As he sat in his patrol car Officer John Sims, Jr. of the Laurel (Md.) Police Department reflected on the eight-hour SWAT training he'd just completed.
The training had been profitable, if occasionally frustrating. Alongside fellow SWAT members, Sims had been debriefed on a recent deployment, debated tactics, and discussed stand-off distance shooting.
And during a practical app at the range, Sgt. Richard Speake of Laurel PD SWAT evaluated the officers' exploitation of limited cover and their ability to engage a suspect with two quick head shots. As each officer bobbed and weaved behind available cover, Speake advised of any concerns: "I can see your arm…" "Your knees are exposed…"
Sims didn't want to expose any appendages, let alone deficiencies. The eight-year veteran adjusted as necessary, constricting his limbs so as to minimize exposure of his body as much as possible while still allowing for a quick double-tap.
But there were concerns. When Sims' rounds didn't strike the silhouetted torso, they went right or left of the suspect's head. With each double-tap came a growing sense of frustration and, despite an earnest effort, it hadn't gotten much better by shift's end. His performance having been one of overexposure and underdevelopment, he reminded himself of the adage, "When the time comes, you always revert to your training." Normally, it was a source of comfort. Today, it was a point of concern. He was double-tapped out.
Unfortunately, incipient fatigue is no safeguard against overtime, and as the oncoming shift was running short, Sgt. Speake felt obligated to good-naturedly pull rank and let Sims know that he'd be working a second shift as a backup officer.
Sims decided to make the best of it. He put his car in drive and started his second shift.
The first two hours of Sims' shift passed uneventfully. But things had already been set into motion earlier that day when a young woman stopped by the station. She said she had sustained one beating at the hands of her estranged boyfriend, 23-year-old Michael Willis, and was determined to prevent another. She then did things by the numbers, making a criminal report and obtaining an emergency protective order against the man. The desk officers assisting her made a pretty good case for her relocation, and she took the advice to heart, arranging for her mother and friends to help her make a hasty exodus from her residence.
Laurel PD officers were summoned to the woman's home to make sure that Willis was served with an exparte order. Then around 6 p.m., Sims received a call to assist on a domestic violence.
Taking the Call
On his way to the call, Sims saw the handling officer, first-year rookie Jordan Perretta, get caught at a red light. As he cruised through the intersection on the green, Sims realized that he was no longer the backup, he was the principal.
Sims pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex. As he keyed the microphone to advise dispatch of his arrival the environment around him suddenly changed. A cacophony of screams and gunfire erupted around him and a woman and some children darted in and out of his peripheral vision. A child's abandoned Big Wheel flanked his car. Front and center was a man with a Glock pistol: Willis.
Normally, Sims wouldn't have found anything particularly notable about Willis. He didn't look like a dirtbag, just a typical guy wearing jeans and a shirt. But adrenaline has a way of bringing things into focus and searing indelible images on the memory. The sight of an armed figure standing on a landing overlooking his patrol car was not one he'd soon forget.
For a surreal moment, Sims wondered how something like this could be happening. Why couldn't this be like all the other calls where the cavalry rolls in, parties are separated, and peace reigns triumphantly thereafter?
Out the Door
Sims wanted to be some place else. But he knew one sure thing: If he didn't get out of the patrol car and engage the suspect, he'd be bought and paid for.
He moved to open the driver's door. Just then, something slammed violently against it from outside. Through the window, Sims saw that the informant had thrown herself against the driver's door of his patrol car in a desperate bid for cover. Her panic had now effectively trapped her would-be rescuer in his patrol car.
"I'm not dying in this car," Sims said to himself.
Sims' seated position made for an awkward draw from his holster and shots through his windshield were unlikely to be accurate. Normally, retreat was a sound tactical move and he would have put the car in reverse in an attempt to back out of the kill zone and put as much distance between the suspect and himself as possible. But doing so would expose the girl to Willis' gunfire; Sims might even strike her with his patrol car.
Suddenly, Sims had a profound and undesired empathy for an upended turtle, trapped in its protective shell. Sims realized that if he was going to get out of the car, he'd have to throw all of his 5-foot, eight-inch, 200-pound body mass into the door.
