Deadly Force

I know this sounds like the lead in from Jack Webb and an episode of the old Dragnet TV show, but I am going to use it anyway. 

It was a warm summer night in Manchester. I was working the 6PM to 230 AM shift in patrol. It was after dark when I got this call. It may be a cliche, but it is true that in police work, you never know what you’re  going to come across or what your next call is going to be.  

I always felt lucky to have been assigned to that shift when I was fresh out of the academy. I learned a lot that first summer. It was a busy summer, and that was normally a very lively shift. It wasn’t unusual to handle 20-25 calls during that shift and making multiple arrests. Sometimes up to four arrests during an eight hour shift. You could never do that today because most calls now require a report to be written and filed and the process for booking a simple misdemeanor arrest has become very arduous and never simple. Forget about a felony or DWI. 

Back then, you could go to a call, give a stern warning, clear the call as Solved At Scene (you hoped) then go on to the next call without writing a report. And, if you did make a report, the report itself, unless a serious felony could be cursory and you could be back on the street 45 minutes after an arrest. Some simple reports could actually be-and get this-hand written! No more. 

Furthermore, back in the 90s we had a dictation system where when we complied notes for several reports, we could go to one of the local hospitals or whatever business that was on your route and call in and dictate those reports over the phone! The reports would be typed by stenographers and the next shift at roll call you would receive the reports, be able to proof them, then sign them and pass them in. The only time that you actually had to come into the station house to type a report right away was in the case of an arrest, or something that required to be entered into NCIC (nationwide) such as a missing juvenile, stolen firearm or car.

It was a great system. And it ended the day the PD installed mobile computer units in all the cruisers. To this day, I never understood that. 

Also back then, the unwritten rule was that if you had to go back to any call a second time, then there had better not be a third time. So as polite and reasonable as we tried to be, if we had to go back because the behavior continued, arrests were often made. 

On this night I was assigned to an “X” car, which most of the 6-230 AM units were. An X car covered overlapping routes of the regular route cars and provided back up for the route cars at calls and were also sent to calls when the route cars were tied up. It was a great assignment if you were a cop that liked to work. 

Years later, the department went to a sector car system, with several route cars within a sector. Those cars were allowed to roam their sector freely and spend time in whatever locations that were a problem, even if it was off your route. However, calls on your route had to be answered by that route car. It gave the patrol cops a lot more freedom than previously allowed. It was a good system and adopted when MPD adopted the Federal Community Oriented Policing model. This incident occurred before the Sector Patrol System had been adopted and implemented. 

The call was for a man with a gun. The information given to me during the call was there were four male subjects, and one was brandishing a handgun and pointing it at people and cars as they walked along. The suspect with the gun was described as a white male, wearing a purple football shirt and the caller even got the number on the back of the shirt. Number 82.

The caller stated that the group was walking north on Wilson St. which is located in the inner city in one of the higher crime neighborhoods. As it happened I was only a block or so away. I immediately responded. I arrived at the location, probably not more than a minute later. I turned out my headlights and glided to a stop. There they were, walking away from me. I called off on the radio and got out on foot. They are walking away from me in the rear of a strip mall. For those of you who may know the city, they were walking behind the old nightclub City Limits and where the Stop and Shop would later be. The suspect in the purple shirt was holding a pistol in his right hand and was pointing it towards the rear of a building to his right. 

I drew my pistol, and sighted in on the suspect. I looked over my sites and lined them up with the center of his back, right on the number 82. He couldn’t have provided a better target for me. He continued to walk leisurely away from me while pointing his pistol. 

I yelled “POLICE! FREEZE!”  It wasn’t a request. My finger was on the trigger. Back then, we were trained OFF TARGET, (FINGER) OFF TRIGGER. ON TARGET, (FINGER) ON TRIGGER. In retrospect, maybe I should have ordered him to drop the gun. Maybe he would have. But, I didn’t. The suspect, apparently startled, turned to look at me over his right shoulder. As he did, he swung the pistol around and momentarily pointed it at me. That millisecond seemed like it played out in slow motion. As I think about that night I’m pretty certain his turning and pointing the gun at me was an instinctive reaction, not necessarily a conscious prelude to killing me. But, as we all know, in real time we often have to make instant, instinctive decisions without any time to consider options. 

The Deadly Force Law in NH for law enforcement at the time basically said that when a cop reasonably believes a person is about to use deadly force on him or a third person, then deadly force is lawful. In certain, well defined circumstances, deadly force can be used to apprehend a fleeing felon if the escape of that felon constitutes a threat to the community. 

You don’t have much time to evaluate the situation you may find yourself in VS the use of force laws for cops. Like I say, that decision often must be made instantly and instinctively. 

On this night, after momentarily pointing his gun in my direction, he and his friends decided to run. To this day, I don’t know why I didn’t pull the trigger when he turned on me. I actually had pressure on the trigger when he turned and ran. He did not drop the weapon, so I gave chase on foot, knowing I was chasing an armed subject. 

The four ran westerly across Lincoln St. and into a complex of little league baseballs fields and split up. I screamed my location into my radio. I said the suspect was armed. Nothing gets other cops attention like when the radio is broken by the sound of another cop, huffing and puffing while yelling directions into the radio that he is chasing someone. Most times, you never know why the copper was chasing the suspect in the first place. Was it a robbery? Was the suspect wanted somewhere for murder? Or is he fleeing for some foolish reason, like an unpaid speeding ticket that he never took care of. In this case, I confirmed this suspect was armed with a gun. Almost instantly I heard multiple sirens wailing and headed towards me from all directions. I soon lost sight of all four suspects. I was out of breath, the adrenalin was flowing and I tried to shout instructions over the radio until a supervisor took control. The perimeter was sealed off, and a dog was brought in to conduct a search for all four subjects then an object search for the gun itself. 

