Student Story #1

A student who was a Texas police officer in the 1970’s has shared several stories from his law enforcement career with us so that others could learn from his experiences in multiple officer-involved shootings.
This is the first in a series.

A Shooting

It has been difficult to come to the point of writing this down as evidenced by the passage of thirty years. This has been easy to discuss in passing as if it was the recollection of a movie scene, but it is very difficult to discuss in detail because it is real, and I was there, and I was involved. The salient details are as fresh in my mind today as they were when this shooting incident happened. This is an unfortunate fact of life – you can never forget something like this. I’m telling the story in the hope that some insight or observation may help another officer or anyone who has been involved in the taking of a life.
It is important that the other officers involved in this incident remain anonymous. The reason will become evident as I tell the story.

It was a slow Sunday afternoon in an old neighborhood. The radio was quiet, and I had not had a call for hours. I was just thinking about finding some fast food. My location was just North of 11th street and East of Tulane a few blocks. This was a good neighborhood for cruising the side streets looking for bad guys trying to avoid the main roads. Then the radio broke squelch: “All officers – discharging firearms in progress at 1000 T—- – any unit clear and close ….” I was close enough to the scene that I should have been able to hear the gunfire, but air-conditioning in Texas is sometimes more important that public safety. When I started in law enforcement, we did not have air-conditioning in the patrol cars. Those
were better but less comfortable times. Just seconds after the call, I turned onto 11th street heading west toward Tulane. I was surprised to see two police cars just in front of me. The sound of three hemi-head 383 engines winding up is something that air conditioning cannot cover. As the lead car slowed for his left turn onto T—-, we were all fairly close together. As I reached the corner and slid to a stop, I could see the first officer start to exit his car.

The scene was close to the Southeast corner. The first officer had pulled partially into the driveway of the corner house. The second officer pulled up behind the first police car and his front end was aimed at the driveway. He was back about 10 feet from the rear of the first car and his car was facing Southeast blocking the northbound lane of T—-. There was a small portable building at the corner that partially blocked my view of the driveway. What I am about to describe happened very, very fast.

Again, as I slid to a stop on the wrong side of 11th just past the West side of the portable building, I saw the first officer open his car door. I could also see someone in the driveway, but my eyes were focused on the officer and his demeanor. I was starting to exit my police car and was reaching for the double-barrel coach gun I kept along side the seat. For some reason I decided there was not enough time to grab the shotgun, so I started running toward the driveway. My focus changed when I saw an orange flash and heard a loud report. The officer lunged as if he was kicked in the gut, but what appeared to be obvious, wasn’t the case. He dropped to his right knee behind his open police car door.

I had only covered a short distance when that first officer opened fire. His revolver was aimed straight up in the air. He had a two-handed grip on his revolver and his head was looking straight down into the dirt. All six rounds went straight up into the sky, and the officer continued to pull the trigger on spent casings. By this time, the man in the driveway was pumping lead into the police car, and I could see glass flying all around the officer.

I had not paid much attention to the second officer until I heard the report of his handgun. By this time, I had taken several more running steps to close the distance. The second officer had wisely slid across the front seat of his car and exited his vehicle on the passenger side. He was also firing a revolver, and he was using a two-handed grip from a standing position, and he was using the roof of his police car to steady his aim. Somehow, in this short time of processing a lot of tactical information, I noted the contrast in the actions of these two officers. By the time I reached a point even with the South side of the portable building, the second officer was firing his last of six rounds. The man in the driveway was still standing there with his rifle aimed toward the first officer. He was opening the lever of the gun and I saw a brass shell casing come out. As he closed the lever, I opened fire.

Unlike the other two officers, I had an automatic pistol. It was a Colt 1911, Army issue. After two or three of my rounds, the man started toward the ground. I was shooting from his right side from a distance of just over 50 feet. He was right handed and was firing the lever action rifle from his hip. He released his right hand from the grip and the rifle butt went to the ground. I was not sure if he was taking cover or what, but there was no way I was going to stop firing until he was out of action. I continued to move forward and fire until my slide locked back. The first officer’s revolver was still clicking on spent cartridges. I could hear the gun clicking because of the sudden contrasting silence. The four of us had just fired twenty-five rounds in just a few seconds.

I ejected the empty magazine to the ground and somehow found a fresh magazine in my left hand. It went into the gun and the slide went forward. I had closed the distance to this idiot who was now lying on his right side in the driveway. I kicked his rifle away and rolled the man onto his back. Blood was starting to come out of a number of holes in his chest and arms. He was alive and judging from the expression on his face, he was in great pain. He did not say anything – he just slipped away and died.

The second officer and I started to collect our wits and figure out what to do next. There wasn’t anything for us to do except notify the dispatcher of our need for an ambulance and supervisors. The rest is a blur. There were supervisors, detectives, paramedics, and medical examiners all over the scene. After about a half hour, we were asked to report to (Homicide Division) for statements. I headed for ‘Central’ but stopped for that fast food on the way.

