Planning Ahead: The John Schoen Incident
By Brian McKenna
Description of Incident
The biting wind cut Deputy John Schoen to the bone as he returned to the welcome warmth of his cruiser after investigating another traffic accident. He sat down, rubbed his hands together to warm them, and took note of the bright sun in the now-clear sky. Maybe the sunlight would help clear the streets, slow things down a bit, and give him time to take in lunch and finish up some of his paperwork. It had been one of those days. Snow the night before, bitter cold, and icy rural roadways had led to numerous traffic crashes and a pile of accident reports.
Schoen, 27, had only been with the sheriff’s office for five years, but he had joined the Army at 18, served in the airborne infantry and later as a CID investigator, spent a year in Bosnia, and had two years police experience with another sheriff’s department. He was young, aggressive and dedicated, and his hard work and experience had earned him a spot as assistant team leader on the county’s special response team as well as his current assignment as a canine handler. Things were going well, but his career wasn’t what was on his mind. He was just hungry, happy to be sitting in the warmth of his cruiser, and anxious to get caught up with his accident reports.
But his lunch and paperwork would have to wait. His call number crackled from his radio, followed by an assignment to check on the welfare of a woman at a residence in the far southeast corner of the county. The dispatcher advised that the woman hadn’t shown up for work for two days, but had nothing else to add.
The residence was in a remote location far from backup and in an area that wasn’t very familiar to Schoen. He found the correct street with little trouble, but, due to the fact that many of the homes didn’t have their addresses on display, went to the wrong house. After running the plate on a car in the driveway that revealed he was close to his destination but not there yet, he continued on about a quarter mile, where he found a private driveway leading up to a house nestled among some trees about 100 yards from the road. There were no other houses nearby. It had to be the correct location.
As he turned into the driveway, the first thing Schoen noticed was the conspicuous absence of any tracks in the snow, indicating no vehicular traffic since at least the night before. At first, the residence appeared to be a typical two-story farmhouse with a barn and several other outbuildings nearby. But as Schoen made his way up the driveway, he could see it more clearly. Hardly the typical farmhouse he had believed it to be, it was a single-story residence, still under construction and sitting atop an empty concrete shell. He got the impression that the original home had been lifted up to make a second story, with the empty foundation slipped in below for its first floor. There were no visible steps leading upstairs, and an extension ladder led up to a porch that ran along the entire width of the second floor. Unless there was a staircase somewhere in the lower level that led upstairs, the only way to check out the second-floor living area would be to climb the ladder, move across the porch, and enter through the front door. Alert, safety conscious, and always thinking ahead, Schoen instinctively took notice of the tactical implications of the odd structure. There was no way to climb the ladder and cross the porch without exposing himself to danger from anyone inside.
Schoen saw no vehicles in the driveway or anywhere else, and no signs of any recent activity in or around the house. In fact, it looked as if no one lived there. Still, Schoen knew better than to assume anything. Welfare checks could mean anything from a telephone malfunction to a natural death, to a mass of bloody bodies. Department policy required a thorough investigation, including entry into the dwelling, and Schoen was too dedicated to the safety of the county’s citizens to handle them in any other way. He let the dispatcher know he had arrived but forgot to advise her that he had changed locations—a mistake that would delay things later on—then stepped out into the bone-chilling cold and snow.
Before approaching the front of the house he walked around the lower level, checking for anything out of the ordinary and looking for ways to get upstairs. There were no surprises except for the complete lack of any signs of life—no footprints, no yard tools, no trash, nothing but the unbroken surface of the fresh snow—and no staircases. He found a doorway and several windows in the lower level, but the inside was completely empty and devoid of any steps or other means of getting upstairs. He would have to enter via the ladder and front door.
He didn’t like being in such a vulnerable position, but police work sometimes entails unavoidable risks. The best he could do was to make a plan in case he got in trouble. Preplanning was second nature to him and he made his plan not out of fear, but in pragmatic recognition of the fact that bad things sometimes happen. With nowhere else to go in the event that he would have to escape the hot zone, he decided his only option would be to jump off the porch.
With this simple but practical plan in mind, Schoen climbed the ladder and crossed the porch to the nearest window, a large picture window with no curtains. He quick peeked inside, noting that the room was nearly empty except for a few boxes that appeared to be typical of the inside of a building under construction. There was nothing to indicate that anyone lived there and no signs of violence. Standing slightly to the left side of the door, he knocked and waited. No reply. He tried again and again got no response.
