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  • By Lt. Tim McMillan

To Shoot or Not Shoot- A Story From Home

On July 11, 2017, at around 9:30 pm, Corporal Smith was on patrol in one of the highest crime areas of a city that boast a violent crime index rating of 884.6 (The U.S. average violent crime rate is 200.7; Chicago is 426.4; Minneapolis is 548.1; Detroit is 759.0). While riding around in his marked police vehicle, Cpl. Smith discovered that the vehicle registration to a Chevy, Monte Carlo that was slowly traveling in front of him was suspended.

Based on the current state of suspension on the tag, Cpl. Smith decided to pull the vehicle over, to investigate the reasoning for the suspension. In all honestly, this could be something as simple as the owner merely needed to have their insurance company contact the state. In this case, Cpl. Smith would be merely letting the owner know about a potential problem in the system; something they could not possibly know without law enforcement intervention.

As Cpl. Smith activated his blue lights, the Monte Carlo’s 5.3 L V8 engine, growled as the car accelerated. Under normal circumstances, the SS Monte Carlo probably would have been in a good position to give the average car a run for its money. However, Cpl. Smith wasn’t in an average vehicle. Rather, he was driving a 6.0L V-8, Police Package Chevy Caprice, that can travel from 0-60 almost a full 3 seconds faster than the two-door Chevrolet coupe. Cpl. Smith has been trained in how to drive in stressful, adrenaline pumping scenarios and the vehicle he is driving was designed with this exact purpose in mind.

After less than a mile, the driver of the Monte Carlo realized that it was futile to continue to try to evade the well trained and equipped police officer, and the Monte Carlo wisely decided to pull over and no longer attempt to out run Cpl. Smith.

Immediately upon stopping, the passenger door to the car flung open, and a passenger not content with accepting that resistance was useless, emerged from the car and took off running. Cpl. Smith, has only been a police officer for 2.5 years. However, during his brief tenure, he has worked for an agency that stresses the importance of training and preparedness. As the passenger begins to fade into the darkness, running deeper into a neighbor, known collectively by the locals as, “The Hill,” Cpl. Smith remains calm and updates the dispatcher and responding officers of the situation.

Cpl. Smith is well aware that the passenger's flight, does not negate the fact that there is still a driver of a vehicle that just tried to flee from him. Though he is alone, in a dimly lit area, that has seen a volume of violence that rivals a third-world country, Cpl. Smith has been trained to recognize that a confident cop is a powerful cop. He also knows that time is a factor and the longer he allows the driver time to think, the longer he places himself potentially in danger.

Unable to see the driver, Cpl. Smith begins to slowly approach the vehicle, his gun is drawn, prepared to defend his life if need be. Cpl. Smith is under no delusion that he polices some sleepy hollow bedroom community. Just a night prior he saved another officer from being badly hurt or worse after a suspect grabbed the officer and threw him down a flight of stairs. Luckily, Cpl. Smith was able to catch the officer before he fell down the second story flight of stairs.

As Cpl. Smith approaches the vehicle, the clamber of radio of traffic in his ear is abruptly deafened by the concise sound of a metallic explosion coming from inside the Monte Carlo. Cpl. Smith, a retired U.S. Army combat veteran, knows exactly what is the sound that has just shattered through the evening air. It is a gunshot… More importantly, it is a gunshot coming from the precise location in which Cpl. Smith’s sole attention has been focused on. It is a gunshot from the driver’s seat area of the Monte Carlo.

Cpl. Smith has been trained in the weapons of war. In his hand is one of these very devices he has been trained and given to use.  The luminescent glow of the night-sites mounted on his Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol is trained on the driver’s area. The vicinity that just moments prior a single gunshot had erupted.

Cpl. Smith has been trained on the laws, both federally and state, in which he has sworn an oath to enforce. He has been engrained with the policies and practices of the particular agency in which he has chosen to pursue his police career. The formal motto of his agency is “Primus inter pares.” In Latin, the phrase translates to, “First Among Equals.”

Cpl. Smith also has been afforded a unique opportunity by the agency whose uniform he dons for 12-hour increments at a time. Though, by most accounts, his 2.5 years of employment make him a mere babe in the woods in the law enforcement profession. However, for two of those years, as a newly minted officer, Cpl. Smith worked under the command of an enigmatic Lieutenant.

A Lieutenant who had spent his entire professional career, since the tender age of 21-years-old, working in the field of law enforcement. A Lieutenant who actually never wanted to be a police officer growing up and only found himself in the profession because of personal tragedy.

As a rookie police officer, Cpl. Smith found himself under the command of this cryptic patrol Lieutenant. By this point, the career lawman had been researching, investigating, and gobbling up as much knowledge and information as humanly possible in order to try to develop an understanding of the most under-focused area of policing; the human mind. From day one, this Lieutenant sat across his desk, from Cpl. Smith and said, “I am not here to raise good police officers. I am here to raise good people.”

