Officer Bradley Arn's squad car
Officer Bradley Arn's squad car in the parking lot where it came to rest after he was ambushed and shot. (Photos Courtesy St. Joseph Police Sgt. Billy P. Miller)
Officer Arn's bullet-ridden squad car.
Officer Arn's bullet-ridden squad car, with wooden rods showing trajectories of the bullets that struck it.
Valerie Sharp's vehicle
Valerie Sharp's vehicle came to rest after she was struck by flying glass from one of the rounds fired by Lattin.
Squad car with dowel rods showing trajectories.
Squad car interior
Squad car from back
Valerie Sharp's vehicle
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Having just shaved his collar-length hair into a scraggly Mohawk, William E. Lattin Jr. buckled an ammo-laden web belt around his camo fatigues, followed by a bandoleer full of 12 gauge shells, picked up two long guns and stepped out of his apartment into the hallway. A hunting knife and black powder revolver were shoved into his waistband, and one of the long guns he was carrying was a 12-gauge Remington pump. But all of the damage would be done with his other long gun—a MAC 90 assault rifle. The weapon was loaded with more than 75 rounds of 7.62-x-39 ammunition in a drum magazine, and Lattin was carrying another drum magazine and seven 30-round straight mags in pouches on the web belt.
Lattin moved down the hallway to the front door, stepped outside and walked across the lawn to the sidewalk on 22nd Street. Here, 22nd was a residential street in a quiet, middle class neighborhood, but to the north it was lined with small businesses where it intersected Colhoun Street and then continued north into the adjacent commercial district.
The crisp autumn air carried the sounds of the city’s afternoon rush hour as Lattin quietly raised the MAC 90 to his shoulder. An instant later, the air erupted with the terrible sound of gunfire as Lattin strolled up and down the street, randomly shooting at anything that moved and sometimes at nothing at all. The rifle cracked again and again at an even, steady pace, but without any significant effect.
Then he spotted a Toyota cruising toward him on Colhoun near 22nd. He opened fire, sending several rounds into the moving car, one punching its way through the windshield and spewing shards of glass in its path. The driver, a 28-year-old office worker named Valerie Sharp, managed to avoid the deadly missile but not the glass. One piece struck her in the left eye and sliced its way deep inside. As she pressed her hands against the severely damaged eye, Sharp let her vehicle skid into a boat storage lot at the southwest corner of the intersection, where she stopped, bailed and scampered to the rear of her car. Terrified, she hunkered down out of Lattin’s line of fire and waited for help.
Fortunately for Sharp, Lattin had lost interest in her. But others would not be so lucky. Lattin quickly chose another target—a Ford approaching from the south—and opened fire. Rapidly cracking off one round after another, he sent a barrage of hot lead into the vehicle as its driver, a 56-year-old car salesman named Jack Martin, roared past him and continued north for another block to a service station on the left. Suffering from a bullet to the abdomen and bleeding profusely from a shattered left forearm and elbow, he pulled into the lot. With buildings now shielding him from further gunfire, he slid out of driver’s seat and rolled out onto the pavement.
As people on the streets scurried to cover and vehicular traffic began to stay clear of the area, Lattin was starting to find it harder to spot targets, but that would soon change. The police department was inundated with calls from terrified and confused citizens, and officers from across the city were rushing to the scene. Lattin would have fresh targets when they arrived—targets who would willingly rush into his killing field instead of fleeing from it.
In the meantime, Lattin had found another target: a pickup, driven by Kenny Cordonnier, a 38-year-old off-duty firefighter, traveling south on 22nd Street. Lattin opened up as the truck drove past, sending one round through its metal skin and the back of driver’s seat into Cordonnier’s back. With most of its energy spent, the otherwise deadly missile mercifully penetrated only skin deep, and Cordonnier was able to drive himself to the hospital for treatment.
