Shoot Don’t Shoot: One Cop’s Story

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To my knowledge, the following is the first time I have been in a newspaper article. It was almost sixteen years ago, regarding an incident that took place in August, 2000. It was a Shoot or Don’t Shoot situation.

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To read the article easier, click on this link

That’s me. I was the responding officer, and hence, I was quoted in the NY Post: 

“It took five of us to cuff her. It wasn’t easy. She bit, she scratched, and she stabbed at us.”

I know, not exactly eloquent. I was thirty-one, with just over six years as a police officer, what can I say? I was more or less, what I would consider now, to be a kid. I have to tell you however, that the experience changed my life. It forever ingrained in my psyche the absolutely irrefutable truth: one never truly knows what one would do in any given situation, until one is actually IN that situation. Had you asked me one thousand times prior to this instance, “What would you do if, while on duty, someone walked towards you, threatening you with a knife”? My response, one thousand times in a row, would have been the same: ” I would shoot that person”. Yet, I didn’t shoot this woman. Almost sixteen years later, I can still remember it like it happened only yesterday.

That day, I was assigned a relief post at NYC’s LaGuardia Airport. I was relieving the police officer assigned to the Delta terminal. I met him on the upper level of the terminal building, as was customary, and handed him the keys to the relief vehicle. He went on his meal break, and I started my patrol of the building. Nothing out of the ordinary was going on.

I received a call over my radio of a woman with a knife at the ticket counter. I really wasn’t overly concerned. I presumed that it was a woman who had some cutlery, and the ticket agent wanted me to just “check it out”. The officer broadcasting the call didn’t have a sense of urgency in his voice, and it more or less sounded routine. You would be surprised what people carry when traveling.

As I approached the ticket agent, and saw her face, I immediately realized something was wrong. She looked at me, looked back at the woman, and told me with her eyes, “This is the lady”. The woman turned around to look at me, obviously observing the eye moment of the ticket agent. She was an older woman, in her fifties, and taller than I was. Her eyes looked distant, as though she was in a far away place, but when she saw me, they grew resolute immediately. Like a mother bear’s casual face turning serious when she sees someone approaching her cubs.

Now I have to say this: I HATE KNIVES! I would rather be shot then have someone stick a metal object into my person! I don’t even like getting stuck with NEEDLES, let alone getting stabbed with a knife. Yet there I was, looking at a woman holding a fourteen inch carving knife, and I DID NOT want to become the turkey! I immediately removed my handgun from it’s holster, and drew down on the woman. That is to simply say, I took my gun out and pointed it directly at this lady. There were gasps from the people around us, and everyone hit the ground. This woman and I were the only two people left standing, each looking at the other, locked in gaze.

People sometimes believe that a knife is “not as deadly as a gun”, and that if someone attacks a cop with a knife, the cop shouldn’t shoot the person, because “it’s only a knife”. Well, let me tell you, that is utter nonsense. A person with a knife, within 21 feet can cause serious bodily harm to an officer. Consider this information taken from an article entitled Edged Weapon Defense: Is or was the 21-foot rule valid? (Part 1)

  • Once he perceives a signal to do so, the AVERAGE officer requires 1.5 seconds to draw from a snapped Level II holster and fire one unsighted round at center mass. Add 1/4 of a second for firing a second round, and another 1/10 of a second for obtaining a flash sight picture for the average officer.
  • The fastest officer tested required 1.31 seconds to draw from a Level II holster and get off his first unsighted round.The slowest officer tested required 2.25 seconds.
  • For the average officer to draw and fire an unsighted round from a snapped Level III holster, which is becoming increasingly popular in LE because of its extra security features, takes 1.7 seconds.
  • Meanwhile, the AVERAGE suspect with an edged weapon raised in the traditional “ice-pick” position can go from a dead stop to level, unobstructed surface offering good traction in 1.5-1.7 seconds.
  • The “fastest, most skillful, most powerful” subject FSRC tested “easily” covered that distance in 1.27 seconds. Intense rage, high agitation and/or the influence of stimulants may even shorten that time, Lewinski observes.
  • Even the slowest subject “lumbered” through this distance in just 2.5 seconds.

Bottom line: Within a 21-foot perimeter, most officers dealing with most edged-weapon suspects are at a decided – perhaps fatal – disadvantage if the suspect launches a sudden charge intent on harming them. 