Now more convinced than ever that no one was inside, Schoen tried the door and found it to be unlocked. Then, lulled into an uncharacteristic moment of complacency by his sincere belief that the house was vacant, he made a mistake. Pushing the door open about halfway with his right hand, he moved partly into the doorway and started to announce his presence.
“Sheriff’s Depart…” he shouted, but that’s as far he got.
Without warning, a shadowy figure of a man flashed into view, spinning into the open doorway of an adjoining room about 10 feet directly in front of him. Before his startled mind could fully grasp what was happening to him, deadly fire burst from the muzzle of a shotgun the man was holding. Schoen took the full blast in his right hand, arm, chest, neck and face, but didn’t feel any pain and didn’t recoil from its impact. He hardly knew he had been hit, largely because of the adrenalin surge, but also because his body armor absorbed all the hits to his torso. And he was also lucky that his assailant—a large, stocky man of 27 wearing a bushy beard and flannel shirt named Ilish Abir Shimpi—had loaded the shotgun with turkey loads. Still, at such short range the blast sent a devastating storm of near-BB-sized missiles into Schoen’s flesh.
More from the shock of the sudden violence than anything else, Schoen took a step back and to his right. Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction put him squarely inside the doorway. But before he could move out of the way, a second blast crashed into him, again hitting his neck and face along with his left side and arm.
Several thoughts flashed through his mind in rapid succession. First came utter confusion; then the harsh reality of what was actually happening to him, followed instantly by astonishing puzzlement as he—like many officers before him—wondered why anyone would inflict such violence upon him. Then, an instant later he became horrifically aware that he had lost the strength in both arms and most of his control over them (the radial nerves in both arms had been torn up by the blasts). He couldn’t fight back, couldn’t even draw his gun. “My God, I have to get out of this position!” he thought, and spun out of the doorway onto the porch.
His earlier decision to jump off the porch flashed through his brain, though he was barely conscious of the thought. Almost without thinking, he launched himself off the porch. It was a drop of about 12-15 feet, but Schoen’s airborne training took over. With his feet and knees together, and bending his knees at just the right instant as he hit the ground, he made the best parachute landing fall of his life without further injury. He knew he had to keep going, to get out of the range of that shotgun. His cruiser was too close, but there was a line of trees about 50 yards to his right. They should be far enough away, and would provide him with good concealment while he regrouped and decided what to do next.
As he struggled to get up, he realized that his arms weren’t completely useless. He still couldn’t draw his gun—a .40 caliber Glock 22—from his level III retention holster while running, but he could remove his portable radio from its carrier. As he drew the radio and tried to call for help, he heard Shimpi’s shotgun booming away at him again from the porch. Four blasts rang out as pellets tore into his flesh along the entire length of his back, from the back of his head to the calves of both legs. But he still felt no pain as the sound of the deadly shotgun drove him on toward the trees. Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of his lower right pants leg being shredded as a shot ripped into his calf. The revelation that he was still taking hits infuriated him, but all he could do for now was keep heading for the trees while working the radio.
He called again and again, but he was too far away to reach any of the county’s towers. He changed channels, tried again, and then tried several more channels until he finally reached a repeater on a local volunteer fire department’s tower. Abandoning all radio code, he simply yelled into the mic that he had been shot, repeated the transmission, and kept running until he finally reached the relative safety of the trees.
Then yet another obstacle got in his way. Unexpectedly, he encountered a barbed wire fence just inside the tree line. He was running too fast to stop, but still had time to dive over it. Clumsily, he made it over without breaking any bones or getting tangled up in the fence, and immediately took action to get back into the fight. He needed his gun, but he had to push down on it, twist outward, and rock it forward to release it from his complex holster, and his feeble unwieldy right hand wasn’t up to the task. Still, Shimpi wasn’t coming for him yet and he was well concealed in the trees. This bought him some time and he used it well. While lying on the ground, he managed to put the heel of his right hand on the back strap of his holstered Glock, lock the elbow, and push down with his shoulder to shove the gun down into the holster. Then he rolled his left arm across his body and willed his left hand to grab the grip of the gun, held on the best he could, and twisted his torso to the left to rotate the gun in the holster. Finally, by bending at his waist into a partial sitting position, he was able to rock the gun forward and out of the holster.
Now armed, Schoen stood up, looked toward the house, and noticed that Shimpi had left the porch and was nowhere to be seen outside. Apparently, the man had gone back inside, possibly to reload or otherwise prepare for a renewed attack. Alone in a remote part of the county with backup many long minutes away, and partially disabled from his wounds, Schoen had never felt so alone or afraid. He decided to follow the fence line back to the road, where he would be farther away from the house and in a better position for rescue. As he started tramping through the snow and brush toward the road, he got his first bit of good news as the familiar voice of a fellow canine handler on the highway patrol came across the fire channel. “Don’t worry, John,” the trooper said, “we’re on our way.”
