You’ve seen the headlines, you’ve seen the reactions.
“De-escalation training!” The masses cry.
“Cops shoot first and ask questions later!” Comes the social media refrain.
“They shot an unarmed man for no reason!” Yells an onlooker toward the streaming smartphones.
You’ve heard these chants. Maybe you believe them.
But let me tell you a story, one that happens every day on the streets of America, where cops and citizens meet.
The type of story that you don’t ever hear about, and won’t ever make the news.
Yesterday it happened to me.
I work in a specialized unit, where we track down and apprehend the worst of the worst. Capital murder, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery – day in and day out an endless queue of mugshots and data mining followed by hours of painstaking surveillance – all hopefully leading to the safe and incident-free arrest of a fugitive from justice.
Yesterday, our target for apprehension was an alleged serial rapist. He preys on women he meets on social media, luring them to a meeting, where he rapes them at gunpoint.
He is the worst sort of offender – one with no rational or logical motive, one that social workers and community conflict specialists will be hard-pressed to stop from preying on another innocent victim. He has a history of violence – towards his family, towards the community, and towards officers.
We found him. We surveilled him. We waited for the right time, the right place to make the arrest – in the safest way possible. We took our time, careful to not rush to make contact before we had our operations plan and contingencies covered.
He had to be arrested, as his most recent offense was only the day before, and he had to be stopped before he raped again.
We surrounded his house, loud hailing him from marked vehicles, everyone wearing uniforms and vests emblazoned “POLICE” in stark white letters. It was the middle of the afternoon, and bright sunlight allowed perfect visibility. The community collectively came outside their homes and began to film the spectacle from the safety of their front porches and side yards.
A teammate called the suspect on the phone, and he answered. He was told he had multiple warrants for his arrest, and to come outside with his hands high in the air. He agreed to do so.
“Target is coming out!” Came the call over the radio.
We were ready. We had hard cover. We had less lethal options – designated teammates with tasers at the ready, or less lethal launchers at their disposal. We had ballistic protection, time, distance, cover, and the blessing of enough resources to handle almost anything that came our way, this side of a rocket launcher or a machine gun.
The suspect came outside. His eyes wide, clad in baggy athletic shorts, an oversized t-shirt hanging over his frame, he didn’t make a first impression of a sexual predator. His hands high in the air, girlfriend standing behind him solemnly recording the scene from the doorway of the apartment they share with their children, the suspect walked anxiously, solemnly, out into the bright sunlight and muggy air of a June day; braced to face the consequences of his misdeeds.
“Keep your hands up! Walk to me! Slowly!” Came the command.
He stutter-stepped, seemingly obeying, and closed the gap to the arrest team from their position of cover behind a retaining wall. I covered from the suspects left side, the only clear field of fire being mine – for the suspects girlfriend was behind him, and the arrest team couldn’t take the shot if needed, lest she be wounded or worse in the crossfire.
Suddenly and without warning, the suspect turned his body slightly to his right, partially concealing his actions from the arrest team and turning his back towards me, dropped his hand to his bulging shorts pocket, and quickly pulled out a hard, black, object. He quickly began to turn, the object in his right hand, bringing it up from his side and towards his front.
“GUN!!” My brain screamed. But my mouth couldn’t work.
I slowly, so slowly, clicked the safety off my rifle. I was too slow. The suspect was turning too quickly. I wasn’t going to get the shot off in time. He was about to shoot my friends, my teammates, and it’s because I’m too slow.
My finger found the trigger, and began to press.
There was no time to think that he was black.
There was no time to think that I am white.
There was no time to think that my rounds were likely to hit him first at an oblique angle, which would spin him, and my successive rounds would strike him in the back.
There was no time to think that his name would be a hashtag and an outcry, nor that my own name would be synonymous with a broken system, my employee photo published in papers across America, my reputation ruined and death threats inundating anyone associated with me.
“Drop it! DROP IT! PUT YOUR HANDS UP!” I heard the commands, so quiet In my own ear, so distant, yet bellowed in the loudest voices my teammates could exclaim.
I was too late, he almost had it up in front of him, another squeeze… the shot should be a surprise so I don’t anticipate the recoil and miss…
And then the sunlight glinted off the screen of the black cell phone in his hand, a reflective shine coming in my direction, that weapon in his hand now a benign object, and suddenly the world sped back up again.
My finger instantly came off the trigger.
“CELL PHONE! ITS A CELL PHONE!” I yelled.
And then I muttered to myself, “this guy is a fucking moron and almost just died.”
There were screams of horror from the suspects girlfriend, who likely believed the father of her children was about to be killed right in front of her.
The suspect, not heeding commands, put his phone back in his pocket. But at least at that point, we knew it wasn’t a gun.
I flipped the safety back on my rifle.
The suspect was ordered to the ground, and he finally complied, and was taken into custody without another needless tragedy occurring.
It wasn’t until later that I realized what he was doing, what he wanted from us, was to be shot.
For the cameras to catch another killing of an unarmed black man. For his family to be set financially from lawsuits, crowdfunding, and donations. For his record to be cleansed by the court of public opinion; his victims never receiving justice, even as he is martyred with a funeral drawing thousands, as even thousands more take to the streets and demand the ironic “justice” that his victims will never see.
No prison. Instead, a place in history.
What happened to us yesterday happens every day – every single day that Police Officers encounter people, they make life or death decisions. None of us come to work wanting to take a life on that shift, and for the very few instances that deadly force is used, there are countless more stories like mine of where the incident absolutely called for stopping the deadly threat, but Officers were able to avoid it.
These incidents – the success stories where deadly force was avoided – never make the news.
I am the cop you want on your call. I’m a trained mediator. A negotiator. I have a masters degree in conflict resolution. I’ve trained hundreds of officers In deescalation and conflict.
And I can tell you, there is no such thing as a deescalation button in these incidents. Deescalation takes time, and resources. Time and resources you don’t always have.
Like when, even after mitigating all known risks to the best of your ability – the suspect makes a sudden move, you have to respond to the threat presented.
Yesterday could have turned out very different. Had I had 1/10th of a second less. Had it been a low-light situation. Had I not seen the screen of his phone in his hand as he brought it up in front of him in a bladed stance. Had I not been engaging in preemptive tactical breathing prior to arrival on scene, as we rolled from our staging point to the suspect’s residence. Had my trigger had even slightly less pressure required to discharge my rifle.
Yesterday could have given you two new names in the news.
I could have shot that man yesterday, and legally been fully, completely justified.
But I didn’t.
What happened to me, happens every day.
But you won’t ever hear about it.
– An Officer Who Would Prefer His Name Be Kept Out of the News