It really is crucial for people to understand this. Cops don’t walk around with our guns drawn. We don’t have old fashioned, unsecured cowboy holsters, like the one Rick Grimes on the Walking Dead has. Most of us have secured holsters. A secured holster means the gun will not easily come out of the holster. In short, and simply put, it can take longer for a cop to take his gun out, then it can take for a criminal to run 21 feet and start to stab the police officer.

Back to my story. Once I had my gun out and pointed directly at this woman, and everyone was on the ground, more or less out of my direct line of fire, I did feel as though I was in control of the situation. So, I didn’t feel the need, nor did I yet have the legal justification, to shoot her. I calmly said, in my sternest policeman voice, “Drop the knife!”, to wit she replied, calmly at first, with a one word response. “No”.

Now, sixteen years later, sitting here and retelling the story, I can actually laugh when I think went through my mind when I heard her say this. I remember thinking:

 “WHAT!?!? What did she just say? No?!?!? Is she is kidding me?!?! I am holding a gun pointed directly at her, I told her to drop the weapon (I didn’t ask, after all, I was using my sternest policeman voice), and she just said no?!?!?!

Yes, I can chuckle at this now, but I assure you, at the time, I didn’t think it was very funny. She looked at me, and I could tell she knew I was thinking. She raised the knife above her head, in classic 80’s slasher fashion, and slowly started walking towards me. Yeah, it certainly wasn’t amusing then.

So here I am, in a crowded air terminal, with dozens of people watching me. With luggage, and bodies all around me, I begin to back up because this woman with a fourteen inch carving knife seemed quite intent on stabbing me. I’m repeatedly telling her, “Drop the knife”, she is repeatedly answering me, “No”, each time raising her voice slightly, and all the time advancing towards me. So why didn’t I shoot? I will tell you why. Because in spite of all the times people say and honestly believe they would take another life without hesitation, for the average person, even a cop, it just isn’t that easy of a thing to do.

I could have shot her. I knew that. Trust me, when a cop is certain he is justified to shoot, he knows it almost instantly. I was, and I knew it. I was a police officer in full uniform, called to a scene. I gave her a command, and ample opportunity to drop her weapon. She refused. She then raised the weapon above her head in a threatening manner, and started advancing towards me. It would have been deemed a clean shoot. But I still didn’t shoot. Again, why?

Well, believe it or not, I felt horrific about shooting her. I thought about the children, on their way to Disney World, who were going to watch a police officer shoot a woman before their eyes. I thought about the couple going on their honeymoon, and how they would have the trip of a lifetime marred by this woman being shot. I thought about the people who worked here, and how, from this point on, every time they came to work, they would remember watching a woman get shot. This wasn’t a dark alley, in some forgotten part of a city, it was Delta Terminal in NYC! There were so many people who were going to be witness to such a horrible and shocking thing. I thought about all of this, and I got SO ANGRY at this woman I didn’t even know, and the situation she just put me in! I was FURIOUS with her! But I did not want to shoot her. Then, her pace went from a walk, to a trot. And I began backing up faster. And then it happened. I nearly tripped and fell over a piece of luggage! Then I knew what I had to do.

I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. I knew that if I fell, not only could she jump on me and start stabbing me, I knew I could accidentally shoot someone around me. I made the conscience decision to shoot her. It had to be done. It could no longer be avoided. I was resolute and I was ready. I was ready to do my job. To do what I was paid for. To do my duty as a police officer, and protect myself and those around me. And then… believe it or not, and again, I can laugh at this now as I type this, but it wasn’t funny at the time…just like when you decide to stop slowly pulling off a bandage but instead, to just pull it off quickly… I literally began a countdown! Yes, you heard me correctly, the old 3 -2 -1 and, I would shoot on one!

Now remember, all of this took mere seconds to transpire, but in my mind, it was all happening in slow motion. It amazes me to think about just how much goes through your mind in times of immense stress like this. How much your brain actually processes, and all the split second decisions you make. I had made my decision. 3…..

The lady, I was later told by the EMS Paramedic, was a recovering heroin addict, on a methadone program. She had decided she had enough, and wanted to kill herself, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. So she came to LaGuardia today to have a cop do it, and I was her cop. This made complete sense to me, because after the incident, and reflecting back, it explained her methodical actions. When I got there, she brandished the knife. I drew my gun.  She waited for me to shoot. I didn’t. She raised the knife, and started walking towards me. I still didn’t shoot, so she increased her pace. I kept retreating, she kept speeding up, until I decided I had no choice but to shoot her. 2…..

