There is no shortage of advantages to working a rover car in patrol. You get to help fellow officers as needed. You have freer rein as to where you want to roam. You get to roll on the hot calls.
It was a hot call that found Marshalltown (Iowa) PD Officer Vern Jefferson rolling in the direction of the Lennox Credit Union on Main Street on Nov. 2, 2012. Having been advised by his police dispatch of an armed robbery that'd just taken place at the location, Jefferson was in the vicinity within two minutes of the crime's broadcast.
On the lookout for two males last seen running near a convenience store several blocks north of the bank, Jefferson surmised that the duo were probably still on foot since they were not likely to have parked a getaway car so far from the location. And so he turned his cruiser onto 8th Avenue and headed north. An eastward glance down Main Street availed him the sight of a patrol unit coming from the direction of the credit union.
With another half block behind him, he picked up the sight of two males running westbound, one wearing a white sweatshirt and the other in a black T-shirt. The men cut north on 8th Avenue where they momentarily disappeared from view. The neighborhood's open landscaping provided few barriers for their escape as they commenced a "now you see them, now you don't" pattern of sightings. Jefferson picked up the pair in an east-west alley just north of Bromley Street.
The appearances of the men approximated those of the outstanding suspects. Jefferson parked at the entrance of the alley and stepped out of his car. Closing his driver's door quietly, he put in his earpiece and began assisting his fellow units in coordinating a perimeter containment. But as units merged on his location, the two men resurfaced.
The seemingly tireless duo crossed in front of Jefferson's patrol unit. Jefferson drew his sidearm and yelled, "Stop! Police! Let me see your hands! Get on the ground!"
The men picked up their pace with a renewed determination to evade capture.
Jefferson was nothing if not adaptable. And through SWAT training, in shape. He jogged behind the men for about 20 yards down the alleyway. The man in the white sweatshirt distanced himself from the second and disappeared behind a garage. Jefferson fixated on the second man as he rounded the corner of the garage.
Jefferson cut wide around the garage and keyed his mic.
"The suspects are running northbound behind…"
His broadcast was cut short when he rounded the corner of the garage and suddenly found that the first suspect had stopped and was standing still facing him and pointing something directly at him. A gun.
Later Jefferson would be unable to recall whether it was in the man's right or left hand, or what the man's face looked like. All he would remember was the man's silhouette, the silver sheen of the gun, and the staccato flash of words in his own mind: Gun! Gun! Gun!
Jefferson felt like he couldn't get his finger on the trigger of his duty weapon fast enough, and in a sense he didn't. The man fired first; a .38 caliber bullet tore through Jefferson's thigh and exited his hamstring. But Jefferson could barely feel the wound nor hear the sounds of his own sidearm as he squeezed off three shots from his Glock 22. The assailant fell to the ground.
With the shooter out of commission, Jefferson glanced down to inventory himself. He felt the sensation of warm water rushing down his leg.
I've been shot. Great—now I can't run anymore.
But he could run. And as Officer Ray Maxey advised of "shots fired" from his position a half block away, Jefferson took off, darting around the garage and chasing the man in the black T-shirt despite his injuries.
The man turned in his direction and Jefferson saw a flash. The absence of any sound was no inhibiter—he hadn't heard the first round that'd struck him, either—and he was no less sure that this man had fired, as well.
Jefferson defensively squeezed off two rounds, then the man disappeared behind a fence. Jefferson's gunfire propelled renewed energy into him as he ran toward the road approximately 30 yards north of the initial firefight.
Jefferson turned back momentarily in the direction of the downed suspect.
No, he's done.
Whether he'd injured or killed the man, Jefferson couldn't say. But he did know that the man was plainly out of commission and did not pose a threat to others as the second male who remained at large did. Returning to the passenger side of his car for cover, Jefferson spotted the man darting out into the street. The sight of the passing squad car sparked an internal dialogue in Jefferson's mind.
Should I let people know that I'm hit? People would be scared. Do I let them know that I've been shot?
The thought struck Jefferson as somehow humorous, silly even: In obvious need of assistance he was subordinating his concerns to those of others. Finally, he keyed his mic again.
"I'm hit." He heard himself chuckle a little bit. "I'm hit."
Lights and Sirens
A patrol unit drove by and Jefferson advised them of the suspect in a black T-shirt running north. He watched as another patrol car raced by toward the fleeing suspect.
Returning to the sight of the first shooting, Jefferson started wide of its corner and took his time in slicing the pie to get sight acquisition of the suspect he'd first engaged. Seeing the wounded man lying on the ground, he noted that there was another officer behind him, as well as an officer on the north side of the garage to cover the fallen threat.
"Put your hands out to your side and don't move!"
