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.”
Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a contributing editor to Police.