either consciously or subconsciously in the brain, and the more the brain has to do, the longer it takes. When threatened, the brain cannot initiate a response until it has first detected the threatening action, determined what is actually happening, and then decided how to deal with it. Only then can it begin to execute its decision with a physical countermeasure, and that countermeasure also takes time. Meanwhile, since the attacker is already in the process of physically executing his attack before the defender’s brain can even begin to detect it, the defender has to play catch-up. In short, action is always faster than reaction.
To his credit, Officer Thomas managed to shorten his reaction time by a few milliseconds by making up his mind to shoot Antoine if Antoine started to point his gun at Caldwell. Nevertheless, he still had to wait until Antoine made his move before he could actually execute his predetermined decision to respond with gunfire. In the meantime, he was still in the process of issuing his verbal command when Antoine initiated his attack, and it takes time to make the mental and physical shift from speaking to pulling the trigger. All this happens in just milliseconds, of course, but milliseconds can make all the difference in a gunfight. Under the circumstances, there is no way Officer Thomas could have stopped Antoine from getting off the first shot.
However, this doesn’t mean there is nothing an officer can do to help offset this disadvantage. Obviously, the most effective option would be to open fire without warning (more on this in the next section) but most officers are reluctant to do that, and it may not be practical or even legal under some circumstances. Another option is to issue a different warning than the common “Drop the gun!” command. Consider using “Don’t move!” instead. This option offers two advantages. First, it is a little shorter, which gives the suspect a little less time to act while you are still talking. More importantly, however, is the fact that it freezes the action. From that point forward, any move he makes can be considered hostile, whereas a command to drop the gun (or worse, to show his hands) creates an expectation of compliance that can cause you to be caught off guard if he attacks instead. While this change in commands won’t eliminate the action vs. reaction problem altogether, it is likely to lessen its impact by speeding up your reaction time.
Unfortunately, however, there is no verbal command that will stop a determined assailant from initiating an attack when he is so focused on carrying it out that he doesn’t care about the consequences, or—as appears to have been the case in this shooting—he isn’t even consciously aware of your presence. How successful he will be is another matter. Your level of awareness and readiness is a crucial factor, but, as is clear from our discussion so far, it cannot overcome the action vs. reaction problem altogether. This is why things like approach, positioning and tactics are so important. For instance, if Officer Caldwell had not stayed behind the B pillar, or if Officer Thomas had failed to move up to look through the right passenger window, it is very likely that Caldwell would have been shot. Still, while these two crucial actions probably saved Officer Caldwell’s life, neither was able to keep Antoine from firing the first shot. If, on the other hand, they would have had ordered Antoine to keep his hands on the steering wheel and look straight ahead before making their approach, Antoine would have had to take his hands off the wheel, pick up his gun, turn around in his seat ,and then locate Caldwell before opening fire. Thus, by slowing Antoine’s action time down by several fractions of a second, they would have bought considerably more to time to get their shots off first.
Return to Question 4
Considering the realities of the action vs. reaction phenomenon, is it really advisable and legal to issue a verbal warning in a case like this one? As with any other use-of-force situation, the answer to this question depends upon the totality of the circumstances and the objectively reasonable standard set in the landmark Graham vs. Connor decision. Thankfully, in most cases the decision is relatively easy to make: You are confronted with an obviously immediate threat on your life (e.g., a pointed gun, a knife attack at close range, etc.), so you respond with deadly force. However, there are a significant number of times when it is one of the most difficult decisions we will ever have to make, and it must be made right away, under exceedingly great stress, and with insufficient information to go on.
Can we always assume, for example, that a subject holding a gun is a deadly threat? In this case, it was clear that he was. He was holding it out of Caldwell’s view under suspicious circumstances implicating him in a possible robbery, and his overly cautious driving and ominous choice of a relatively secluded location for the stop added more danger cues to the mix. Moreover, he didn’t react in any discernable way to Thomas’ flashlight beam moving around inside the car and coming to rest on him, which strongly indicated that he was zeroed in on what he was about to do, and thus looking for the right moment to attack. But does that mean that we should automatically conclude that every person we see holding a gun presents a deadly threat? Of course not. While it is a strong indicator of danger, there has to be something more to show that he intends to use the weapon against us or others.