With as much momentum as the vehicle's confines would allow, Sims rocked his upper torso to the right as far as he could before slamming his left shoulder back against the interior of the driver's door. It flew open. But as it did, it propelled the frightened girl onto the pavement and right smack into the kill zone.
Sims jumped from the vehicle, and gathered the girl in a bear hug. Shielding the girl's body with his own, he simultaneously drew his pistol. He pivoted toward the rear of the patrol car, his momentum swinging the girl to the car's bumper. Sims hunkered down over her, continuing to protect her from Willis' incoming rounds.
From atop the stairwell, Willis continued firing. The shots were zeroing in now, and Sims knew that with less than 30 feet separating him and the shooter, it wouldn't take long for Willis' rounds to find their mark.
There was much to be said for suppressive fire, but Sims was determined to make good with his shots. He recalled the placement of his rounds during his afternoon training session and mentally adjusted. The words of his instructor came back to him: Bring your sights up…on line…aim for the head…dead center.
Sims took a deep breath. He maneuvered around the corner of the car, locking his arms outward as his vision picked up the front sights of his .40 caliber SIG 229. An almost Zen-like state came over him, and he squeezed the trigger twice, a textbook double-tap that felt smooth. Ducking back behind cover of the police vehicle, he listened.
At the sound of Willis' first shot, Sims' hearing had become muted. Sims had noted the auditory exclusion, the lack of ringing in the ears that cops normally encountered when they occasionally slipped up and forgot their ear protection on the range.
Now, a different kind of silence set in.
Slowly, he became aware of other sounds, that of children and mothers crying. They came from the left and right of him, but from the front all he could hear was…silence.
Sims peeked around the cover of his patrol car toward the landing.
Willis' body lay atop the landing, his head hanging facedown over its edge. Blood pooled on the first step and seeped down the stairs to ground level. There had been no missing to the right or left this time. Sims had shot Willis dead center, just above the bridge of his nose.
Unfortunately, one of the suspect's rounds had also found its mark. The victim's grandmother had sustained a bullet wound to the arm as she sat in her vehicle. Sims immediately requested paramedics, who responded to tend to the woman's arm. They pronounced the suspect dead.
From the time that Sims had put himself on scene to the time that he requested paramedics, a mere 11 seconds had passed.
Collect Your Thoughts
Additional officers responded to the location and contained the crime scene. Sims' supervisor urged him to sit down inside his patrol car, take a breather, and collect his thoughts. Sims started toward the car, but quickly reconsidered.
"What are you doing? Get back in your patrol car."
"I can't. It's a crime scene." Sims turned to point out the shattered windshield and the hole where one of the suspect's bullets had slammed into his headrest.
Later, Sims and other officers roundtabled the incident. Perretta expressed extreme remorse for having been caught at the red light. The way he saw it, the call was his handle, and Sims should not have had to find himself in the gunfight. But he also acknowledged something else. He would have parked his patrol car much closer to the location, in a spot that would have availed Willis a quicker and safer shot at him. Their sergeant comforted both men by noting that sometimes, some things are meant to work out the way they do.
Sims later got word from Willis' parents. They didn't fault Sims for what he did. They knew that their son had put Sims in the position of having to defend himself and others. Sims said few things so comforted him as this communication.
Toxicology reports indicated that Willis was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the shooting. Sims would later receive County Officer of the Year and State Officer of the Year honors, as well as an honorable mention in Parade magazine's Police Officer of the Year awards.
Sims recognizes that many things factored into his ability to prevail during the Willis incident, but he singles out Sgt. Speake for special recognition, not only in helping him develop the combative skills, but also in helping him deal with various concerns in the aftermath.
"Before all the interviews, before all the debriefings, he simply told me, 'Let's take a walk.' We walked to a local park where he told me we weren't going to talk about the shooting unless I wanted to. He just wanted me to speak about whatever was on my mind and let me know what to anticipate. That helped me tremendously."
When Sims thinks about the shooting now, he reflects on the suspect's bullet that penetrated the windshield. When had the bullet struck his headrest? Was it as he rocked his body side to side to get out of the car? Was it after he had already exited the vehicle? Then he considers his sergeant's words, "Sometimes things happen for a reason."