Now, on a humid summer night, as Cpl. Smith’s heart thundered in his chest, echo of a gunshot still in his ears, none of this information might seem relevant. The police academy taught him how to use the weapons his agency would give him, and how to apply the laws he would enforce. However, in his first two years of employment, his Lieutenant had taught Cpl. Smith something that would influence the very actions he would take next. The Lieutenant taught him what he had been absorbing by studying and watching people his entire career. Through, knowledge, understanding, and the gathering of intelligence … the Lieutenant taught Cpl. Smith the art of psychological warfare.

Cpl. Smith had been imparted with the knowledge of how the human brain works;  and how the mind perceives and attends to its environment. He had been taught the virtue of something the Lieutenant called open focus policing. Open Focus Policing involves an officer consciously training their unconscious mind to attend to vast amounts of detail in their surroundings. Details that are always present, however, we often train our brains to ignore them. Cpl. Smith was taught how to train his brain to recognize patterns and pay attention when something in the pattern was atypical.

By this point, Cpl. Smith’s focus was wide-open and details come flying into his mind without the necessity of conscious thought. In milliseconds, he processes the fact that he had heard a gunshot, however, there are patterns of information missing that told him, “now is the time to shoot back.” The sound of a small projectile flying 2,500 feet per second as it whizzes past a person was not heard. Most importantly of all, Cpl. Smith had no identifiable target to point the glowing neon front sight of his gun at. He only knew that someone inside the vehicle in front of him had fired a gun shot. With the doors to the vehicle still closed, and no person in sight, Cpl. Smith also noted that in order for someone to have taken a shot at him, it would have had to be through the rear-windshield of the vehicle. Yet all of the glass remained un-shattered and in tack. Lastly, had a person’s intent been to take Cpl. Smith’s life, why had they only fired just one shot?

Cpl. Smith had the weapon he was trained to use defend himself in his hand. According to the laws he had been educated in, by the mere sound of the gunshot, meant someone inside had presented the opportunity, and ability to take his life. Therefore, his safety was in jeopardy. According to the law, he was green lighted to go ahead and begin to shoot.

However, due to the lack of other details, that had been unconsciously and rapidly absorbed, Cpl. Smith recognized something was out of place… basically, at this moment he was not in fear for his own life. Therefore, he did something that seems counter-intuitive to the modern police training mindset. He retreated in order to place himself in a position to best mitigate any more potential threat.

Through on-scene observation, and instruction by his former Lieutenant, he knew some tricks to place himself in a position of psychological superiority over a potentially armed combatant. With his gun still trained on the driver’s side of the vehicle, he back peddled, flatfootedly so as not to jar his sight-picture should he need to take a shot. Cpl. Smith peeled back along the passenger’s side of his car until he came to a rest at the door frame. In this simple act, he had gained a valuable resource for himself, while taking away an essential requirement that any potential attacker would require. Cpl. Smith had cover and the occupant(s) of the vehicle no longer had sight.

As he was taught, Cpl. Smith now had cover against an ensuing gunfire headed towards his direction, because the entire bulk of his vehicle was between his body and an assailant. This included the most impenetrable portion of any vehicle. The front half or engine block. Additionally, Cpl. Smith had been told one of the most important aspects of gun fighting is you cannot kill, what you cannot see. Therefore, unlike the conventional thinking of going to the rear of a police vehicle, he was presently stationed at the B-post, which happens to be at the side-break point of the high visibility light-bar on top of his car.

An attacker at the front of his vehicle would be blinded by the LED light-bar, which presently was rapidly flashing in a very choreographed patterned, designed to confuse and distort a person’s visual perception. To negate the potential of a shooter blindly firing against the glaring light show coming from the police car, Cpl. Smith rested on the passenger’s side, an atypical location for a police officer that had just moments earlier come out of the driver’s seat of his car.

This entire series of events was constructed in order to give Cpl. Smith an advantage over a potentially violent threat. A threat that at this moment was unseen and like a chess game of life and death, both officer and offender, are waiting on what comes next.

With the sound of sirens in the distance, the dynamics of this Mexican Standoff were about to dramatically change.

Just as abruptly as the gunshot had gone off, the driver’s door to the car swung open, and out emerged an 18-year-old African-American kid, barely 5’00 tall, weighing maybe 100lbs. The youth had his hands in the air, and a look of fear could be seen on his face, as he squinted at the sight of the flashing lights. Looking down towards the driver’s side of the police car the youth yelled, “I accidentally shot the gun!” Cpl. Smith ordered the young man to get on the ground and to lie flat on his stomach. The dazed and frightened youth quickly complied.

With the young man on the ground, Cpl. Smith swiftly and with purpose moved forward, in an arching loop to maintaining sight of the young man on the ground, while quickly ensuring no other person’s remained in the car. Satisfied with the fact that indeed the young man was the last remaining person in the vehicle, Cpl. Smith holstered his weapon and placed the youth in handcuffs. With defined purpose Cpl. Smith quickly but thoroughly searched the young man, and then placed him in the back of his patrol car.

By this point, the first two backup officers, came flying on the scene. The smell of overheated brake pads filled the air. A pungent reminder of the significance that the phrase, “Shots fired” has when it comes blaring through a police radio.

