Wildlife Officer Michael K. Neal of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission arrived as backup at a shooting and stopped a father and son duo from killing more people by ramming his truck into their vehicle. For his actions, he has been named the October 2010 Officer of the Month by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
It began on May 20, 2010, when Sgt. Brandon Paudert and Officer Bill Evans of the West Memphis (Ark.) Police Department stopped a white van with Ohio plates on Interstate 40. The vehicle's occupants are believed to have killed the officers as they exited their cars.
Less than two hours later, police spotted the van at a Wal-Mart about a mile from the shooting. Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby and Chief Deputy W.A. Wren pulled in front of the suspects' van to block its path. In response, the suspects got out and opened fire on the officers, who were still in their car.
"That was the first thing I saw as I pulled into the parking lot, the sheriff and the chief deputy being shot and falling out on the ground," says Officer Neal.
As the first officer to arrive as backup, Neal made a decision to stop the shooters before they could do more damage. If they left the parking lot and got back on the road, a high-speed car chase and mass casualties could follow. If they entered the Wal-Mart, everyone inside would be in grave danger.
At first, his plan was to simply shoot his M4 through the windshield of his four-wheel-drive truck. He had his weapon drawn and aimed as he drove, a tactic his agency emphasizes in training. But as Neal approached the van, the suspects got back inside and began to reverse toward him. That's when he made the split-second decision to ram the van to disable it.
"As soon as I rammed the van, I came under heavy fire from an AK-47. I received at least a dozen rounds into my truck, through my windshield, dashboard, and grill," says Neal. "I returned fire, killing the first suspect and mortally wounding the second suspect, who later died."
Multiple officers arrived on scene at this point. Neal was still being fired upon. A patrol car pulled up behind Neal's truck, and as soon as he finished firing rounds, he backed up and moved out of the way so the two officers inside could take over returning fire to the van. The gunfire eventually stopped, and no other officers were injured. Busby and Wren of Crittenden County recovered from their injuries.
It was later discovered that the armed suspects, a man and his son, had been traveling from Ohio to Florida. It's not clear what they had intended, but Neal's quick thinking was instrumental in stopping them.
"Anytime you have to take someone's life, that's not what we want to do. I wish we could have resolved it in a different manner, but at that point they had killed two men and as far as I knew at that point they had killed two more and they were trying to kill me."
Neal credits both his 10 years as a volunteer firefighter and his training with the Office of Game and Fish with preparing him to act under pressure in a wide range of situations. As a support agency, wildlife officers are routinely called on for backup just like the state police, in addition to their usual duties.
"People don't realize how trained the Arkansas Office of Game and Fish is," says Neal. "No, it's not every day that we come in contact with a shootout. But 90 percent of the people we do come in contact with do have a gun, so we are trained to handle a situation with an active shooter or armed suspects."
Although he is grateful for the support he's received from his family and his agency, Neal says it's bittersweet. He's uncomfortable being in the spotlight for how he responded to the shooting. "There were two officers who lost their lives that day. I was able to go home and they weren't. And they had kids just like I do. The focus I feel should be more on them than me."
When asked what advice he would give other law enforcement officers, Neal emphasizes the importance of constantly anticipating potential incidents. "What if this happens? What if that happens? You've always got to be running these scenarios in your head. If you're not, you're in trouble."
For more information about the POLICE Magazine-sponsored National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Officer of the Month program visit the NLEOMF website.