But evidence of hostile intentions may not necessarily be enough to justify the immediate use of deadly force without warning. While it certainly goes a long way in doing so and Graham v Connor makes no mention of a warning requirement, more information may be needed: From what you can tell, how likely is it that he will attack you or others? Is there any safe way to issue a warning without putting yourself or others at unnecessary risk? Every situation is unique, and even when the safest approach is to not issue a warning, the hard reality is that most officers find it very difficult to stop themselves from giving one. In Officer Thomas’ case, for example, he understandably believed that a verbal warning while holding Antoine at gunpoint would suffice. After all, he had him dead to rights and outnumbered, and one would expect any rational person to comply under those circumstances. Moreover, we human beings are reluctant to kill one another unless absolutely necessary for self-preservation, and the very real possibility of serious legal repercussions and/or negative public opinion makes the decision to pull the trigger even harder to make. Unless the subject is pointing a gun or at least reaching for one, there is always a concern that deadly force without warning will be deemed unreasonable.
On the other hand, we are not required to take unnecessary risks in order to make it a fair fight, and we all know how dangerous it can be to depend on benign intentions or rational behavior from an armed adversary, as Antoine’s actions in this case so clearly demonstrate. Furthermore, issuing a verbal warning to an offender about to shoot a fellow officer not only puts that officer in grave danger, but also increases the risk to your own safety. While it may convince him to abandon his plan to attack your partner, it is also likely to provoke him to turn on you instead. All these things need to be taken into consideration in an instant, and we can’t afford any mistakes.
Officer Thomas had a difficult decision to make. In retrospect, it is easy to say he should have shot Antoine without warning, but he didn’t have a crystal ball and it’s hard to argue with success. He did his best, and no one except Antoine was hurt. Still, his decision provides us with some valuable food for thought. We need to ask ourselves how we would respond in a situation like his. More importantly, however, we must honestly assess whether we are truly ready to make tough decisions under various other challenging circumstances, especially in this post-Michael Brown world in which everything we do is loudly protested by people poorly qualified to judge us.
So, how can we prepare for this challenge? The answer lies in training. It isn’t enough to listen to lectures on use of force or read through our department’s use-of-force policy. We must gain realistic hands-on experience in making hard use-of-force decisions if we truly want to get better at it. The best way to do this is with force-on-force and/or computer-based training. But the scenarios presented should not be limited to those that require nothing more than making distinctions between handguns and cell phones, or deciding whether an individual is reaching for a weapon or a wallet. While these are clearly important and should be part of the training, we need to do more. Scenarios should include increasingly more challenging use-of-force situations, such as a re-enactment of this case, or one in which an active killer is fleeing or still targeting victims when the trainee arrives. Should the trainee fire without warning or issue a verbal warning first? What if there are innocent citizens in close enough proximity to the shooter who may be at risk from the officer’s gunfire? Other examples may include scenarios involving non-compliant suspects who are attempting to access a weapon but are not yet presenting an immediate threat with it , fleeing offenders who present various kinds of threats to the officer or others, and unarmed assailants in different threatening situations. There are countless other possibilities for scenarios, including numerous actual cases, many of which are recorded on dash or body cams. We just have to look for them.
A lower-cost option that can be used in lieu of, or as a supplement to, reality-based training is classroom case studies based on actual court cases and other real-life events involving difficult use-of-force decisions. This can be a very effective way to develop practical shoot/don’t shoot decision-making skills, especially when the case studies are progressively more difficult. When possible, it also helps to break into small groups for discussion, because most people will express new ideas far more freely and learn more in small groups.
For individual officers who don’t have access to formal training in this area, another option is to read through key court decisions on the use of force like Graham vs. Conner and Tennessee vs. Garner, and examine the decisions made by the justices with an eye to understanding how they came to make those decisions. If done on the Internet, links in the texts of these cases can be used to access and study other important use-of-force cases in the same way. This kind of training will lead to a better understanding of how the courts view use of force, which in turn helps develop the specific mental processes needed to make better use-of-force decisions.