Relieved by the trooper’s words and encouraged by the fact that Shimpi had stopped shooting, Schoen finally made his way to the road, where he kept an eye on the house while waiting for help to arrive. He spotted a car coming up the road a few minutes later, but he could see that it wasn’t a police vehicle. Still, the driver might have a cell phone he could use to establish better communication with this dispatcher. He flagged the driver down, and asked her if he could use her cell phone. Looking back at him with unexpected calm, the woman answered, “Where’s your badge?”
Like most canine officers, Schoen wore a utilitarian, low-profile uniform with a patch instead of a metal badge, and it was tattered and drenched in blood. In retrospect, the woman’s question was reasonable and surprisingly unruffled, but Schoen was shocked and disappointed by her unwillingness to help. “Are you f___ing kidding?” he growled.
Before the woman could respond, Schoen caught sight of Shimpi coming down the ladder from the porch, apparently unarmed. Shimpi strolled over to the patrol car as Schoen’s canine partner Falco barked at him excitedly from the kennel in the back seat. He stopped next to the driver’s door and opened it, prompting Schoen to believe he was going to steal his car. But then he raised his arm and thrust it through open door toward the back seat. Though he couldn’t see clearly what was in Shimpi’s hand, Schoen immediately knew he had been wrong about him being unarmed. In startled horror, he watched as the gunman fired twice into the cruiser, sparking a painful yelp from Falco. Brokenhearted, he could only hope the wounds weren’t fatal.
Clearly, Shimpi was still a lethal threat, especially if he got back inside the house where he could snipe at anyone who approached. What other firearms did he have in there, and how much ammo? Why was he doing this, and what would it take to stop him? Schoen knew he had to be stopped, but he could barely hold onto his gun and hitting Shimpi at this range would be a very tough shot even on a good day. Still, he had to try. Calculating the distance at about 100 yards, Schoen clumsily raised the Glock into firing position and aimed at a point about an inch above Shimpi’s head. He couldn’t use the last three fingers on his right hand, leaving only his thumb and trigger finger to grip the gun, and his left hand was almost as bad. Even holding the gun up was a struggle with his battered arms, and he had to lean back to raise the muzzle up high enough. But pulling the trigger wasn’t a problem. He fired several times as the stunned motorist sped away in confusion and disbelief.
Shimpi showed no signs that he had been hit—no flinching, staggering or change in gait—as he walked away from the cruiser and disappeared into the barn. Moments later, the man came out of the barn carrying a red container, climbed up the ladder with it, and went back inside. Schoen lowered the Glock and sunk to his knees.
A fire truck from the local volunteer fire department was the first to arrive. With uncommon courage sparked by compassion for the bloodied deputy, the crew braved the danger, entered the hot zone, loaded him into the truck, and rushed him to the nearest hospital.
Meanwhile, Shimpi telephoned the dispatcher, told her he had shot a deputy and asked her to send more. As officers from the surrounding area poured into the scene, he barricaded himself inside the castle-like residence and refused to come out. After a two-hour standoff, smoke began seeping from the structure, followed by flames that soon engulfed the entire upstairs. Shimpi was later found inside, dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. His remains were so badly burned that it couldn’t be determined whether any of Deputy Schoen’s rounds had struck him. The charred remains of a 9mm pistol (the gun he used to shoot Falco) and a semiautomatic AK-47 rifle were also found in the rubble. Deputy Schoen had been lucky, as it is unlikely he would have survived if Shimpi had used the powerful AK-47 instead of the shotgun loaded with turkey shot.
Subsequent investigation revealed that Shimpi was a paranoid schizophrenic who lived with his parents in the house where the shooting occurred. He had gone off his medication some time before the incident, which had led to family problems that culminated with him murdering both of his parents. During an argument with his father, Shimpi had shot him with the same shotgun he had used on Schoen. Then, when his mother, who had been out of town at the time of the shooting, returned home, he had killed her with the shotgun as well. Both parents were later found under a trash pile behind the house with a rope tied around their ankles. Drag marks and tire tracks determined that Shimpi had dragged them there behind his pickup truck. Shimpi had no arrest record, and no apparent history of violent behavior before the murders.
