Photo: Mike Neal
Although communications following the initial shooting were not clear, Neal was able to quickly size up the situation that unfolded in front of him in the parking lot.
"The only information we had was incorrect information," reflects Neal. "It was a white church van that we were looking for. We didn't know how many suspects there were. One report said it was possibly the MS-13 gang. We didn't have a whole lot of good information to go on. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a white van and it was engaging police officers. I could see officers on the ground, so in my mind they had just killed two officers in front of me. So at that point in time, I thought there were four officers dead. That was the reason I engaged them the way I did."
Still, that aggressive approach was not lightly considered; Neal had made some consciously split-second tactical choices prior to impact.
"In our county, we're trained to shoot through the windshield of our vehicles if needed to eliminate a threat," says Neal. "So I knew at that point that I was going to engage the suspects through the front windshield of my vehicle. I proceeded as quickly as possible toward the suspects. They heard me coming and started backing up. They made a slight turn in an attempt to turn their car around. I made the decision to ram the van to stop it from getting out of the parking lot. I hit the left rear end of the van and a gunfight ensued."
In addition to the training he received as a law enforcement officer, Neal cites a variety of life experience that helped him react decisively that day.
"There are three factors in my life that enabled me to handle what I did. First, I became a deputy sheriff at the age of 21. Second, I was a firefighter for more than 10 years. There's no greater pressure than being in a burning house fighting a fire. You learn to adapt and overcome, and think quickly under pressure. Third, I was born and raised in the funeral business, so my perception of death and dying are different than the average person. It helped more in the aftermath than anything.
"Normal people will experience on average three deaths in their lifetime that they have to deal with, no more than four or five. I dealt with it every day. I grew up in a small town, so people that I knew and grew up around, died. I knew these people. I had to learn how to deal with that, be professional, and help these people through their times of grief."
Neal has never doubted that the Kanes placed him and the other officers in a kill-or-be-killed situation.
"The reason I had to take their lives was because of their own actions. I hope I never have to do that again, or to an innocent person. When you take the oath as an officer, you know that it can happen. It's not something you want to happen. You hope it never happens that you have to take someone else's life. I had to take two people's lives."
Neal credits mental preparation for his ability to act so quickly that day. He advises other officers to always be prepared for what a call might bring.
"That day, I was prepared. I've been on a lot of calls. You show up, you work the call, nothing happens, you go home. But be prepared when you show up for that call. Be aware and be prepared," he says.
And he cautions fellow officers to never think that their assignment means they won't face a deadly threat. "I'm a game warden. Look what I got into. If it were you, would you be prepared? Would you be able to handle this situation?"
Neal has received multiple medals of valor, lifesaving awards, government citations, and distinguished service honors for his actions, including the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Officer of the Month and the NRA's Officer of the Year awards. He continues to serve the State of Arkansas as a Game and Fish Officer, and travels around the country speaking about his experience.
What Would You Do?
- Put yourself in the shoes of Arkansas Game and Fish Warden Mike Neal and ask yourself the following questions:
- Neal's split-second decision to ram the suspects' van gave him an element of surprise that ultimately proved decisive. What unconventional tactics might you use when confronting suspects armed with assault rifles?
- What do you think of Neal's actions in bypassing another unit to ram the van? What possible complications do you see coming of it?
- Neal made a conscious choice to engage the suspects through the windshield of his unit and had the firepower and mental discipline to make good on it. Would you feel as optimistic, given the firepower available to you in your patrol vehicle?
- His life experience allowed Neal to deal with the shooting very well. Have you any particular life experience that would help you better cope in the aftermath of a shooting? Or has there been something in your past that might actually make dealing with a shooting more difficult?
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