Lattin’s next victim was 58-year-old George MacFeat, who was driving a van northbound on 22nd. Again, the gunman began pumping rounds into his prey. As shattering glass and lead screamed past MacFeat, pain sliced across the right side of his face and through his ear. He sped on and stopped after reaching the shelter of a nearby building. Although frightened, MacFeat was not seriously injured and required nothing more than minor treatment on scene.
Police as Targets
Lattin was expending a large amount of ammunition, having already emptied the drum magazine and at least one of the 30-rounders, but he still had plenty. As he looked for new targets, he spotted one he had been waiting for—a patrol car.
The unit, operated by a 27-year-old, six-year veteran of the department named Bradley Arn, was racing up 22nd directly toward him.
Lattin had the tactical advantage: He was standing in the lengthening afternoon shadows, and Arn was still far enough away that he couldn’t see Lattin yet. Lattin ran to the refuge of stairs leading up a steep incline to the front of a nearby residence. The steps were cut deep into the hill and lined on both sides with stone retaining walls, making for good cover and concealment. Lattin waited as the speeding patrol car got closer.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Billy P. Miller, a 33-year-old, 11-year veteran of the department, was rushing to the scene from about four miles away. The dispatcher didn’t have a specific location on the shooting or description of the suspect yet, but more details were coming in. Despite the confusion caused by the many calls from panicked citizens and anxious requests for information from responding officers, it eventually became clear that the gunman was wearing camouflage clothing, armed with a rifle and located near the intersection of Colhoun and 22nd streets.
One of the officers asking for information was Arn. There had already been one report of a wounded citizen, and just seconds after requesting clarification on the victim’s location, he had added, “Disregard. I think I found him.”
No further transmissions were heard from the young officer after that, but no one really noticed. By then the scene had become so chaotic and the air so jammed with radio traffic that his silence was lost in the confusion.
It appears that Arn had in fact spotted one of Lattin’s victims. It was Mrs. Sharp kneeling behind her car on the boat lot, and he had apparently mistaken her for a male. With his attention now riveted on reaching the victim, Arn didn’t see Lattin squatting, rifle at the ready, in the recess of the deepset staircase. He had barely completed his last transmission when blistering fire from Lattin’s rifle began tearing into his cruiser from up ahead and to the right. He ducked and swerved to his left as he sped past Lattin. The bullets were now coming at him from behind him and to his right, and two found their mark. He slumped down in the seat as the patrol car coasted onto the boat lot, slid into one of the parked boats and came to rest.
After shooting Arn, Lattin rose from his improvised bunker and headed for the rear of a church just north of his location. The church sat on the southeast corner of 22nd and Colhoun, and a sidewalk ran along its south wall to the backyard immediately to the east. Lattin trotted down the sidewalk to the backyard, where he soon spotted another patrol car—this one driven by Officer Henry Pena—speeding toward him from the east on Colhoun. After waving a couple of citizens through, Lattin took aim on Pena’s vehicle and cranked off another hailstorm of bullets, peppering the cruiser with 7.62 rounds. Mercifully, Pena remained unscathed as he wheeled his cruiser to the right, braked to a stop near the corner of a building, bailed out and took cover. He could see Lattin from where he stood, but was too far away to take a shot. Instead, he called in the gunman’s location and held his position.
Within moments of hearing Pena’s transmission pinpointing Lattin’s location, [Leave the Sgt, it’s needed because of all the names and roles]Miller arrived from the north. Like the other officers pouring into the area, he was unaware that Arn was down. Arn had been the only officer to approach the scene from the south on 22nd Street, and with everyone focusing on locating and neutralizing the gunman, it would be several more minutes before anyone noticed Arn’s bullet-riddled cruiser on the boat lot.
