You Just Killed Me
Throughout his 34 years in law enforcement, Sanders had never shot a man. But then, he had never left any ambiguity about his willingness to do so. His obvious intent to do whatever was necessary to ensure his safety or that of others was never in doubt. This bearing had caused many a suspect to reevaluate any thoughts of noncompliance. He’d seen what might otherwise happen.
Several years earlier, a Des Moines officer had allowed a violent suspect to gain the upper hand, resulting in the officer being stabbed eight times. Only the officer’s ballistic vest and the last-second intervention of another officer’s use of deadly force had saved his life. Sanders believed intimidation may have factored into the victim officer’s unwillingness to do whatever was necessary to protect himself while he had the chance. The situation had been so Monday morning quarterbacked, discussed, and dissected that ultimately a question was put to the assistant district attorney for the county: Could an officer who is confronted by a suspect, known to be violent but not visibly armed, use deadly force to stop that suspect’s advance?
The district attorney acknowledged that case law was on the side of the officer. However, he cautioned that he never wanted to take such a case before a grand jury.
Now Sanders was living that nightmare scenario. He knew he couldn’t let the man get away; nor could he allow the man to get the better of him and gain control of his sidearm, thereby placing responding officers and citizens in even greater jeopardy.
Consciously or not, Sanders maneuvered himself to a point where any rounds that missed the suspect would not be a concern downfield. Again, he told the suspect to stand back or he would be shot, and again the suspect advanced.
There was no report, only a slight vibration in Sanders’ wrist caused by the gun’s recoil. A hole materialized in the suspect’s chest, followed by a gush of blood. Walker suddenly stopped and stared uncomprehendingly at his chest. His eyes rotated upwards to Sanders, a dawning recognition within them.
“You just killed me.”
Walker stared down to his right, then to his left, as though looking for what would catch him when he fell. He took two steps backward and collapsed.
Sanders approached warily. The knife’s whereabouts were still unknown and Sanders didn’t know what Walker was still capable of doing.
Walker made a gurgling sound that Sanders recognized as the death rattle. As the man’s breath grew shallow, Sanders thought to himself, My God. I’ve just shot an unarmed black man.
The Grand Jury
As additional units arrived, Sanders turned control of the crime scene over to one of his sergeants. While waiting for investigators to arrive, he tracked down witnesses to the incident.
Donald Walker was transported to Iowa Methodist Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
A co-investigation of the shooting was conducted by the Iowa State Division of Criminal Investigation and the Des Moines Police Department. A thorough search of the area failed to locate the outstanding knife. Sanders speculates that the woman secreted it somewhere as she walked north on 12th Street.
Like Sanders, the police chief was a political realist. He was not an apologist, however. He invited members of the black community to a tour of the shooting scene and a debriefing. Despite its success in curtailing criticism from the community, some officers took exception to the overture. Sanders was thankful for it.
“I honestly think it worked for the best. I told the chief that whatever he felt he needed to do to keep the Department’s reputation intact was right by me. I honestly believe it not only defused the situation, but probably prevented some lawsuits from being filed.”
In late August, the Grand Jury reached the same conclusion as other investigatory bodies and the community and ruled the shooting justifiable. Ironically, the district attorney responsible for making Sanders’ case was the same man who had earlier expressed reservations about such a case.
By early September, Sanders was back to work, but only for a while. He retired shortly thereafter.
Sanders has since taken a position as chief of police for the Meskwaki Indian Settlement at Tama, Iowa. He still thinks about the men and women who continue to do the job throughout the nation. His thoughts and prayers are continually with them. But the one thing that he would most want to impart to them is this: When it comes to facing a life-or-death decision, the political, social, or fiscal reputations be damned.
“Never hesitate to do what’s required of you to keep yourself and your partner alive,” Sanders says. “If you’re a good, conscientious cop, you should never fear doing your job.”
Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and a contributing editor to Police.