The entire proceeding event from stop to arrest lasted approximately 30-45 seconds. 

The area that all of this occurred might indeed be a region that has seen more than its share of violent crime. However, it is still a very close knit community and anytime something significant occurs in the neighborhood it is guaranteed to bring a crowd.

Historically, the police have not had the best relationship with members of this all-minority community. In fact, in 2000 after a full-scale riot broke out in this very neighborhood after officers used batons, pepper spray, and their fist in order to arrest a man for shoplifting. Ultimately, five officers ended up in the hospital as a result of the ensuing melee. At that time, the department Cpl. Smith works for was broken and it policed with the heavy hand of the law.

By 2002, the bulk of the agency had been fired or arrested. This included the department’s Chief of police.

2002 would usher in the arrival of a new Chief of police. A man who would change the very fabric of what the department and what it represented. The new Chief was raised by a single mother, in rural Alabama town that comprised of a population of just over 1,000 residents. The new Chief and his mother collectively made up 2 of the 20 white people in the almost exclusively minority area. The experience of his youth, imparted on this Chief, to value people as human beings, regardless of their race. It also made him empathetic to the hardships of poverty that some people face.

The new Chief installed an organizational philosophy that the police serve the people, therefore the most important aspect of community policing is the people in which an agency serves. This is a philosophical mindset that would be ingrained into the young mind of a scrawny 21-year-old kid, that in 2003, would sit in his office and say, “Sir, I would like to have the chance to be the police.” 14 years later, that 125lbs kid would be about 50lbs heavier and wear gold bars on his shoulders.

That night on July 11, 2017, a restless crowd of residents gathered and watched, cell phones recording video as the officers pulled a loaded .40 Glock pistol out of the Monte Carlo. The young man in custody apologized and said that he had accidentally fired the weapon as he tried to hide it before Cpl. Smith walked up.

Within moments a frantic man and woman walked up and exclaimed that the young man in the back of Cpl. Smith’s car was their son. That night the Duty Officer position was being manned by the other Lieutenant of the police department. Fulfilling his role as overall commander of the police forces in the city, he calmly explained to the concerned parents about the events that had unfolded just moments earlier. The mother thanked the Lieutenant for taking the time to explain the situation and emotionally expressed her deepest gratitude that Cpl. Smith had not shot her son.

Then the Lieutenant approached the anxious crowd and explained exactly what had occurred. He stressed to the residents of the community, that a gunshot had been fired, however, it had not come from the police. Amongst the crowd, there was no yelling, there were no cries of injustice. Instead, many in the crowd wished to come forward and tell the Lieutenant that they had witnessed what had occurred, and they wanted to express how well Cpl. Smith had handled himself. The crowd collectively thanked the Lieutenant for the services that the department provided them and then collectively began to dissipate.

The officer’s collected their evidence, filled out their paperwork, and as quickly as the entire event started, it came to an end as Cpl. Smith pulled off headed to the county jail.

Recently and in the past when I have expressed the concern that law enforcement has been too quick to make the decision to fire their weapon and take someone’s life, I have not said this out of my intent to pander, indulge or arouse anger and fear in the public. Rather, I have said this out of love for the very profession I have been in since I was once that skinny 21-year-old kid.

Additionally, I have never said this in an effort to use my position to suggest that I am an expert in anything other than the experiences that have comprised the totality of my life.

In truth, I do not need to validate nor feel the need to exert authority over any community that is ultimately not under my professional or personal control. However, over the last 10 months, I’ve spoken to people all over the country. People who comprise the public and who fill out the communities all throughout America. I have spoken to teens in major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. I’ve spoken to city leaders, activist, politicians; virtually every type of person, from all walks of life.

I have approached people in areas I’ve never been and may never go to in my entire life. People who shared with me, on the mild end, they mistrusted the police, on the more significant side said they hated law enforcement and hoped we all died.

Without a gun, badge, handcuffs, or a bulletproof vest, I’ve spoken to people who share this sentiment and simply said, “I want to listen to you, tell me why?” In 100% of those encounters, not a single person has ever walked away not saying to some degree they gained some respect for the police. Simply because I was willing to listen to them and hear their concerns.

I care about people, which includes the public and the police equally the same. Because to me the people are the police and the police are the people. We are in an inseparable group of individuals who must come together in order for any of us as people to succeed. I refuse to believe that the people I’ve spoken to are different than the very people in the community I serve. I equally refuse to believe that any and every police officer isn’t capable of doing exactly what Cpl. Smith did that July evening.

I understand the dangers of the job. Trust me, I know them all too well. You don’t work in an area that has a violent crime rate 440% higher than the U.S. national average and not goes through some sh%&. However, I refuse to give up on the people I serve, therefore I refuse to believe that we cannot all do the same. Because we may not be able to solve all of the world’s problems, but I know we can make impacts in people’s lives.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, that disturbing high crime rate in the city I work in… well as bad as it may seem, it actually has dropped 58% in the 14 years I’ve served the city. So fixes don’t come overnight. However, that doesn’t mean we ever give-up and fail to try.

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