Schoen was treated at the hospital for shotgun wounds too numerous to count. Again, he had been very fortunate. One of the pellets that struck him in the neck had missed his left carotid artery by a meager 1/6 inch, and so many pellets had been stopped by his body armor that they had spilled out on the floor of the ambulance when the front panel of his vest was removed, causing one of the paramedics to slip and fall. Later at the hospital, a nurse suffered the same fate when the back panel was removed. Though humorous, these events provide a sobering example of how important it is to wear body armor. Despite serious nerve damage to his arms that threatened his full recovery, Schoen spent only four days in the hospital and was able to return to full duty two months later. He left the sheriff’s department several years later for a career in federal law enforcement.
Sadly, Falco died from his wounds. But his death had meaning. Schoen believes that it was Falco’s shrill barking that kept Shimpi from following him into the tree line. Angered by the noise, the crazed gunman went after the dog instead, which gave Schoen time to escape.
Discussion & Analysis
Deputy Schoen was understandably caught off guard by Shimpi’s unexpected attack. While it is important to consider the few mistakes he made leading up to the attack, it is equally important to recognize that it was his tactical awareness and preplanning that saved him from almost certain death. Had he not thought beforehand about his vulnerability and what he could do about it, it is highly unlikely he would have been able to jump off the porch before Shimpi’s barrage disabled or killed him. That single momentary forethought made all the difference.
The following analysis will address this point in greater detail, as well as a number of other key lessons from this incident—lessons that can save lives. We owe it to Deputy Schoen and all our other fellow officers to learn as much as we can from this incident. Before you read the analysis, however, please review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.
- Deputy Schoen recognized the tactical problems associated with Shimpi’s residence, and immediately decided what he would do about it if attacked. How important was that to the outcome of this incident? How important is preplanning to officer safety and how can you improve your own ability to use it when needed?
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- Evaluate Deputy Schoen’s door entry tactics. What could he have done to enter the residence more safely?
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- Do you agree that Deputy Schoen had no other choice than to exit the hot zone as quickly as possible? What tactical advantages, if any, does exiting the hot zone provide?
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- Evaluate Deputy Schoen’s use of the radio. Would it have been better for him to wait until he reached cover before trying to call for help? Why? How important is it to keep communications advised of your correct location?
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- Deputy Schoen had a lot of trouble drawing his gun because of the wounds to his hands and arms, especially those to his more-badly-wounded gun hand. Would a backup gun have given him a better chance of defending himself under the circumstances? If so, where would have been the best place for him to carry it? How important is it to carry your backup gun at a location that makes it easily accessible with your support hand?
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- Deputy Schoen had to take a shot with his handgun at a distance of approximately 100 yards. Is this an important skill for a police officer to possess? Why?
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- In what ways did Deputy Schoen’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset? Discuss his persistence, ability to keep thinking on his feet, and ability to stay focused on the things he could do to help himself.
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Danger Signs and Planning Ahead
Officers often get hurt because they fail to notice danger signs and/or, having noticed them, fail to take appropriate action in response to them. Deputy Schoen certainly didn’t fall into the first category. In fact, he was probably more alert than most officers would be under similar circumstances, as indicated by the way he intuitively picked up on the tactical problem presented by the house. However, in one sense he failed to take appropriate action in response to the danger signs, in that he exposed himself in the doorway. But in another sense, he did take appropriate action. He didn’t dismiss his concerns or try to rationalize them away as officers sometime do, but listened to them and then planned a response in case something happened, which probably saved his life. Often that is all we can do because circumstances won’t always allow us to take any overt action. In this case for instance, there was no way to even reach the door except to climb the ladder and walk across the porch. Certainly, we should try to take whatever actions we can to reduce the risk (Deputy Schoen should have taken a position to one side of the door, for example), but sometimes the best we can do is ratchet up our awareness, make a plan, and then proceed cautiously as we move ahead.
The plan doesn’t have to be complicated. Often it can be as simple as Schoen’s was, but in order to be truly effective, it has to become a habit. We should develop the mental habit of always asking ourselves: “What is there about this situation that makes me vulnerable and what can I do about it?” “What can go wrong here and what will I do if it does?” Like physical habits, mental habits are created by repetition. By continually asking these kinds of questions on every call we handle and every street contact we make, no matter how “routine” it may appear to be, this mental game will eventually become a habit.
Once this game becomes a habit, it is still important to continue “playing” it consciously, but even when you are not at your best, it will be operating in the back of your mind to provide you with options in case something goes wrong.
