Neither Officer Troy Ellison nor the man in his partner car, Officer Charles Johnson, had been off training for more than three weeks. Still, they were both savvy enough to know that they were working a high crime neighborhood, the busiest part of the city of Little Rock, Ark., at the time. So when Johnson got the handle on a domestic at 4711 West 25th Street, Ellison decided to roll on it as well.
Both men were comforted with the notion that the call would at least be their last of a long, cold day. Their destination was the James residence where the father, Alfred, had allegedly assaulted his wife and children.
As the officers pulled up to the scene, they observed the shirtless and red-faced Alfred James stalk across the street toward his small, white framed house. His teary wife, Daunna McLittle, dutifully followed a couple of feet behind with two crying toddlers in tow. In an attempt to determine the exact nature of the problem—or at least get James' side of the story—the officers called for the 34-year-old man to come over to their patrol cars.
"F__k you!" was the last thing James yelled before going up the steps to the front door of his house and disappearing inside.
The officers made do with contacting the wife. She advised them that her husband had struck her, an allegation visibly corroborated by the blood seeping from her split lip. Apparently, one of their children had been a target of James' rage as well.
It was pretty much an open-and-shut case, particularly as the intoxicated James was in no mood to offer his side of the story. He was not shy, however, about demanding that his wife get the officers off their property.
As Arkansas state law leaves no ambiguity about domestic violence calls when there are visible signs of injury on a spouse, Ellison and Johnson knew they were obligated to make the arrest.
They knocked on the front door.
The red-rimmed and baleful eyes of Alfred James regarded the officers through a small diamond-shaped window in the door.
"Would you come outside, Mr. James?" one officer asked.
With a fresh stream of profanity, James left no doubt in the officers' minds about how little appeal this request held for him. Johnson tried the door latch. Locked.
They re-contacted Ms. McLittle and explained the situation. She gave the officers permission to do whatever they needed to effect entry.
With that, the officers went back to the front door, knocking one more time to give James a chance to comply. When that failed, they went to work on the door.
The door was an older one, sturdy enough to keep the cold at bay, but nothing too formidable as far as Johnson was concerned. His kicks made easy work of the door lock, but entry was still blocked by James, who was pushing against the door from within.
Ellison then went to work, ramming the door with his shoulder. He repeatedly charged the door, slamming it as hard as his body could withstand. With each impact, he could feel the presence of James pressing hard on its opposite side.
Ellison backed off for a moment. There'd been a rhythm to his attempts, a predictability that came with intervals of his catching his breath then charging headlong into the door. He decided he needed to catch James off balance. He waited a moment in the hopes that James would let his guard down.
Then he threw himself into the door with all his might.
He's Stabbed Me!
Ellison stumbled through the doorway. At first, he didn't see James. Then he looked down and saw two large butcher knives. The twin 12-inch blades wielded by James slashed upward toward the officer's torso. They'd barely registered in his visual cortex when they disappeared below his chest. He felt the simultaneous blows in his ribcage.
Reflexively, Ellison's hands shot downward. He put both his hands on top of James' and held them with a death grip. Whatever damage the suspect may have inflicted, Ellison was hell-bent on making sure he didn't get another stab at him. As they struggled, all Ellison could see were the handles of the butcher knives.
A fresh wave of adrenaline swept over Ellison, carrying both him and the suspect out the front door as they spilled out into the darkness of the front yard.
"He's stabbed me! He's got knives and he's stabbed me!" Ellison yelled.
It was all Johnson needed to hear.
Ellison's fellow academy graduate and friend immediately fired his Glock 9mm sidearm. Two rounds struck James, the first entering his stomach, the second in his leg. The man curled up and collapsed with all the fight taken out of him.
With the threat neutralized, Ellison immediately began stripping off his uniform shirt and vest. As James writhed and moaned on the ground, Ellison inventoried himself for his own injuries. He finally found one small scratch on his rib cage, but no deeply penetrating injuries. Certainly something he could live with.
Ellison handcuffed the suspect as Johnson radioed for backup and an ambulance. As their initial fears abated, Ellison and Johnson were gripped with an overwhelming concern. The stunned officers sat on the front stoop, staring at one another, scared to death.