Within a half hour or so, all four subjects were in custody. I think they all “went to ground” in different locations and were located by vigilant cops and or the K-9. Eventually, the gun was found. It had been stashed somewhere in the park. 

After I calmed down, I headed to station to process my prisoners. But I wasn’t calm for long. Walter came to me with the gun. I was shocked. It was a paint ball gun. The person who had the gun owned up to it being the gun he had when I confronted him. All four did. I had no reason not to believe them. Especially since a K-9 tracked the gun back to where the suspect had been found hiding and then from there back to where I first confronted him. This guy had no idea how close he came to being killed that night. And worse, yet, it was me who almost killed him. Over what? 

I was livid. When I entered into booking I found the four subjects, now under arrest handcuffed to the bench. They were all young men but adults who should have known better. Each of them were over 18. I screamed at them. I howled at them about how close this behavior came to causing me to kill him. I bellowed about squeezing the trigger, how I would never have missed at that distance and I went on and on until I was physically spent and couldn’t yell anymore. I kinda lost it. There were several cops present, and they kinda stood off to the side and let me cook off. I think they understood. Any of them, believing they were chasing an armed suspect could have, under certain circumstances, shot him themselves. 

Finally, when I ran out of steam, the other guys decided it was best if they searched and booked the four suspects while I left the booking area, took a deep breath and start on my paperwork. I was grateful for that. 

I have no idea whether or not that guy appreciated how close he came to being killed by me that night. His behavior was more than foolish. I went on about having been justified if I did kill him. He put his own life in jeopardy…And no police board or jury would have punished or convicted me for it. 

Mostly though, I was angry about this man putting me in a position where I could have killed him. The fact that I knew that I would have been justified for shooting him did not make me feel any better. The fact was that although no one could have determined that this paint gun was not a real firearm in the dark under the street light, coupled with the information I had received when I was sent to the call didn’t make me feel any better. I believe that had I taken this man’s life, although legally justified, doing so would haunt me for the rest of my life. It certainly would have been a life changing incident for me. 

I don’t remember what I charged this guy with. I’m sure he was charged with Disorderly Conduct and Resisting Arrest. Maybe Criminal Mischief for shooting buildings with paint balls. I don’t remember if I charged him with Criminal Threatening or not. I probably did since I did in fact feel threatened when he turned towards me. The case never went to trial. I assume they pled out. 

That was not the first time I drew my service weapon or confronted a suspect at gunpoint. It certainly was not the first or last time I came close to shooting someone on the job. There were several deadly force situations in the years ahead during which I would have been justified in using deadly force. Fortunately, on each occasion circumstances dictated that either the moment passed or I didn’t have to resort to shooting a suspect to save my life or take him into custody. 

Furthermore, late in my career, I was assigned to investigate a shooting by an on-duty NH State Trooper. He had shot and killed a suspect in Manchester after a car chase into our city. I did what I had to do, but in the back of my mind I never lost sight of the fact that I wasn’t there when he pulled the trigger. It wasn’t my role to determine whether or not the shooting was justified, which it turned out, it was. That decision would be made by the Attorney General’s Office based on the results of our criminal investigation. 

But that summer night, as I think back on it, I still don’t know why I didn’t pull the trigger. I know that as he ran, I knew the moment had passed. I holstered my pistol as I chased him, but when I stopped to search, I drew it again. Oh woe is the person who stepped out of the shadows that night while I had my pistol drawn. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. 

Over the next few days, cops throughout the department, especially those on duty that night scrutinized my behavior when I confronted this jerk. And they weren’t shy about offering their opinions, either behind my back or to my face. I was still a rookie. Worse, I was still a probationary patrolman. Cops are great Monday morning quarterbacks and gossips if nothing else. It’s something they excel at. I received some support and a lot of criticism. Several cops told me my decision not to pull the trigger the moment that guy turned towards me with the gun was wrong. They told me that guy could have killed me at that moment if he chose to. I’ve thought about that night often. They are all correct, of course. Maybe, just maybe, that guy had his guardian angel with him that night.  

My attitude towards those who were critical of my decision not to shoot is to shrug my shoulders and say, “Hey, you weren’t there”. And, that attitude often causes me to hold back on judgment of other cops often in controversial situations. That is especially true when bosses who haven’t worked the streets for years or civilians rush to judgement regarding split second decisions cops make on the street.

I really don’t know why I didn’t kill that man that night. I guess maybe I hesitated just an instant. Thats not a comforting thought. And for sure, that hesitation could have cost me my life. If he had a real gun. If he wanted to kill me. How would I have known? 

In the end, in that situation, in that circumstance, I thank God I did not pull the trigger. Even though I know I would have been justified. But, believe it or not, that decision not to shoot has haunted me in my dreams for many years. I’d like to think this is because I have an inherent desire to never hurt or kill anyone. But I know, the real reason, is that I was always afraid that the next time I found myself in a similar situation, hesitating could cost me my life. Despite my ability to overthink things, I know I made the right decision that night. 

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