Another very important aspect of this habit is that it helps develop mental flexibility over time. When done only when the need for it is obvious, preplanning may only prepare you for the particular threat you planned for, which leaves you vulnerable to any threat you didn’t anticipate. But this isn’t the case when it is done often enough to become a matter of routine. The human brain has a remarkable capacity to change with use. Like muscle groups, various parts of the brain can be targeted for development. And like muscles, those areas grow stronger and better as they are exercised. With repeated use in a particular way, the brain learns how to pick up important patterns, quickly spot what is important and what is not, and then respond accordingly. Like playing a computer game or sport, the “game” of thinking about possible threats and how to deal with them becomes second nature. Threat assessment and decision making are no longer a matter of trying to analyze every piece of input bit-by-bit in an attempt to gauge its importance, but about quickly taking in the entire picture and automatically knowing what to do, sometimes even without being consciously aware that we are doing it.
This was perhaps Deputy Schoen’s greatest asset. He had always played the game, not just with regard to police work, but in other ways as well. In the military he had done it, and even when driving he had done it. When driving, he was always watching, analyzing, trying to think about what other drivers might do to endanger him, and planning what to do if they did. This carried over to his patrol work, K9 duties and SWAT operations, and it served him well when he walked into Shimpi’s ambush.
Return to Question 1
Deputy Schoen’s most obvious and significant mistake was the way he entered the door. Whereas he had done a good job of planning ahead earlier, this time he was misled by his logical, yet mistaken conclusion that the house was vacant. This point highlights the fact that even the best prepared officer can sometimes make a mistake. This is where tactics come in. Besides conveying a message of preparedness to any potential adversary and providing you with a tactical advantage if attacked, they act as a safety net in case you make a mistake like Deputy Schoen did. For example, if he had stood farther to one side of the door, paused, listened, and then quick peeked once or twice before stepping into the doorway, it probably would have made up for his momentary lapse into complacency. However, in order for tactics to work, they must be in place when needed, and the best way to ensure that happens is to make a habit of using them at all times. As with preplanning, make a conscious effort to put good tactics into place whenever practicable, and eventually it will become a habit that provides you with an extra layer of protection against mistakes and/or unanticipated dangers.
Standing next to doors is a habit that every officer should cultivate, but in some cases it may not be enough. In any situation that makes you uneasy, consider doing more. Depending upon the circumstances, there are several things you can do: Stay outside as you assess the circumstances further by listening longer, quick peeking through windows at various locations around the house, etc. After opening the door, call out to anyone who may be inside, and then pause a little longer to look and listen some more. When looking inside, try to anticipate where someone could be lying in ambush, and plan how best to deal with the possibility. Plan how you will enter, and, perhaps more importantly, where you will go once inside. Distractions should also be considered. If you have backup, consider having him bang on a wall, window or other door, or have him open the other door, activate his siren, flash his spotlight through a window, etc. Then enter as quickly as you can and head for the destination you chose earlier.
Another distraction is one that can be used even when alone; i.e., throwing a glow stick into the room, and then moving in right behind it. This creates a relatively minor, yet very effective distraction that disrupts the thought processes of anyone inside the room. In addition, since the eyes naturally follow any item that comes across their field of view, the sudden moving light will cause anyone inside to take their eyes off the door, even when the room is well lit. The stick doesn’t have to be aimed at any particular spot in the room. In fact, it may be even more distracting if it bounces off the door, a wall, or even the suspect as it flies into the room. Another advantage of glow sticks is that they can be useful in other applications, like signally for help when hurt, offering some limited illumination when the batteries run out in your flashlight, or when dimmer light is needed. One large sheriff’s department even uses them to mark routes when responding to calls at remote, unfamiliar locations when backup may be needed. The first deputy to respond places one at each key intersection or other important landmark to expedite the arrival of any units who may have to follow him in. Glow sticks are also inexpensive, lightweight, and compact enough to be carried at all times. Every officer should consider carrying a few of them.
Return to Question 2
Exiting the Hot Zone
Ordinarily, it is best to fight back when attacked. Aggressive return fire will force your assailant to re-think his plan of attack while also keeping you focused on your most important goal—stopping the threat. However, return fire isn’t always possible, as is graphically evident in this case. Since Deputy Schoen’s wounds kept him from immediately returning fire or even drawing his weapon, his only alternative was to immediately exit the hot zone. There is no shame in making a tactical withdrawal in order to stay in the fight, reassess your options, make a plan, etc.