Miller parked a block north of the church and, with his mind focused on ending the violence, exited his car. As a member of the tactical team, he was well trained for the task. However, since department policy required that the team’s rifles be kept at the station, he was poorly equipped to go up against Lattin’s MAC 90. Undaunted by the handicap, now well-informed about the gunman’s whereabouts and hearing gunfire from the south, he ran to the rear of a grocery store across the street from the church. From there, he moved quickly along the east side of the store to its southeast corner, quick-peeked around the corner and immediately spotted the gunman in the church’s backyard. Lattin was holding the assault rifle to his shoulder and firing a steady stream of bullets in a northwesterly direction. Miller had seen a group of officers gathering there as he arrived on scene, and it was obvious that Lattin was targeting them.
Miller, his H&K .45 already in hand, raised the pistol into firing position. It would be a very tough shot—48 yards with a handgun—but Lattin had to be stopped. Miller took careful aim, the .45’s sights seeming to fill his entire field of view as he centered them on Lattin’s upper torso, and pressed the trigger. A miss. Miller was a crack shot and not easily flustered. He recentered the sights on his target and fired again, this time dropping Lattin instantly.
Several other officers had been converging on Lattin’s position by this time, and they began approaching him from all directions as Miller moved cautiously forward to check his condition. As they moved in, it soon became evident that Lattin’s reign of terror had come to an end. Miller’s second round had entered the right side of his head and penetrated his brain, killing him instantly.
Miller had done his job well, but sometimes even the noblest efforts cannot prevent tragedy. During the closing moments of the gunfight, a call had come in from a citizen who said he believed an officer had been shot. Even as the gunfire died away, an anxious search of the area began. Within minutes, Arn was found, still behind the wheel of his cruiser. He had died instantly from a gunshot wound to the head.
As tragic as it was to lose Arn, things could have been even worse. A heavily armed, mobile gunman with an almost endless supply of ammo can do incalculable harm to helpless unarmed citizens, and it was only because of Miller’s decisive action and the courageous response of every officer there that more people didn’t die. With the exception of Sharp, who lost most of the sight in her eye, and Jack Martin, whose arm was permanently disabled, Lattin’s other citizen-victims fully recovered from their wounds.
Miller, Arn and seven other officers were later recognized for their courageous actions with various awards, including the department’s Medal of Honor, the Medal of Valor from the Fraternal Order of Police and TOP COPS award from the National Association of Police Organizations. Miller is still with the department, where he continues to serve as a patrol seargent and member of the tactical team.
It was later determined that Lattin had expended between 280 and 300 rounds of ammunition during his bloody rampage. He had no history of mental illness, and, although he had a lengthy record of minor arrests, including one for a misdemeanor weapons violation (a knife), he had no priors to indicate a propensity for severe violence. Although his autopsy disclosed the presence of small amounts of THC and alcohol, it found no other explanation for his actions, and the subsequent criminal investigation was equally unrevealing. The cause of his irrationally violent behavior will forever remain a mystery.
Discussion & Analysis
We can take some solace from Arn’s death by recognizing that he died while selflessly rushing into harm’s way to aid a wounded citizen. We can also take some comfort in the knowledge that Miller was able to decisively end the carnage before Lattin could kill anyone else.
This second point is especially significant as a point of analysis in this case. In our new world of growing threats from active shooters and terrorists, police officers must be unswerving in their readiness to meet violence with violence when necessary. Most people will instinctively use lethal force when their own lives are threatened, but human beings are not similarly hardwired to defend others. Nevertheless, defending others is exactly what police officers are duty-bound to do. Their oath of office demands it, society expects it and our citizens depend on it. This case makes this point crystal clear.
There is a great deal more to be learned from this incident—lessons that can save lives—and we owe it to Arn to learn as much as we can from them.
An in-depth analysis of this case reveals a number of these crucial learning points, including lessons related to communications and coordination, availability of appropriate weapons, counter ambush tactics, firearms proficiency, training and winning mindset.
- The large number of calls, conflicting reports and overall chaos of the situation made it very difficult to conduct a coordinated response to Lattin’s random attacks. What kind of dispatcher procedures can be implemented to improve the handling of this kind of violence? What kind of training is needed for dispatchers in this regard—for police officers, supervisors and command staff?