Return to Question 5
Shooting Until the Threat is Neutralized
Because of the accuracy of Officer Thomas’ gunfire and number of rounds fired, Antoine received an unusually large number of hits. In the eyes of many who are ignorant about the harsh realities of real-world gunfights, this might seem excessive. Fortunately, since this shooting occurred several years ago and wasn’t scrutinized with the kind of suspicion and anger that would be the case today, it didn’t cause any serious problems for the officers. And even today, there could be no rational reason to dispute its legality. Still, we must be aware of the current political pressure to severely limit police use of force of every kind, no matter how justified, and therefore be ready to carefully articulate any and all use of force in detail. If the number of shots fired in this case had been questioned, for example, it would have been important to point out that it was dark and that Antoine’s position behind the wheel kept him from fully collapsing as an indication that he had been neutralized (Caldwell had seen him slumped over in his seat slightly and ceased firing as a result, but Thomas hadn’t been in a position to notice). Meanwhile, Thomas was moving quickly to a position of cover while continuing to fire at an assailant who he couldn’t see clearly but who had just ambushed his partner. By Thomas’ estimation, the entire gunfight was over within three or four seconds, leaving him no time to pause to assess whether his shots were having any effect on Antoine.
It has always been very important to thoroughly explain our actions in use-of-force cases, but recent events have magnified the need to do so to an immense degree. In today’s environment, we can’t afford to make even the smallest mistake when it comes to justifying our actions. Make sure you know the law and your department policy on use of force, and get into the practice of writing as detailed a report as possible every time you are involved in even the most minor use-of-force incident. Then, carefully scrutinize the report and go over it with your supervisor with the aim of adding any details you may have missed. Experience is the best teacher, and the experience of writing use-of-force reports in this way will make you even better at it. Then, in the unfortunate event that you are involved in a politically sensitive use-of-force incident, you will be much better prepared to articulate and defend your actions.
Return to Question 6
Failure to Call Out
Under peer pressure from more senior officers, Thomas and Caldwell made a mistake that could have had serious consequences if either of them had been seriously wounded—they failed to call out. Under the chaotic stress of a gunfight, it is not uncommon for officers to speak in rushed, excited voices that are hard to understand, be covered by other radio traffic, or call in the wrong location like Officer Thomas did. In addition, using the radio is time-consuming and can be distracting, especially if you have to stop to think about your exact location. Considering how quickly things can change in a gunfight and the confusion they cause, you can’t afford to spend any more time or mental energy than necessary on the radio. And if, like most officers, you are alone, failing to call out can be even more devastating. In that case, if you become disabled, it can take many long minutes before anyone even misses you, and depending upon the size of the venue you serve and manpower available, it may take hours before anyone finds you.
But there is another, even more important safety issue to consider regarding Officers Caldwell and Thomas’ failure to use the radio: Police officers are not immune to human shortcomings, and human beings are incredibly vulnerable to negative peer pressure. This can lead to some very bad choices, like giving in to pressure from senior officers who object to younger, more enthusiastic officers tying up the radio with self-initiated activities. As happens in police work more often than we like to think, it was the one time that Caldwell and Thomas violated a very basic safety procedure that they met up with the wrong guy at the wrong time. They were smart enough, skilled enough, and lucky enough to come out of it without a scratch, but we aren’t always that lucky. The culture of every police department should be saturated with a focus on officer safety. We should encourage our fellow officers to follow the safety rules—not break them—and to be smart, alert, and cautious at all times, because if we don’t watch out for each other, no one else will.
Return to Question 7
Having never considered how to approach a downed suspect, Officers Thomas and Caldwell decided to approach Antoine before their backup arrived. Whenever possible, the officers involved should not be the ones to take the downed offender into custody. Because of the heightened stress levels and strong emotions they are likely to be experiencing, it is very probable they will not be emotionally equipped to handle the risks and potentially critical decisions associated with the task, even it is seems evident that the offender is fully incapacitated. Furthermore, in the event that their assailant makes a threatening move and they have to shoot again, their response could be construed as an act of vengeance. In today’s hostile environment against the police, this sort of misunderstanding could have devastating results. The better approach is to move the involved officer(s) away from the scene as soon as enough officers are on the scene to take over, and then have the newly arrived officers make a plan that takes approach angles and potential crossfire concerns into consideration.
However, Thomas and Caldwell had never been trained in post-shooting tactics and thus were forced to improvise under stress. Under the circumstances, they handled themselves well, though not without the unnecessary risk of approaching their downed assailant in a less-than-ideal frame of mind. The point here is that, since it isn’t easy to improvise under stress, post-shooting tactics should not be ignored in police training.