In fact, in many cases a tactical withdrawal can be turned to our advantage as long as we stay focused on winning. Once in a safer place, we can position ourselves to ambush our adversary if he follows, or if he doesn’t, to regroup, reload if necessary, call and wait for help, etc. Then, at a time and manner of our choosing, we can take the initiative with renewed resources and a solid plan of action.
Return to Question 3
Alone in a remote area with help far away, rendered nearly helpless from his wounds, and unable to draw his gun on the run, Deputy Schoen was understandably anxious to call for help. Still, from a purely objective point of view, it would have been better for him not to use the radio while running as it slowed him down and probably distracted him from zigzagging more effectively (he later commented that he had zigzagged somewhat but not as widely as he should have). It is very common for officers to use their radios prematurely when under fire because of the natural urge to want to get help when in trouble. However, it can be dangerous to focus on the radio when other things are more important, like fighting back, or, as in this case, escaping the hot zone as quickly and safely as possible. Since the vast majority of gunfights will be over long before assistance can arrive, it is unlikely that calling for it earlier will get anyone there in time to help you neutralize the threat. Take care of the threat first, get to a place of relative safety, or at least wait for a pause in the action before calling for help.
Still, it isn’t easy to overcome the impulse to get on the radio when in trouble. It takes commitment, forethought and training. Make up your mind, know that you will take care of first things first, and delay using the radio until the appropriate time. Then use mental imagery to reinforce this decision by including the proper use of the radio in your mental scenarios. Finally, the proper use of the radio should be incorporated into reality-based training exercises and reinforced in the debriefings afterward.
Another point regarding use of the radio is the importance of keeping the dispatcher properly advised of your location. Deputy Schoen notified the dispatcher when he arrived at Shimpi’s house, but neglected to tell her his exact location. Furthermore, by calling in the license plate of a vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway not long before arriving at the Shimpi’s residence, he had led her to believe that the neighbor’s address was the correct one. This caused some dangerous confusion for some of the responding units as well as the dispatcher. Fortunately, the mistake was realized before anyone attempted to enter the neighbor’s house in search of Schoen’s assailant; nevertheless, it shows how easily a simple communication oversight can endanger innocent citizens and fellow officers as well as the officer himself. Always keep your dispatcher updated on your exact location.
Return to Question 4
Support Hand Draws and Backup Guns
Deputy Schoen displayed commendable persistence and adaptability in drawing his gun. This problem was made worse by the fact that his gun hand (i.e., his right) was in worse shape than his left. One pellet had torn through its pinky and ring fingers before lodging inside the middle finger, mangling all three and making them useless. It would have been virtually impossible to draw with that hand, especially from his level III retention holster.
However, it is interesting to note that Schoen was carrying a backup gun and believes he could have drawn it with his less-mangled left hand if he had thought about it. He explains that the thought didn’t occur to him because he had just started carrying the gun. This is a crucial point, because it again demonstrates the importance of preplanning. Under stress, we tend to fall back on things that are familiar to us and ignore things that are not, like the fact that we are carrying a backup gun when we have never carried one before. This phenomenon can even carry over to ignoring the weapon when it is needed for a situation we haven’t considered before. In one case, for example, an officer ran out of ammunition and retreated to his patrol car for more, despite the fact that he was carrying a backup gun. When asked later why he didn’t use his backup instead, he said he never even considered it because—though he had been carrying it for years—he had only thought about using it if he was disarmed. Having never considered other situations in which he might need it, he defaulted to what was in his mental toolbox when he ran out of ammo—returning to his cruiser for more. We can’t count on being able to think outside the box under stress, which is why we must precondition our minds beforehand through preplanning. When carrying a backup gun for the first time, give careful consideration to the various times when it may be needed, and imagine using it under those circumstances. Then make sure to train with it as much as possible (more on this later).
Deputy Schoen’s difficulty in drawing his duty gun highlights not only one of the foremost reasons for carrying a backup gun, but also the importance of carrying it where it is readily accessible with the support hand. There are a number of things that can keep you from drawing your sidearm with your gun hand besides wounds. Officers have had their gun hands/arms trapped inside car doors after erroneously reaching inside to remove keys from an uncooperative motorist’s ignition, for example. Or your gun hand may be tied up trying to control an attacker, defend against a gun grab, fend off a weapon at close range, or even hold onto a guardrail or other item for support. All things considered, it is unsafe to depend upon the gun hand alone for accessing your weapon, especially when using today’s high-security holsters.