As one officer handcuffed the downed suspect, another provided cover. Jefferson advised over the radio that they had the guy in the white sweatshirt while the guy in the black T-shirt was last seen running north into the housing area.
With one suspect in custody, Jefferson began walking east to search for the first man. Not knowing how many rounds he'd fired, he conducted a magazine exchange. Keeping his gun in front of him to maintain his sight picture, he dropped the magazine and placed it in the pocket of his tactical pants. As he loaded another magazine into his Glock, he approached Chief Michael Tupper and Capt. Christopher Jones, who had joined the search for the second suspect. With an ear monitoring the radio traffic of his peers descending upon the location of the second suspect, he heard the chief ask about his condition.
"I'm hit in the leg," he answered. "I'm starting to feel a charley horse coming on."
Still, Jefferson wanted to go after the suspect, but Capt. Jones wasn't having any of that. He summoned Sgt. Rick Bellile, who had helped to place the shooter in custody, to roll to their location. The sergeant took hold of Jefferson by the side and helped him to the car. For the moment, the second suspect may have escaped him, but his own sense of humor hadn't.
"You should have helped me on the other side," he teased the sergeant.
No sooner had he been seated in the sergeant's patrol unit than the ambulance pulled up. Getting into the ambulance, the enormity of what had just transpired really hit him for the first time. And with that, he was laid down as the sirens took over.
Jefferson's injuries laid him up for a time, with his physical therapy commencing in the middle of December and concluding at the end of February when he returned to work. In the interim, he'd had his first of two mandated appointments with a psychiatrist who appraised him as fine each time.
But then dealing with the mental aspects of a shooting—both during the incident, and after—was something Jefferson had made a conscious effort to do from his first day on the job 12 years before. Not that he didn't do his fair share of second guessing nonetheless.
"I've always prepared myself to be in the mental status of waiting for the gunfight to happen," Jefferson reflects. "I always prepared myself mentally for it to happen. I tell my wife, 'Today's the day,' and she says, 'Don't talk like that.' The mental part really helped me prepare for it.
"I think the hard part was how I felt after. I never did any reading on what happens after or what happens to you physically during a gunfight, having tunnel vision, and looking down inside the barrel. His gun was dirty and 3 o'clock to 5 o'clock there was dirt inside the barrel. Then there was the auditory exclusion—I didn't hear any of the shots, his or mine."
Ironically, it was the man who'd gained the lead and disappeared from sight first that had set up to ambush the officer. Jefferson's wide approach around the corner of the garage may have made a big difference in the outcome of the subsequent exchange of gunfire.
"As far as I could tell, he was point shooting. If I came right around the corner, he was planning to shoot me in the face. When I came out 12 feet away, he might have gotten scared. Maybe he didn't expect that.
"I came around the corner and he was there and started firing. He fired and he fell. I hit him in the hip. I don't know if that's why he fell right away or if he wasn't mentally prepared for it. I didn't speak with him at all."
In the end, it was a lack of planning that forced the robbers to zigzag in and out of the neighborhood where the shooting occurred. Both suspects, Abel Ramirez and Benjamin Crisanthos, lived on Woodbury Street, only eight blocks away from the credit union. They had planned to run home after the robbery, but a nearby packing plant surrounded by fencing forced them out into the street where Jefferson first spotted them.
Both 22-year-olds have criminal histories: Ramirez with drugs and Crisanthos with robbery. The second suspect, Crisanthos, was apprehended by Officers Ray Maxey and Ryan Dehl just 30 yards away from where Ramirez was felled by Jefferson. Both men await trial.
The Marshalltown Police Department named Jefferson Employee of the Year and awarded him the agency's Medal of Valor. The Iowa Police Chiefs Association also named him Iowa's Police Officer of the Year.
Jefferson continues to serve the citizens of Marshalltown, and passes along the lessons he learned from the shooting with his fellow officers.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Put yourself in the shoes of Officer Vern Jefferson of the Marshalltown (Iowa) Police Department. You have spotted two robbery suspects and given pursuit. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- Does your agency field "rover cars?" Do you consider "area integrity" more of an asset or liability? To what extent does it complement or undermine officer safety needs?
- Do you believe getting to the crime scene area is of greater import or establishing positions away from the scene that are likely to be traversed by fleeing suspects? As a handling unit with an extended ETA, are you comfortable with other units assuming responsibility for making the first contact and putting out a preliminary broadcast while you take more of a supportive role? How do you feel about units that take such initiative without your directing them to?
- To what extent do your training scenarios entertain the prospects of suspects setting up for ambushes or otherwise doubling back behind you?
- How would you deal with a situation wherein one armed suspect is down and another takes off? Would you give chase to the latter, or retain vigilance over the latter? What concerns factor into your decision making?