No more time in the penalty box, Dep. Vincent Durante of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reminded himself. Having spent the better part of the last seven months riding the desk for a series of on-duty fender benders, Durante had no interest in answering 911 calls for a while. While he respected what it took to work dispatch indeed, now more than ever, his preference for working the field was well known. A born street cop, he made more arrests than any other deputy working day shift at the City of Industry Sheriff's station. And they were quality arrests, too. The pride that Durante took in his work and the vigilance he displayed on behalf of the community were widely recognized.
Whatever else, being stuck on the desk had given Durante time to reflect on the more negative aspects of "driving by Braille." And while he wanted to get to Dep. Lorenzo Bright's backup request as quickly as he could, he knew he had to get himself and his car there in one piece. He let up on the gas pedal…just a little.
Dep. Bright wasn't one to request backup unless he felt a legitimate need for it. As such, fellow deputies respected his requests for assistance and, more importantly, acted on them.
It Came Back Stolen
Bright had been flagged down by a passing motorist who advised him of a man and a woman arguing on a nearby residential street. Arguments in and of themselves were not unusual in this unincorporated section of Los Angeles County. All manner of discord could be found in this area, which was plagued by gangs and domestic disputes.
Industry Station's murder rate was eclipsed by only two other LASD stations, Compton and Century. Women storming out of vehicles weren't that unusual, either. For many, it's been an established dating ritual.
But when both parties abandoned their vehicle in the middle of the street; well, that was unusual. Unusual enough that when Bright responded to the location to find the Suburban still parked and idling, he decided to run the plate.
It returned stolen.
The Cul de Sac
Durante arrived at the scene just as Bright was putting out a crime broadcast with descriptions of the couple seen leaving the vehicle. Durante copied down the information: A male Hispanic, about 25 years old, shaved head, tattoos, wearing blue shorts, a white t-shirt, and a prosthetic leg. The female was described as Hispanic, 18 to 20 years old, with short, brown hair. Both had been seen running eastbound on Coleford before making a right on the next street, Newmarket.
Durante decided to check the vicinity in hopes of finding the man or woman. Turning down Newmarket, he found himself on a cul de sac about eight houses deep. Ahead of him, loping and hopping across the front yards of the residences in a pace as furious as his prosthetic limb would allow, was a male who matched the suspect's description.
What Durante did not know at that moment was that the human hop-along was one Jeremiah Del Real, a gang member parolee at large who had left a decent amount of methamphetamine in the stolen Suburban he'd just abandoned. Meth was also coursing through the one-legged third-striker's system, as he was on the tail end of a three-day binge.
What Durante did know was that the man bouncing kangaroo-like from yard to yard was fixated on some unknown destination and seemingly oblivious to the presence of a law enforcement officer. Durante felt that he had the element of surprise on his side. It would prove to be the most fleeting and ill-deserved sense of optimism he would have in his life.
Puffs of Smoke
Pulling up a little over a house length distance away from the man, Durante parked and prepared to exit his vehicle to detain the man at gunpoint. But just then, Del Real glanced over his left shoulder in Durante's direction.
As he did, Del Real suddenly rotated to his left and produced a chrome-plated semi-automatic handgun from his waist.
Puffs of smoke were the first things that registered in Durante's mind as Del Real opened fire. Then his adrenaline kicked in, and things started to move in slow motion. Durante could see the barrel of the suspect's gun level off at him, smoke enveloped it, and small pops of gunfire rang out.
Durante dove to his right, taking what cover he could below the visual plane of the dashboard of his Crown Victoria. As he did, he glanced over the dashboard and out the windshield. He saw the suspect advancing beeline straight toward him in a low crawl position, still firing.
Rounds tore into Durante's car, embedding themselves in the headrest of the driver's seat and elsewhere about him. Durante unholstered his Beretta, braced it atop the dashboard, took aim at the suspect, and fired a single round through his car's windshield. A hole materialized in the rhomboid glass, but the suspect's advance toward him remained steady. Durante squeezed the Beretta's trigger a second time.
But this time, absolutely nothing happened.
Durante immediately recognized that he had fired his weapon too close to the windshield so that it short stroked the slide, preventing the second round from being fed into the chamber.
Panic was not an option. Durante retracted the Beretta inward to his body in an effort to clear it. But the confines of the car and his need for cover made that impossible.
Meanwhile, the suspect's lurching gait did not falter. Del Real stepped from the curb in front of Durante's patrol car and walked toward the driver's side door. He fired another round.
Durante could no longer hear. Suddenly, there was no sound at all, only the sight of puffs of smoke from the suspect's gun barrel. Durante felt as though he were in a dream, the worst nightmare that he'd ever experienced, and one he could only pray to awake from.
As Del Real came abreast of Durante's side window, he took careful, deliberate aim at the deputy. He squeezed the trigger…
Del Real squeezed the trigger spasmodically, as though willing the gun to fire, but still nothing happened.
Durante thought the suspect's weapon might have jammed or perhaps it was out of ammo.
Del Real suddenly darted past the driver's door.