Where should the backup gun be carried? Many officers use ankle holsters, but ankle guns are hard to draw when standing and almost impossible to reach when running, engaged in a struggle or involved in any other vigorous activity. Ankle holsters also tend to be less secure than other holsters, and a quick, smooth draw often requires both hands. Pocket holsters offer an alternative to the ankle holster, but, though easier to reach than an ankle holster, some can be awkward to draw from in a struggle and many are not very secure. Another option is the shoulder holster, which holds the weapon securely and offers quick accessibility. However, they must be worn under a jacket or coat, which eliminates them as an option in mild or hot weather.
The best alternative is a body armor holster. These holsters are secure, well within easy reach even during vigorous activity, and readily accessible with the support hand if worn on the gun-side of the body. Body armor holsters do have one serious drawback that discourages many officers from wearing them, however: The shirt must be opened in order to reach the gun, which can be awkward and time consuming, especially with zippered shirts. Fortunately, this problem can be eliminated by sewing VelcroTM patches into the shirt flap to keep the shirt closed in place of the zipper or buttons. (On buttoned shirts the buttons should be removed from the inside flap and sewn over the button holes for appearance sake.) If the shirt is relatively loose-fitting, the shirt flap stays firmly closed and the backup gun is quickly accessible with just one hand. With a little practice, the gun can be drawn easily with either hand, especially if the holster is worn slightly forward of the armpit. Similarly, officers who wear external body armor can affix the backup holster to the inner surface of the vest carrier on the gun-hand side.
Regardless where carried, it is important to train and regularly qualify with the backup gun. Although the maximum firing distance may be reduced to 10 yards because of the limited ranges at which backup guns are commonly deployed, officers should be required to draw from their normal on-duty carry position, and to shoot the entire course with both the support and gun hands. A stress course should also be required, which should include, at the very least, drawing from various unusual positions. This is crucial, because backup guns are only needed in extreme situations, and extreme situations often require drawing from awkward positions.
Return to Question 5
No doubt, Deputy Schoen’s body armor saved his life. His doctors later told him the shotgun blasts to his torso would almost certainly have killed him if it had not been for his vest. But even if they had not caused any fatal wounds, they would undoubtedly have left him disabled. Down and with no time to draw his gun with his virtually useless arms, he would have been at Shimpi’s mercy. The crucial point here is that body armor not only prevents mortal wounds, but will often keep you on your feet and in the fight.
Deputy Schoen became almost obsessed with shooting at longer distances after the shooting. The incident had driven home the importance of being able to take long-range shots with a handgun, and he was determined to make sure he could do it if the need ever arose again. With practice, he eventually became good enough to hit a 12-inch circle at 100 yards on a regular basis. Even though he hasn’t had to use it again, he isn’t the first officer who needed that skill and he won’t be the last. If nothing else, Schoen’s experience should drive home the point that anything can happen in this business.
Long-range shooting with a handgun is a lost art in police work, and while 100-yard shots are probably rare enough to make it impractical to train for them on a regular basis, in today’s world of active shooters and terrorists, the usual 25-yard maximum may no longer be adequate. Back in the 1970s, officers used to qualify at 50 yards, and few failed. Then we decided that training at that range was no longer necessary and dropped the maximum to 25 yards. But what we neglected to consider then was that shooting at longer ranges did more than just add long-distance shots to our skill set. It also built up the shooter’s confidence in his shooting skills (if you can hit at 50 yards, 25 looks easy), and confidence is essential to good marksmanship, clear thinking, and proper decision making. Granted, many officers are now trained and equipped with patrol rifles, but the rifle isn’t always available. We should seriously consider returning to the 50-yard maximum with the handgun.
Return to Question 6
There can be little doubt that Deputy Schoen’s mindset saved his life. We have already discussed how essential his preplanning was to the favorable outcome, but that wasn’t the only element of mindset that paid off. Like other winners, he never stopped thinking on his feet. He didn’t panic, or give in to his wounds, or the fear spawned by them. He kept planning, kept moving, kept doing whatever he needed to do to improve his situation. Even his inability to draw his gun didn’t stop him. Instead of allowing it to get him down, he took immediate action to get to a safer place where he could work on the problem, and then stuck with it until he had his gun in hand. This kind of tenaciousness and focus on what you can do to help yourself is what can be referred to as Warrior Optimism, and it is one of the most common traits among officers who win against all odds on the streets. Regardless how bad things get, they focus on their resources, no matter how limited those resources may be, and use them to find a way to win. Deputy Schoen’s ability to maintain that kind of optimistic focus should serve as an inspiration to us all.