- Although Miller had been issued a patrol rifle and was well-trained with it, he couldn’t use it because policy required that the SWAT rifles be kept at the station. How practical is such a policy in today’s society? Should every patrol officer be equipped with and trained to use a rifle? Should these weapons be carried in the trunk, or is it better to carry them in the passenger compartment?
- Although it is very difficult to defend against ambushes, an officer can do a lot to deal with them if he is able to respond during the initial attack. What are the tactical options for responding to an ambush? What can be done to avoid them?
- It appears that Arn was especially vulnerable to the ambush because he was focused on helping Sharp. Should we focus on wounded victims when responding to active shooter incidents? What should our focus be?
- Unlike most active shooters, Lattin was highly mobile and outdoors. What special tactical concerns did this present to the responding officers? Are there similar concerns when dealing with other active shooter, terrorist and mass casualty attacks? How can we do a better job of training for these kinds of incidents?
- Most people, police officers included, are very reluctant to employ deadly force in defense of others. How important is it to be properly prepared to kill to save innocent lives? What kind of training is needed to help ensure that police officers can perform this vital function when needed?
- In what way did Miller’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset and warrior spirit?
Communications & Coordination
One of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement comes from the fact that many of the things we must do the best are the things we do the least often. The use of firearms is a prime example: Despite the fact that lethal police encounters are statistically very rare, the dangers associated with them demand that we invest a disproportionate amount of time and effort in firearms training.
In addition, new threats to the public safety can arise anytime. Often, the best we can do is prepare as thoroughly as possible for the unexpected, and in those cases when a new threat catches us off guard, learn from the experience so we can handle it better next time. Unfortunately, like other government bodies, most law enforcement agencies are slow to adapt to new challenges. For example, very few police departments issued patrol rifles to anyone but SWAT before the North Hollywood and Columbine shootings, and even after these tragedies, most agencies were remarkably slow to issue them to patrol officers. In fact, many still don’t.
It is important to note that this shooting occurred during the two-year period between the North Hollywood and Columbine shootings, at a time when most people considered mass shootings to be an extremely rare anomaly. As a result, Arn’s medium-size department was ill prepared to deal with it. In addition, the department’s response was made even more difficult by Lattin’s high level of mobility and all the confusion on scene. With panicked citizens providing conflicting reports about Lattin’s whereabouts and movements, and concerned police officers anxiously asking for and providing updated information, radio communications were chaotic, making an already tough job even tougher.
This kind of problem can be alleviated with a policy that requires all incoming information to be funneled to a predesignated dispatcher during any large-scale emergency. Readily accessible maps with push pins or even colored markers can also be helpful in keeping track of the suspect’s and officers’ locations and movements.
Dispatchers should also be thoroughly trained in rapidly evolving large-scale emergencies, and the training should be as realistic as possible, including simulated phone calls and radio traffic that contains conflicting and overlapping information. Dispatcher training is severely lacking in most agencies, yet communications is such a vital part of an effective response to emergencies that we cannot afford to ignore high-quality training for our communications personnel.
Police officers, especially supervisors and commanders, should also be trained in how to conduct a coordinated response to these types of situations. Incident Command System training is one step in this process, but more is needed. Training should include, at the very least, table-top exercises specifically aimed at active shooter and terrorist situations, and whenever possible, simulated firearms scenarios as well. Considering the increasing threat of mass violence in this country today, thorough training is crucial to enabling law enforcement to fulfill its mission to protect the public.