This is it. Here it comes. I have no choice. I have to do this. I’m going to shoot. Thoughts raced through my mind, as I experienced tunnel vision. Nothing else in the world existed, I couldn’t see anything else but the woman in front of me. The woman I was going to shoot. The woman who is making me do this. In my mind, and thankfully not out loud, I HOWLED with rage! I DID NOT WANT TO DO THIS, BUT I HAVE NO OTHER CHOICE! Then he was there, like an angel: one of the two plain clothes police officers (I will call him Bob) assigned that day sneaking up behind her.

Luckily, he was in my tunnel. Luckily I could see him. In that instant I felt a surge of relief go through my body. I lost all fear of getting stabbed. I didn’t care. I felt invulnerable: I DIDN’T HAVE TO SHOOT THIS WOMAN! NONE OF THESE PEOPLE WOULD BE PARCEL TO A POLICE SHOOTING! I looked down, in my mind it was OK to do that now, because my backup had arrived, to ensure I wasn’t going to trip over someone or something, and blow this opportunity. I was clear, and I kept backing up, luring her to me while the other officer got closer, and closer, then BOOM! HE GRABBED HER ARM!

To say I EXPLODED forward is a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened. I lunged for the knife, grabbing it with my bare hand. Just then Bob’s partner (I will call him Sam) reached us both, as we continued to struggle with the woman to disarm her. With my hand on the knife, she still managed to stab Bob in the calf, and bite Sam. A trickle of blood streamed from Bob’s leg and my hand, as I finally managed to pull it from her hand. Two more officers arrived, and between the five of us, FIVE GROWN MEN, we managed to subdue and handcuff the woman, A WOMAN IN HER FIFTIES. The crowd cheered, and some people started clapping once it was all over.

I am extremely proud of something I am about to say. I’m not, however, proud to say that as the woman lay there on the ground, handcuffed, I wanted to, with every fiber of my being, kick her again and again in her face for what she just put me through. Here comes the proud part: I did not. I did not touch her once the handcuffs were on her. Not even to pick her up, and put her in the waiting police car. Other officers did that.  I am equally proud to say that she sustained no injuries from me or any of the other officers involved. My fellow officers acted as the consummate professionals I knew them to be.

I’ve never publicly shared this story until just now, and let me tell you, in the realm of stressful shoot don’t shoot scenarios, in my opinion, this ranks about a one. It’s nothing compared to what a lot of other police officers have faced and continue to face each and every day across this country. In fact, while I can’t say I’m “embarrassed” to share this story, I will say that part of the reason I haven’t publicly shared it is because of precisely just that: I feel, as a police officer, it’s nothing. I know other cops which much more intense stories, and so, while this may have been a big deal for me, personally, in the scope of things that happen in a “cop’s world”, its not a big deal. Then why am I sharing it?

Well, in light of the whole Black Lives Matter movement, brought to the forefront again recently at the Oscars,  I feel that police have been wrongly attacked. My story, to a person who is not a police officer, may make that person think , “Wow, that was pretty intense”. But when compared to what Police Officer Darren Wilson faced when he faced Michael Brown, it pales in comparison. I shared my story because I wanted to give people a peek into the mind of a police officer. I want people to try to understand what goes through a cop’s mind when in a shoot or don’t shoot situation. I am not ashamed to admit, I was scared, I was nervous, and it was somewhat traumatic for me. I am also not ashamed to admit that I don’t think it was even remotely as challenging, difficult, frightening, traumatic, or life altering as what Officer Wilson went through. Nor is it as difficult as what thousands of men and women in police uniforms go through on a daily basis, in an ever increasingly hostile work environment for them.

Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, ALL LIVES MATTER. People need to remember that. They also need to remember that in the overwhelming number of encounters in which a police officer shoots and kills someone, the police officer is simply doing his/her job, and the person shot and killed is almost always a criminal. A criminal is still a human being, but so is the police officer. A criminal chose, whatever the justification, to commit a crime, the police officer was just doing his/her job, and no matter what anyone may believe, most cops never casually take a life. Trust, me, I know. But hey, I’m just a cop.

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