Return to Question 7
Deputy Schoen suffered a considerable amount of emotional trauma as a result of the shooting. Plagued with initial fears that Shimpi had escaped (it was two weeks before Shimpi’s body was identified), he felt highly vulnerable during the critical time immediately following the shooting. This problem was aggravated by the fact that he had just closed on a new house, which meant that he had to move into unfamiliar surroundings after leaving the hospital, thus denying him the vital feelings of security that normally come with going home. Unaware of what to expect after such a traumatic event, he continued to suffer unreasonable fears and other serious emotional issues for several months until he finally sought help from a professional counselor who specialized in PTSD. On his first visit, the counselor made it clear that his thoughts and emotions were perfectly normal for someone who was in his situation. The effects of the counselor’s comments were almost instantaneous. With the revelation that he wasn’t emotionally weak, mentally ill, or alone, his symptom quickly dissipated and he was able to move on.
Three things played a significant part in Deputy Schoen’s recovery:
- His willingness to get help: Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is a sign of courage. It shows a willingness to face your fears and get help, not only for your own sake, but for the sake of your loved ones, fellow officers, and the citizens you serve. Your emotional pain affects them too, and the sooner you recover, the better off they will be.
Many police agencies now require their officers to meet with a psychologist following shootings and this has many positive benefits, including removing the stigma of seeing the psychologist and allowing the officers to learn more about what they are going through, but this may not be enough. Many officers are reluctant to talk frankly with the department “shrink” out of fear that their conversations will not be held in confidence. In addition, departmental psychologists vary in their level of expertise in dealing with the emotional aftermath of traumatic events. Officers who are not comfortable or satisfied with the departmental psychologist should seek further consultation with a private psychologist through their personal medical insurance.
- The realization that he wasn’t mentally ill or emotionally weak. The thoughts and emotions experienced in the aftermath of a traumatic event can be very disturbing. Failing to understand that these reactions are normal can lead you to the belief that you are emotionally weak, mentally ill, or even insane, which only makes it that much harder to recover. This is why it is so important for officers to know about the reactions they are likely to experience in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Knowing what to expect is a critical step in dealing with the emotional aftermath of a shooting or other critical incident.
- Learning that he was not alone. Once Deputy Schoen realized his symptoms were typical among normal people who have experienced traumatic events, he knew he wasn’t alone. It is very stressful, confusing, and frightening to feel isolated and misunderstood when facing emotional pain, but knowing that others have experienced the same feelings is often the best medicine for relieving that burden. For the same reason, peer counseling is extremely effective in dealing with PTSD. Besides giving you the opportunity to talk about your feelings with others who have had similar experiences, it confirms that you are not alone.
Learn as much as you can about what to expect in the aftermath of a traumatic event and understand that, though your emotions and feelings may vary in nature and intensity, they are not a sign of weakness or insanity. Don’t ignore your reactions or try to cover them up, but have the wisdom and courage to seek help if you think you may need it. Finally, know that you are not alone
- Make a habit of always planning ahead, even in apparently low-risk situations.
- Always use appropriate tactics when standing outside of and/or entering any door.
- In most cases, fighting back is your best option when under fire, but there are times when it is better to make a tactical withdrawal. Besides allowing you to escape the immediate threat, a retreat will often allow you a tactical advantage, as long as you stay focused on winning.
- Though it is natural to want to call for assistance when under fire, it is more important to neutralize the threat and/or exit the hot zone first.
- Always carry a backup gun, and carry it in a location that makes it easily accessible with your support hand.
- Besides adding a skill that may be needed on the street, practicing longer-range shots will increase the shooter’s confidence. Officers and firearms instructors should consider the advantages of learning/teaching this skill
- Stay focused on winning in spite of fear, pain or anything else that may distract you from that goal.
- There are several things you can do to help with your emotional recovery in the aftermath of a lethal encounter. Among them are: Learn as much as you can about the thoughts and emotions associated with these events, remember that you are not alone, and don’t be afraid to seek help if you think you may need it.
Brian McKenna is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood (MO) Police Department, where he served in patrol, traffic, mobile reserve and training. He is a 32-year police veteran, with a strong background as a police trainer at both the recruit and in-service levels, and served his department as lead firearms instructor as well as in various other training functions. He is a state certified police instructor and a Certified Force Science Analyst, and holds a Master’s Degree in human resource development. Brian is a member of ILEETA and IALEFI, writes extensively on officer safety topics, and trains police officers nationwide in winning mindset and other topics related to officer safety. His book, Officer Down: Lessons from the Streets, is based upon this column and is only available for purchase on his website. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.we-training.com
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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)