Availability of Weapons
Every patrol officer should be issued a patrol rifle, but it isn’t enough to just issue these weapons and train officers in their use. Availability is also a crucial factor. In this case, Miller had been issued a patrol rifle and was well trained in its use, but it was no use to him because it was secured in a locker at the station. Like many departments at the time, his agency viewed rifles as specialized weapons that should be used only by tactical officers, and then only during SWAT operations. Fortunately for his citizens, Miller didn’t need one to get the job done, but most officers would find it nearly impossible to make that shot with a handgun. If he had been any less proficient with his pistol, Miller probably would have hesitated to shoot or—more likely—been forced to get closer before firing, thereby exposing himself to greater danger and giving Lattin time to shed more blood.
By their very nature, emergencies require quick action, and a delay of even a few seconds can cost lives. Inasmuch as it is law enforcement’s responsibility to stop violence as quickly as possible, it is imperative that every police officer be properly equipped to make a precision long-distant shot at any time. In order to meet this crucial goal, every patrol officer must be issued, and well-trained with, a quality patrol rifle, and the rifles must be carried in the passenger compartment of the squad car, not the trunk.
To the credit of Arn’s department, this was done soon after his death. In addition, the department also initiated active shooter training in the city’s schools soon after the Columbine massacre, which occurred just five months later. Having experienced the havoc and tragedy of an active shooter firsthand, they were determined to be ready if it ever happened again.
Counter Ambush Tactics
We will never know for sure if Arn’s death could have been prevented, but we do know that it is very difficult to defend against an ambush, especially when the victim is focusing on something else. In this case it appears that Arn was focused on Sharp, which, when combined with all the confusion and Lattin’s well concealed position, made it all but impossible for him to prevent the attack. A well-executed ambush presents one of those rare situations in which survival depends almost entirely on luck, especially during its opening stages. Unfortunately for Arn and those who loved him, luck was not on his side.
But this doesn’t mean that police officers are helpless against ambushes. Obviously, the officer cannot survive if he is hit by a fatal round before he can take evasive action, but there is a lot he can do if he is able to respond during the initial attack. And there are also some things that can be done to avoid being caught in an ambush in the first place.
As with any other hazard, the first step in avoidance is awareness. Be especially cautious when responding to any incident that makes you vulnerable to an ambush. These include active shooters, bombings and any other mass casualty incident that may involve terrorism. Remember: Terrorists and other mass killers want to inflict as many casualties as possible, and one way to increase casualties is to use snipers, explosive devices, etc. to ambush first responders as they arrive on scene. Also, be wary of any calls to remote locations (it’s easier to set up an ambush without being detected when no one is around), calls that appear to be bogus or anything else that raises your suspicions.
When approaching the scene of such calls, scan for anything that seems out of the ordinary or hazardous. While scanning, focus first on the most likely places where an ambusher may be hidden, like roof tops, the sides of buildings, walls, ridges in the terrain and other places that allow attackers an easy avenue of escape. After checking these areas, scan inward to check windows, vehicles, trees and other smaller places of cover and concealment. Also pay special attention to dark recesses and shady areas, and look for glints of metal, muzzle flashes, smoke and hints of movement. Because our peripheral vision is good at detecting movement, check out anything that catches your attention out of the corner of your eye.
It’s also a good idea to slow down as much as the circumstances will allow. In rapidly developing emergencies, as with active shooters, you’ll need to get there quickly, but even then it’s important to drive at a reasonable enough speed to avoid causing an accident, and to scan for possible secondary threats as you approach.
Another concern in active shooter incidents and other life-threatening emergencies is the tendency to focus on the injured victims. Because most police officers have a deep concern for those they are sworn to protect this is only natural, but it can be very dangerous to everyone involved. Besides the obvious risks to the officer, the situation will be made worse if he is incapacitated in the process, because the other responding officers and medical personnel must then be concerned about two victims instead of one. In addition, it is very difficult to pull off a rescue under fire, and it may further endanger the downed victim by drawing fire on the rescuers as they go to his aid. Unless the ambusher’s location cannot be pinpointed and/or he is in a solid defensive position where it will take too much time to neutralize him, it’s best to deal with the ambusher before rescuing the victim.
