Sometimes you know you're doing the right thing when the wrong people start to take notice. Such was the case on March 21, 2007, when Officer James Van Alstine of the Acworth (Ga.) Police Department had his patrol unit detailed by a couple of station inmates. Seeing his patrol car number, one of the inmates spoke up.
"You must be Van Alstine," the inmate said.
"Yes," the officer acknowledged. "Why?"
"They're fixing to shoot you up on Baker Road."
There was no elaboration, and Van Alstine wasn't concerned enough to press the issue. He figured that rumors such as this lived and died by circulation, and that by not humoring this one it'd die long before he did.
But when another inmate came out to detail the car's interior and also inquired of his identity, Van Alstine couldn't help but take note.
"They're going to shoot you up out there on Baker Road," the inmate told him.
This time Van Alstine pressed the man for an explanation.
"People talkin' that you're messing in too many people's business," the inmate confided. "They're talking 'bout taking you out."
As a narcotics interdiction officer, Van Alstine knew he'd put a damper on quite a few illicit operations. But when it came to speculating just which dope-slinger could be talking about killing him, he was at a loss.
Back inside the station, Van Alstine decided to do his due diligence. He logged onto a department computer and composed an e-mail warning other officers to be cautious if they drove his vehicle, especially if anyone approached them on Baker Road. Pressing "send," he shrugged it off and went home.
Van Alstine returned to work later that night with just four hours of sleep. Morning court had stretched into the afternoon and eaten up a good portion of his day. But the 29-year-old officer had accepted such aggravations as part of the job. Rather than piss and moan about them, he worked around such setbacks by keeping himself in shape and supplementing daily workouts with a healthy diet.
Perhaps that's why Van Alstine felt relatively alert at 3 a.m. when he found himself monitoring traffic in the Baker Road/Baker Grove area of his patrol jurisdiction. As time passed by, so did a Honda Accord with its high beam headlights on. Pulling onto the highway and behind the car, Van Alstine activated his rotators to effect a traffic stop on the Honda.
The car turned from Baker Road onto Baker Grove Road before making a right onto Northridge Drive. Not only did the Honda fail to yield, but it pulled off the service road into the north end parking lot of a Publix shopping center.
By the time the vehicle finally came to a stop near a CVS store, Van Alstine had requested backup. With his takedown lights activated, he stepped from his patrol vehicle.
Van Alstine recognized the driver as Brandon Foxworth, a man he'd arrested previously for marijuana charges. It was plain to see—and smell—that Foxworth was running true to form. The car reeked of pot and Foxworth was probable cause incarnate, with bloodshot and watery eyes whose saucer-like pupils regarded the officer warily.
"Sorry about the high beams," Foxworth said nervously. "One of my headlights is burned out."[PAGEBREAK]
Don't Get Out of the Car!
Van Alstine's desire to get Foxworth out of the vehicle for a field evaluation was subordinate to his need to find out who he was dealing with. He asked Foxworth and his passenger for identification. Foxworth surrendered his, but the goateed man occupying the right front passenger seat said he didn't have one.
Despite his assertion, the man was nonetheless digging in the pockets of his blue jeans for something.
"Perhaps you have some other form of ID?" Van Alstine asked through the driver's window.
This time the passenger, Anthony Bernard King, didn't reply. He just stared out the windshield. That was when Van Alstine noticed the man's left hand gravitating toward the door handle.
"Don't get out of the car!" Van Alstine ordered.
No sooner had he uttered the words than Van Alstine saw the door fly open and King bail out and skirt past the rear of the vehicle before running.
Van Alstine was hot on the man's heels, following King as the man sprinted between a small wooded area on the left side of the road and a storage facility on its right.
Going to the Ground
Officer Arnoldo Vega, Van Alstine's backup officer, pulled up to the scene. Seeing the chase, he attempted to pull his patrol car ahead of King and cut him off. But as he pulled abreast of the man, Vega spotted a firearm in King's right hand.
"He's got a gun!" Vega yelled over the police radio as he threw open his driver's door so that it struck King's side.
King hit the ground hard, his black ski coat bearing the brunt of the impact and allowing him to roll a couple of times before coming up to his knees. Van Alstine was now on top of him, arms outstretched in preparation for tackling King before the man could get his footing.
But instead of resuming his flight, the 24-year-old King did something unexpected—he spun around and extended his right arm toward Van Alstine.
Van Alstine never saw the 9mm, only a bright orange sunburst that split the night. With the muzzle flash came a deafening crack that heralded a tidal wave of pain that crashed down on the officer's neck and head.
Is it fatal? Van Alstine thought.
The only thing Van Alstine was sure of was that he was still conscious and therefore committed to fighting for his life so long as he had a breath of life. An academy mantra—"Fight until you have nothing left to fight with! Don't give up!"—echoed in his mind.
As King rose to his feet and assumed a shooter's stance, Van Alstine turned toward his assailant, whose eyes glared down the length of the gun's barrel at him.
Can I draw my own sidearm and have my rounds be effective and not hit a passing motorist or someone in one of the residences beyond? Van Alstine wondered.
