Pursuing a subject isn't just about having the right equipment--it's about having the right mindset. iStock
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I’ve always said police work is defined by hours of boredom and compiled by moments of terror. As police officers, many of our daily duties and routines can make us complacent in our work, without intention or negligence. We all experience moments of complacency in our career—it’s an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of the job. However, I’m going to share one of my stories with you. Not to pass judgment, but to pass along a reminder: That no matter the call for service, police work is never routine, usual or tedious.
Never was this reminder more apparent to me than on May 18, 2002. It was a routine day of work for me as a detective. I’d been in the position for two years and wasn’t doing much street police work. Instead, I was working a standing off-duty job at CrakerJax. This was a job I’d worked many times over the past 4 years, at least once every month, and it’s the only standing off-duty job I’ve ever worked. I enjoyed working with the people at the park, and a little extra money in exchange for an evening visiting with nice people had become the norm. After all, this was a family park and in the four previous years, nothing had ever occurred outside of a couple of simple medical calls. And so begins the complacency.
Late Night Trouble
On one particular evening, as the park was near closing time, I ventured out to the go-cart track to visit with the attendant. While I was there, the attendant advised me of a subject who’d been bumping other carts while driving around the track. As the carts came into the pit area, I observed the subject beginning to stand up while the other carts were still entering the pit. I asked the subject to remain seated. He replied, “F#%$ off, mother f#%$er,” and continued to exit the cart flipping me off with both hands. I told the man to leave the park and he again told me to “F#%$ off” as he began to walk away.
I followed the subject to be sure he was exiting the park. At one point, he turned and put his hand out and punched his open palm telling me he could “kick [my] ass, [I’m] just a sheriff.” I didn’t find it necessary to explain to him the difference between a county sheriff and a municipal police officer at that moment, but the thought did cross my mind.
I still wasn’t fully cognizant of the clear threat that was presenting itself to me. After all, it was a family park, right? I was becoming more aware at this point though, and I calmly and quietly requested a second unit. Another point of complacency: I had forgotten to check out that night on off-duty and I had left my radio tuned to the wrong channel.
As we exited the front doors, the subject walked to the opposite side of my detective truck and acted as if he was urinating on it. He looked at me and said, “You’re lucky I’m just kidding.” I told the man he just needed to leave the park; he didn’t need to be going to jail tonight. He responded with a challenge to “go ahead and arrest me.” I again told him to leave immediately. My thought process at this time was rational—go home or go to jail. The answer to me was obvious. To him it wasn’t—he wasn’t rational.
The subject was within three feet of me with his hands out as part of his challenge to arrest him. All of a sudden, the man leaned forward and shoved me. At this point, I was now aware of what I should have been aware of from the start: This guy means to do me harm. As I took a step back and reached for my handcuffs with my left hand, the man pushed me again. I began to fall backward, catching myself with my left hand that was already behind me. I immediately became fully aware of my carelessness; I expanded my baton and ordered the man to the ground. He paused, reflected for just a moment and began to run eastbound through the parking lot.
At this point I gave chase, removing my radio from my gun belt (I didn’t use a shoulder mic—detectives don’t need them, right?), and calling out the foot pursuit, entirely unaware that my broadcast was going out on the wrong radio channel. I’ve always enjoyed running and at that time, I was running about 25 miles a week, so the evening jog was of little effort to me. In fact, I was later told that officers listening to the broadcast questioned if I’d said “foot pursuit,” as my location updates didn’t seem out of breath at all.
As we ran eastbound, we exited the park and ran to the rear of a commercial complex within the airpark. I made the conscious decision to continue to chase the subject, who clearly wouldn’t be able to outrun me, and broadcast my updated locations until I had a second unit with me. I was unsure if I’d be able to clearly describe my location and by now, I knew this would be a fight.
While jogging in pursuit of the suspect, now wanted for aggravated assault, he suddenly stopped, threw up his hands and yelled, “I gotta give up.” The foot pursuit itself lasted between half and three-fourths of a mile. I stopped and ordered him to the ground. He was compliant from this point forward. My back-up officer arrived on scene quickly and we took the man into custody.
The suspect lived a fourth of a mile from my home. About three weeks after the incident, I stopped at a store on my way home from work in my uniform. As I walked in, I recognized the man walking out—it was the subject. Interestingly, the man walked by me without so much as a glance. I doubt he even recognized me.
Most fatal mistakes, whether it be from an officer’s contact with a subject that ends in tragedy to a catastrophic airline crash, aren’t caused by one single event. These tragedies are typically the culmination of a series of small misunderstandings, mistakes and errors. In this instance, I was physically prepared for my job that night and had all of my required equipment with me. But the minimum required equipment isn’t always enough. I did have my radio, but a shoulder mic would have been very helpful throughout the incident. When I arrived, I simply forgot to advise radio I was there, and I never changed my radio to the proper channel. These typically harmless, little mistakes added up this night, and I attribute each of them to my mindset.
I was complacent and complacency kills. As the incident progressed, I failed to assign the proper weight to signs and symptoms of a situation that was deteriorating quickly. I'm thankful for the dispatcher who showed up for work with the right mindset and immediately patched the channels when I calmly asked for a procedural backup. I’m also grateful for the back-up officer who readily located me in a less than obvious location at the rear of a random warehouse in an ominous commercial district.
After being taken into custody the suspect apologized to me and said, “That was really stupid.” I agreed, but not to what he’d done—the stupid one that night was me.