On the way to the station, I tried to take stock of what had just happened. I could still smell the gun smoke and dust in my clothes. My ears were still ringing. I was in a quandary over the actions of the first officer. My assumption was that the second officer had hit the suspect at least once, but since he was shooting a .357 magnum, it would have been very possible for the suspect to have taken those rounds and remained standing especially if he was high on drugs. I assumed that I had hit the suspect at
least once also. We would not know the details until after the autopsy.

We made our sworn statements, and I went back to work. The rest of the day was uneventful. The next day when I showed up for work at roll call, the other officers looked at me differently. Nothing I can describe – just ‘differently’. My supervisor asked me to go up to Homicide and get an update. One of the detectives working the case saw me come in and approached. He said, “You were involved in that suicide
yesterday, right?” I was surprised at the question, and before I could respond, he said, “anytime those bastards shoot at a cop it should be ruled a suicide”. And then he said, “Yours were all that hit him.” I said, “what?” And he replied, “45’s were all that hit him – you hit him five times”. The detective showed me the report and pulled out an autopsy diagram. One of my five out of eight rounds that hit this guy, (the one causing his death), went through the subject’s right arm, through his chest and lodged in his left arm
– it made five holes.

So now I was a bit of a hero with the detectives, but that turned out to be more of a problem than a compliment. The first two officers worked in Radio Patrol and I worked in Accident Investigation. I had transferred from Patrol to Accident several years earlier. There had always been competition and rivalry between the departments, and now I had ‘shown-up’ two Patrol officers. The first officer had totally ‘lost it’ and the second officer had missed six times from a perfect shooting position only 25 feet from the
suspect. Neither officer had the presence of mind to reload his gun. Their guns were still empty when they were making their statements in the Homicide office.

And now some supplemental information and some reflections…
From this point forward, many other officers related to me differently. I had seen this before. When I was a rookie, officers who had handled a gunfight would be pointed out or discussed. They were members of an elite club. Now I was a new member, and I would see training officers point me out to their rookies. I guess this dubious unspoken membership was based on an experience that none of us really wanted to face. Maybe my colleagues did not know how it would affect me, or perhaps they felt uncomfortable
relating to a ‘club member’ so they just avoided contact. Other personality types seemed to revere and envy membership. When the subject came up from time to time, I just made light of it and changed the subject.

I never spoke with either of the two Patrol officers again; they avoided contact for different reasons. The second officer had started bragging about killing the suspect even before the autopsy. He downplayed my role saying he had downed the suspect before I fired. He continued to spread that story and painted himself a hero. I guess he relied on the report being confidential. This behavior is common and two famous incidents come to mind: the University of Texas tower shootings, and the killing of Yamamoto. I have personally seen similar behavior several times in law enforcement.

With regard to the actions of the first officer, I told only my supervisors and the detectives what had happened. It did not go into my statement, and by name, it has never gone any further. I wonder how he feels, and I wonder if he has ever come to terms with his panic under fire. He did stay in law enforcement for at least several years.

For me there was a disturbing revelation. That spent round that I saw ejected from the rifle was his last one – the rifle was empty when I opened fire. There was no way for me to know that at the time, but I wish there had been one more bullet in that gun. The suspect was drunk. He had just had an argument with his brother-in-law and had shot up the house from the driveway. He was reloading his 30-30 Winchester at the trunk of his car when we arrived. I truly hope that his blood alcohol level served the
purpose of relieving some pain in his final minutes.

I can’t remember the suspects name. I have seen it several times, but as soon as I look away from the report, it is gone again. The same is true of another man in another case. That one got me ‘Officer of the Year’ and a Rolex watch. I was alone that time; why should I get an award for defending myself and not get an award for defending a fellow officer? The answer is circumstances, rivalry, pride, and embarrassment.

Having been through this only makes the ‘law enforcement dreams’ worse. The standard dream of facing a life and death situation with an empty or malfunctioning gun only becomes more real. Looking back, I would not change any of my actions except I probably would not have stopped for that hamburger on the way to Central to make my statement.

My advice to officers is to always take care of business first. The decision to shoot in this incident was a ‘no brainer’, but not all of us were prepared for what happened. In my case, preparedness was an obsession. I spent my quiet time in law enforcement playing out scenarios, (constructive day dreaming I guess you could call it). Luck can be defined as preparedness meeting opportunity. I was prepared and the opportunity was forced on us by an enraged drunk with a gun. The second officer was prepared,
reacted well, but unfortunately did not shoot well. The first officer was not prepared, but then again, he was looking down the barrel of a Winchester 30-30 and the bullets were hitting all around him. If that situation had been mine, how would I have fared?

I am happy to say that time does tend to heal but not completely: never completely.