On the other hand, not all ambushes occur when responding to emergencies. In some cases the ambusher may lure the officer to a remote, deserted or other vulnerable location with a seemingly routine call. When responding to non-emergency calls that give any hint of a possible ambush, you can often approach from different direction than normal and/or stop for a closer look before you arrive. Consider using binoculars if you have them, and take time to listen as well.
Another precaution is to drive past the suspicious location first to see if you can spot anything that looks suspicious, and then cautiously reapproach it, preferably from a different angle. Besides allowing you to assess the danger, this will allow you to scan for cover to use if you’re attacked when you return.
If you are ambushed, immediately exit the hot zone, or if immediate escape is not an option, go to cover. Cover will protect you from incoming fire while also buying you time to locate your attacker and decide what to do next. Depending on the circumstances, you can choose to plan and execute an escape, stay where you are while awaiting backup or counterattack. Often, an aggressive counterattack will catch the ambusher off guard and enable you to neutralize him or break through to escape. Also, remember that suppressive fire can be vital to escaping an ambush safely. In wartime ambushes, the military can lay down a high volume of suppressive fire, but police officers have neither the firepower nor the moral right to spray an area with indiscriminant gunfire. Nevertheless, controlled suppressive fire can keep your assailant’s head down without compromising your moral obligation to avoid endangering others. After locating your attacker, fire a round directly at him just often enough to keep him pinned down. Focus on keeping your shots to a minimum and putting them where nobody but the ambusher is at risk. And keep scanning for movement or any other indications that another assailant may be attempting to advance, flank your position, etc.
To be suspicious of ambushes and well prepared to deal with them is not paranoia. Ambushes are currently the No. 1 killer of police officers, as the recent tragedy in Lakewood, Wash., so graphically demonstrated. Although there’s no need to overreact to this threat, it’s wise to be prepared. Make it a habit to assess the possibility of an ambush on every call, to always scan for danger and to be ready to react quickly and decisively if ambushed.
This case highlights the importance of firearms proficiency. An avid shooter since childhood and a highly trained tactical officer, Miller possessed not only the skill, but—perhaps more importantly—the confidence needed to make the precision shot needed to neutralize Lattin. With competence comes confidence. And confidence reduces stress, makes for steady nerves and clears thinking, all of which are crucial to decisiveness and accuracy under stress.
Those of us who are privileged to train our fellow officers need to keep in mind that proper training does more than teach physical skills. It also instills confidence, which in turn increases mental flexibility, improves decision making and further enhances physical performance. Good training consistently pushes officers to achieve ever higher levels of performance without humiliating or frustrating them with unrealistic expectations. It must consistently challenge, never discourage.
Like other tactical teams, Miller’s team was thoroughly trained in high-risk entries, barricaded suspects, hostage situations and other operations in which the suspect’s mobility is limited within a known location, but this was different. Lattin was outdoors and highly mobile. Besides making it hard to locate and isolated him, this factor gave Lattin the advantage of much greater flexibility in positioning and target selection. In addition, the officers also had to be concerned about 360-degree exposure to attack, identifying and approaching the hot zone, and coordinating their actions during a highly fluid, chaotic and dangerous situation. Even worse, Lattin was not the typical suspect who had been cornered after a blundered robbery or caught off guard by a dynamic entry, but a determined, calculating killer whose sole purpose was to inflict as much death as possible before the police stopped him. As discussed earlier, active shooters were almost unheard of at the time of this shooting, and tactics for dealing with them were virtually nonexistent. When added to the fact that Lattin was so mobile, it’s not surprising that the department was not well prepared to deal with his brand of violence.
In this new era of active shooters and the growing threat of terrorism, tactical teams and even patrol officers need specific training to deal with these problems. Even if the shooter isn’t outdoors, we have to be concerned about such things as moving into the hot zone when approaching a school or other building where a shooter is actively killing people. Such challenges require infantry-type tactics that are unfamiliar to most police officers, such as leapfrog tactics for moving through large open areas, proper utilization of various kinds of cover, movement to and from points of cover, etc. Although beyond the scope of this analysis to discuss the specifics of such tactics, it’s vital that officers be adequately trained in such tactics to meet the increasing demands of today’s law enforcement.