Return to Question 8
Officers Thomas and Caldwell had received well-above-average firearms training from their department. Limiting its qualifications to once a year, the department emphasized practical training instead, with two practical shoots per year involving night fire, one-handed shooting, shooting while moving, and high-stress exercises, etc. Officers were also encouraged to practice on their own, and the department even sponsored firearms training from private sources that were open to any officer who wanted to attend. Although the officers had to pay for the training themselves, ammunition was provided at no cost and they were allowed to attend on department time.
Both officers took firearms training very seriously and worked hard at it, but Thomas was especially committed. Motivated partially by a fondness for shooting, but more by his firm belief that he would someday be confronted with a lethal threat, he often took advantage of the department-sponsored private training and also trained regularly on his own. Expending an average of 100-200 rounds per week, he honed his marksmanship to a fine edge, but didn’t stop there. He also practiced his gun handling skills, different shooting positions, and various street-relevant shooting techniques.
As is often the case in officer-involved shootings, Thomas and Caldwell’s firearms training paid off in a big way. Both officers started moving and shooting almost instantly after Antoine opened fire, thus making themselves harder targets while returning devastating fire that quickly neutralized the threat. Both also used night-fire techniques they had learned at the range, and Thomas in particular had thoroughly practiced shooting one-handed with his flashlight resting on his shoulder. Finally, Officer Thomas’ accuracy was nearly flawless, proving once again the value of commitment and hard work when it comes to training.
Most officers never have to shoot another human being, but carrying a gun into dangerous situations is very serious business and an awesome responsibility. Make the best use of every bit of firearms training you can get, and practice on your own whenever you can.
There can be little doubt that there was nothing either officer could have done to dissuade Antoine from trying to kill Officer Caldwell. On parole as a three-striker, he had just participated in an armed robbery and was in possession of a loaded, stolen firearm. With a prior conviction for a cold-blooded attempted murder, he was also no stranger to violence and probably felt he had nothing to lose. Even when caught off guard by Officer Thomas’ sudden appearance in a superior tactical position, he stubbornly refused to be deterred from that goal. This kind of irrational refusal to consider the likely consequences of their behavior is common among cop killers, as they tend to be impulsive, driven by emotions, and unable to see beyond the short term. It is no wonder they are so unpredictable, hard to reason with, and dangerous.
Antoine also displayed another common characteristic of the cop-killer mindset when conversing with Officer Thomas prior to the attack. His calm demeanor gave no indication of his violent intentions, and clearly demonstrated his cool, calculating willingness to take a human life. There was no anxiety, no scruples over what he was about to do; just an ice-cold heart ready to do violence to fulfill his self-centered desire to escape punishment.
The average citizen rarely if ever has to deal with people like Maurice Antoine, but it is our job to not only deal with them, but to seek them out and take them off the street before they can do more damage. To do that, we must realize the kind of people they are so we can better understand what we are dealing with. That understanding shouldn’t worry us. Instead, it should serve to raise our awareness and solidify our commitment to train hard, be prepared for anything, and win no matter what.
Return to Question 9
- Trust your instincts, and be ready to ramp up your awareness and tactics when those instincts warn you of possible danger. For those times when it appears that unknown-risk tactics will not suffice but high-risk tactics are not appropriate either, questionable-risk tactics can fill the void.
- Always be aware of your approach and position when dealing with risky situations, and use them to you advantage.
- Contact and Cover is essential to officer safety. Make it a habit to use it properly as a matter of routine when working with officers.
- Action is always faster than reaction. This fact poses a serious hazard to police officers, but there are some things we can do to help alleviate it, including keeping verbal commands to a minimum and the use of proper approach, positioning and tactics.
- A thorough understanding of the legal issues related to the use of force is crucial to proper decision-making in challenging use-of-force situations. Make sure you fully understand them to the point that you can apply them appropriately under the stress, time pressures, and chaos of real-world violent encounters.
- Make sure you not only fully understand the legalities of police use of force, but that you are also able to explain your actions in all use-of-force incidents.
- Don’t let peer pressure deter you from following important safety procedures like calling out on all traffic stops, and do your part to help your fellow officers to follow the safety rules.
- Once an armed assailant has been neutralized, it is best to wait for backup to arrive and then let your backup officers approach and secure the downed suspect.
- As is often the case in officer-involved shootings, Thomas and Caldwell’s firearms training paid off in a big way. Make the best use of every bit of firearms training you can get, and practice on your own whenever you can.
- Train hard, be prepared for anything, and be steadfast in your commitment to win no matter what.
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