At first they heard sirens in the distance—the trumpet of the cavalry drawing nearer—then saw a parade of patrol cars coming down the street. The officers shared a common thought: Just what had they gotten themselves into? They hadn't even made it off probation and they caused all this commotion. Surely, they'd get in big trouble over this one.
Later, Ellison would wonder why he and his partner were so concerned about such a clear-cut shooting. Tactically, they hadn't done anything differently than thousands of other officers who have effected entry on domestic disturbance calls, and the shooting was clearly justified.
Ellison believes now that his post-shooting anxiety was a knee-jerk reaction, a byproduct of lessons that were ingrained into him during the academy, lessons about responsibility and accountability.
"We were sort of conditioned when we started the academy, it was beat into us that if we get out of here and mess up, we can be fired for no reason," Ellison reflects. "They don't need to have justification for terminating. If you come in late, if you damage a vehicle, things of that sort. Things just to make us aware that what we do within this first year can make or break your career. Neither one of us had been in a deadly force incident before."
But something else had been instilled in the officers, as well. Something that superceded such concerns. The preservation of life, including their own. And that was the prevailing mindset that the two partners retained when it most mattered.
When asked—with the advantage of hindsight—if he'd ever considered how he might have handled the situation differently, Ellison says, "I played it over and over in my mind over the past 12 years, and I can't think of anything that I could have done differently. Maybe not holstering my weapon when I gained entry into the house. Possibly, I could have been a little more patient with the guy and tried to talk him out. Just do more negotiating as opposed to being as aggressive as we were. But like I said, we were young officers. We didn't know much. We thought we knew everything at the time. Other than that, I can't really think of anything we could have done differently."
Like most law enforcement officers, Ellison had anticipated the possibility of being assaulted on duty, even shot. But he hadn't envisioned the possibility of being stabbed. He recalls examining his Safariland vest afterward.
"I could see two puncture holes in the bottom tip of the vest, less than a centimeter into the actual vest itself. If it had been a centimeter lower, it would have missed the vest and struck me below my ribs. So it just barely hit that vest. It's so hot and bulky and everybody's always complaining about it. When we were in the academy, we wore it every day. When we went through the academy in the summertime, we complained about it. But whenever I have that uniform on, I wear my vest."
Ellison donned his vest that day in the hopes that it would defeat any ballistic threats he would face. Fortunately, it also saved him from the penetrating threats of two knives being thrust into him with such force that their blades were bent at 90-degree angles. Ellison was thankful that he'd kept himself in shape, and therefore in the fight. His physical conditioning availed him the means of not only keeping the suspect from stabbing him again, but the strength to pull the man outside the house where Johnson could take appropriate action.
So what happened to the suspect, a habitual criminal who had been arrested for murder prior to his attempt on Ellison's life? James survived the shooting and was back out on the street within seven years.
When asked about his reaction to his attacker's early parole, Ellison is resigned. "It really didn't faze me too much. I don't feel the hatred that I did then toward the guy and the fact that he did try to take my life. You just play it over so many times in your mind, the scenario and the situation, and it just wears you down. The best way to describe it is it made me feel like I was putting too much energy into thinking about that and whether or not the justice system was going to do what they were supposed to do and keep this person in jail."
The incident has had a lasting effect on Ellison, the way he performs his duties, and his resolve to serve his community.
"It's made me, of course, more cautious," he says. "I have a different mindset when dealing with intoxicated people, dealing with disturbance calls. I tell these younger officers to have the same mindset. I've been going to the local schools, high schools, speaking with kids and telling them how the decisions that they make, career decisions, have a lot to do with what they're doing now.
"I normally go through and tell them about this incident because they always ask, 'How did you get into being a police officer?' or 'Why did you decide to be a police officer?' I really didn't decide until after this incident that was what I wanted to do. I pursued it just thinking it would be something interesting. Once that incident occurred, I sat up all night. I didn't sleep at all, deciding whether or not I was going to continue to do that job. I looked around at all the people that had been affected: my mom, brothers, and sisters. At that point, that's when I decided to continue to be a police officer. To start off, they paid good, and I got good benefits, things of that sort. But that's not why I stayed."
For his efforts, Officer Johnson was named Officer of the Year. Ellison received an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
But more than that, Ellison won something bigger. He won the fight for his life.