Deadly Force in Defense of Others
In the great majority of cases when police officers use deadly force, they do so in self defense, but sometimes duty demands that they kill to save innocent lives. Unfortunately, human beings are much more reluctant to employ deadly force in defense of others than in defense of themselves (the only exception being when defending loved ones). This should not be surprising, because self-preservation kicks in when we perceive a threat to our own lives, but we are not similarly hardwired to protect others. Additionally, most police firearms training focuses on shooting in self defense, and rarely even hints at shooting to defend citizens or other officers.
Nevertheless, Miller didn’t hesitate to use shoot Lattin, despite the fact that his life wasn’t being threatened at the time. That he so decisively employed deadly force under the circumstances speaks directly to one of the noblest aspects of his character—his readiness to act in defense of others. He didn’t pause to consider the “fairness” of killing a man who was no direct threat to him, but was singularly focused on the need to stop the carnage before more victims fell.
In fact, he has no doubt that he did the right thing; that his actions go to very heart of the law enforcement mission. Police officers are entrusted with the authority to use firearms because our citizens need armed warriors to protect them from predators like Lattin. We often forget that fact when we think about deadly force issues, because human beings tend to focus on themselves when thinking about lethal threats. However, we must never forget that we have an even higher obligation. Our citizens have entrusted us with their safety and the safety of their families, and we have chosen to accept that responsibility. With that responsibility comes the duty to defend others.
With the responsibility for the safety of our citizens resting on our shoulders, it’s very important that we not leave it to chance. We must train our officers to respond decisively to situations like the one faced by Sgt. Miller. While shooting in self defense will always be of highest importance, we must be careful to make sure that we also give proper attention to shooting in defense of our citizens and fellow officers as well. Instructors must make it clear that officers have not only the right, but the duty to use deadly force to defend innocent lives, and then reinforce that point with case studies and simulations. Computerized firearms simulators and force-on-force training should regularly include increasingly more difficult scenarios in which officers must decide whether to shoot when the lives of others are at stake. This is critical in order to overcome the natural reluctance to kill in defense of others and help ensure that officers will make the right decision on the streets.
It’s also important to make it clear that the law does not require officers to issue verbal warning before employing deadly force. While it is often preferable to do so if there is time, it isn’t legally necessary, and often impractical or even dangerous to do so. When lives hang in the balance, we don’t owe the shooter any favors. We do, however, owe his innocent victims something—we owe them the right to live. By issuing a warning, we waste time. Even more importantly, we give the shooter a chance to duck to cover, turn on us or otherwise defend himself. And if he manages to escape or incapacitate us, we have failed our citizens and any officers who must finish the job for us as well. This is no time for fair play.
Besides his readiness to defend others, there were a number of other aspects of Miller’s mindset that contributed to his quick action in ending the bloodshed. First, like many officers who handle themselves well in high-stress situations, he had prepared himself mentally for the use of lethal force. He had role played “what if” scenarios in his mind while on patrol and handling calls, and had also used mental imagery to “experience” armed encounters in preparation for the day when it would happen on the street.
Miller had also learned an important lesson from an earlier shooting. In that incident he had allowed a suspect to point a rifle at him twice and had fired only after the man pointed the gun a third time and fired. When analyzing his actions later, he realized how dangerous it had been to hesitate. He also knew that we make better, faster decisions under stress when we have decided what to do beforehand. He had resolved to never hesitate again when lethal force was required. This ability to learn from past experiences—to calmly and honestly examine our actions with an eye to improvement—is one of the hallmarks of a winner.