"Chicken shit" didn't begin to describe the thoughts that Durante had of his assailant right then. He took the opportunity to exit the driver's door and turned toward the fleeing Del Real. Durante racked his Beretta and saw a round pop out. With the malfunction cleared, he yelled for the assailant to stop.
Del Real had progressed about 20 feet when he turned to face Durante again. Had the suspect cleared his own weapon, as well? Durante didn't know and didn't care. When Del Real raised his gun again, Durante fired two rounds.
The first round hit Del Real center chest. He fell backward, screaming out in pain as his gun flew out of his hand and fell to the ground about four feet away from him.
Durante approached Del Real, covering the man at gunpoint while he advised of his shooting over the radio. Thirty seconds later, Bright arrived with backup deputies who handcuffed the suspect.
Del Real was transported to County-USC Medical Center. He was charged with attempted murder of a police officer, possession of methamphetamine, being under the influence of a controlled substance, possession of a stolen vehicle, for being an ex-convict in possession of a gun, and other offenses.
In retrospect, Durante believes that the suspect was trying to find a house to hide in or a car to get away in. He also later found out that Del Real was a possible murder suspect in the Whittier area and had committed two criminal threats toward his girlfriend's brother wherein he shot a gun into the air and threatened to kill him.
Durante's first shot through the windshield was a through and through to the suspect's left bicep. His next two rounds fired after he'd exited his patrol car had also found their mark.
One struck the suspect in the chest, ricocheted off his sternum, then traversed his rib cage and lodged in his back. The last round struck his right thigh. Three rounds, three hits.
For his part, Del Real had fired eight rounds, emptying his gun. All of the rounds had hit Durante's car, including one fired when Del Real was standing next to Durante's left front spotlight. That round went through the lower left portion of the patrol car's front windshield and sped above Durante's left flank before continuing through the driver's seat cushion and denting the security cage, missing Durante by perhaps an inch or less as he was leaning to the right. Had Durante been sitting up in the car, it would have struck him in the chest, dead center.
Looking back on the incident, Durante believes that circumstances worked out for the best. Had the suspect attacked from the passenger side of his car instead of the driver's side, Durante might have gotten out of the car, presenting the suspect a good head shot. Certainly, he would have availed Del Real a larger target.
A tactical option that later occurred to Durante would have been to hit the gas when the suspect was crossing in front of his patrol car, but at the time Durante was occupied with trying to clear his weapon.
During the first two months following the shooting, Durante had a total loss of appetite and a lot of restless sleep. He did not experience any nightmares—no thoughts of the incident itself or some subsequent episode that are normally associated with this type of event.
Approximately three months after the shooting Durante started to become a little bit more irritable. It was a pattern that continued for three months thereafter. But as time went on, Durante found himself more at ease with the incident.
"I don't have the thoughts in the back of my head when I'm out on patrol. You know, paranoid or scared thoughts. I just do things a lot safer than I did before. One thing they tell you when you're out in the field is that you have to watch everybody's hands, obviously because hands are what kill.
"When I was out in the field before this, I considered myself very safe, but there were a lot of times when I would slip or just try to shortcut things. Now, after the shooting, when a grandma is walking down the street, I'm watching her hands. The kids leaving school, I'm watching their hands and then I'm seeing who they are. So I fixate on the hands first at all times no matter who it is, from young to old."
Durante also has a renewed appreciation for range training and the instructors who put him through the paces.
"When people get sent to training, all you hear is, 'Oh, I don't want to go.' 'It's a pain in the butt.' 'It's messing up my schedule.' But if you think about what happened to me, I didn't even think about what to do. It was all because of my training. It all happened naturally. So now, more than ever, when I go to training, it's not an inconvenience; it's not a pain in the butt; it's 'OK, this stuff really does work.' When I did go to training, I always made sure I at least put everything I had into it."
Some may wonder why Durante didn't draw his backup gun when his primary sidearm jammed. The simple answer is that he didn't have one. He still doesn't carry one.
"That's just a personal choice I made and still make," he says. "Also, I believe that during this incident if I had a backup gun, it wouldn't have done any good because it would have been on my left side. I would have had to raise myself to get to that gun and that would have exposed me to the incoming rounds. So I've been asked why I don't have a backup, and if I did would I have used it. It wouldn't have changed anything."
Because Dep. Vincent Durante took his training seriously, and was more judicious in his tactics and shooting than the suspect was, he came out on top.
And he didn't end up in the penalty box. Or any other box, for that matter.
Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Associate Editor of POLICE.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Consider the situation that faced Los Angeles County Dep. Vincent Durante. Now ask yourself the following questions about how you would respond if you were stuck in your car with a jammed weapon:
- Durante didn't panic and was able to use the cover of his patrol car and eventually clear his weapon to re-engage the suspect. What kinds of weapons malfunction drills do you practice? Do you practice weak hand shooting?
- How do you suppose a passenger officer might have fared in this situation? What are the liabilities of being a passenger officer? Or do you feel safer working as one?
- Durante readily acknowledges his debt to his range training. What is the best advice a range instructor has ever given you?