Miller is also a man of strong faith, which is another common element of the winning mindset. People of faith are generally less afraid of death than others, which tends to reduce stress and bolster courage. Further, faith helps create an outward focus on the needs of others, which, by shifting attention away from the self, enables the person to ignore distracting self-centered thoughts and stay focused on the only thing that really matters—neutralizing the threat.
Sgt. Miller suffered no emotional trauma as a result of his use of deadly force. This was largely because he understood his role as a defender of the innocent and because of his religious belief that this role was ordained by God. Officers with such beliefs tend to suffer less emotional trauma in the aftermath of lethal encounters, not only because they have come to terms with the moral aspects of killing, but because they are able to look beyond themselves as they focus on their duty to serve.
It also helped that he knew what to expect after having been through the previous shooting. The sensory distortions he experienced (e.g., his sights filling his entire field of view, and his inability to hear his gunshots or feel the recoil of his weapon) were no surprise because he had experienced similar phenomena the first time. Similarly, he knew what to expect from his department and understood the procedures that required him to surrender his weapon and submit to probing interviews and other scrutiny. He understood the need for a thorough investigation and was able to accept that there was nothing personal in the way the investigators handled the case; they were just doing their jobs. A good understanding of these things is very important in the aftermath of a shooting, because surprises can be very disturbing in all the confusion and conflicting emotions that follow. This is especially true if the officer has trouble understanding what is happening to him, as may be the case if he has no foreknowledge of sensory distortions or feels that the investigation is hostile or directed at him personally.
Finally, Miller feels that the department policy that required him to see a psychologist was very helpful, because it gave him the opportunity to talk about the incident freely and hear from a professional that his perceptions and feelings were normal. Such policies, while valuable, must be universally applied, carried out with absolute confidentiality and conducted by a psychologist who is thoroughly trained and experienced in police use of lethal force and its aftermath. If the officer feels that he is being singled out, doesn’t trust the process or feels that the psychologist doesn’t understand what he is going through, the counseling will be of little value and may do more harm than good.
Peer counseling by properly trained police officers who have also used deadly force can be especially helpful. Every officer should have access and be encouraged to use peer counseling if he feels he may needs it, and every officer who has experienced the emotional aftermath of a lethal encounter should consider serving as a peer counselor.
- A police department’s response to chaotic mass violence and other large-scale emergencies can be improved by requiring that all incoming information be funneled to a predesignated dispatcher. It is also important that all dispatchers, police officers, supervisors and command staff be adequately trained to deal with large-scale emergencies.
- Every patrol officer should be issued a patrol rifle and thoroughly trained with it, and the weapons should be carried in the passenger compartment, not the trunk.
- Ambushes are a very real threat. Be especially cautious when responding to any incident that appears to create vulnerability to one. Slow down, and scan for danger. Also, consider approaching from a different direction than normal, stopping for a closer look before you arrive, and/or driving past the location the first time and then re-approaching from another direction.
- If you’re ambushed, immediately exit the hot zone or go to cover. From there, you can plan an escape route, wait for backup or execute a counterattack.
- When responding to an active shooter or other mass violence, it is usually best to focus on neutralizing the shooter before attempting to rescue any victims.
- A high level of firearms proficiency increases the likelihood of being able to make a tough shot like Miller did, and it also instills the confidence needed to do so decisively when innocent lives are on the line. Practice.
- Active shooter incidents, terrorist acts and other mass casualty attacks require the use infantry-like tactics that are unfamiliar to most police officers. In today’s society, it’s important to obtain training in these tactics.
- Police officers are duty bound to use deadly force when necessary to protect innocent lives. Prepare mentally for this responsibility now, before it happens on the street.
- When your life or the life of another is threatened, stay focused on the only thing that really matters—neutralizing the threat.
- Negative emotional responses in the aftermath of a lethal encounter can be significantly reduced by recognizing that police officers have a moral obligation to use force when necessary to end violence, and by understanding both the sensory distortions associated with these encounters and their department’s post-shooting procedures.
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