Van Alstine's mind was firing on all cylinders, considering and discounting options faster than at any point in his life. If he'd been decisive on foregoing the firearm, he was equally committed to his alternative course of action: Close in on the bastard.
Hoping to force a rushed shot by the suspect and hoping to prevent a second trigger pull altogether, Van Alstine charged. His body slammed into King's and both men tumbled onto the ground.
A life-or-death fight for the weapon ensued, with Van Alstine striking King's face and body with his fists and yelling for the man to drop the weapon. In a desperate bid to wedge King's firearm between their two bodies, Van Alstine wrapped his arm around King's and squeezed.
For a few seconds the maneuver worked, giving Van Alstine some measure of optimism—optimism that evaporated the moment he lost control of King's arm and with it his bearing as to the gun's whereabouts.
Blindly pinwheeling his arms in an effort to prevent King's forearm from bringing the weapon up, Van Alstine suddenly felt the heat of King's gun barrel pressed behind his left ear.
Reflexively, Van Alstine's left hand shot up to take the gun out of battery while his right attempted to create some space between the weapon and his head. Again, he yelled for King not to shoot as his fingers fumbled Braille-like for King's Jennings 9mm pistol. His hand locked onto its barrel just as the suspect squeezed the trigger.
A malfunction? Or had he succeeded in knocking the gun out of battery? Van Alstine didn't know. He only knew that he'd best make good on the break.[PAGEBREAK]
Grabbing onto King's wrist, the officer began an arching, twisting climb up the suspect's body. In response, King bared his teeth and bore down with his upper body, attempting to use the firearm as a fulcrum and force Van Alstine back down to the ground.
With King's attentions committed to gaining leverage on him, Van Alstine saw his chance.
Drawing his Glock 22 sidearm from his holster, he shoved the gun into King's right eye and told King one last time to drop the gun. But his assailant only continued his efforts to torque the gun in a bid to rotate its barrel at Van Alstine's head.
Backing the Glock a half-inch off the suspect's head to prevent his own weapon from going out of battery, Van Alstine activated its tactical light and squeezed the trigger.
One .40 caliber, Federal 180-grain, hollow point tore into King's forehead just above his left eyebrow. King's arms collapsed to his sides as his body fell backward to the ground.
Vega ran up and kicked the firearm from King's hand, but the only evidence of the man's waning existence came in the form of some guttural grunts and deep sighs.
Laying Van Alstine down on the side of the road, Vega assessed him for injuries. As his legs began to shake uncontrollably and he felt himself go into shock, Van Alstine reflected on what had just happened. On how a man had just tried to kill him and how thankful he was to be able to respond.
Then he blacked out.
Time to Think
Van Alstine awoke in the hospital where he was treated for blunt force trauma for the bullet that'd struck him. The Second Chance Level IIIA vest and trauma plate he'd been wearing had more than done its job, stopping the bullet that came to rest beneath his pectoral muscle. Unlike most men who'd taken a 9mm round to the chest, Van Alstine found himself released a mere six hours after his admittance.
Van Alstine has since had ample time to reflect on how little stock he'd placed in the threats that had been communicated to him. He has also had ample time to think about how he might have prevented getting shot even in the absence of such information.
"If I could have done one thing differently," Van Alstine reflects, "it would have been recognizing just a bit sooner the significance of King's reaching for the door handle with his left hand."
As far as the foot pursuit and what followed?
"He gave flight and I gave chase, and I'd still do it. Foot chases always have their unknowns. I have no doubt that he would have shot me whether he jumped out of the car or if he ran further. The gun was already in his hand," Van Alstine says.
As it was, King died winded. Both men had run about 200 yards-with Van Alstine covering the last 100 feet in a wind sprint before being shot. And while indebted to the Second Chance vest that lived up to its name, Van Alstine said taking the round was no walk in the park.
"It was like being hit full-force with a sledgehammer. It knocked the wind out of me and put me in a position of disadvantage," he explains.
Tipping the scales were Van Alstine's will to survive and an undeniably effective shot selection on his part.
Van Alstine could not recall having any contact with King prior to the night of the shooting. Given the timing of events and where they took place, he'd consider the nexus between the threat and the act stronger had the suspect not also had an active warrant for violating his probation from a drive-by shooting-the latest transgression in King's misspent life as a felon and gang member.
Even as Van Alstine knows that King reaped what he sowed, he is also aware that the incident has impacted him for life.
"Realizing that I didn't lose my life, but I took the life of another-that was something," Van Alstine reflects. "King never said a word to me throughout the shooting, but then he didn't have to. His actions communicated everything. He'd made a clear choice to kill me and there was no other option available for me to survive other than to do what I had to do."
Van Alstine believes that his determination may have caught King off-guard.
"I believe he expected me to just lay down and give up after having been shot and was shocked that I came after him."
The split-second decision to take the fight to the suspect was the culmination of many good officer safety practices Van Alstine had adopted. These included not only a continuing desire to take range and the tactical training sessions seriously, but also speaking with officers who'd been in shootings. Finally, a habit of continually placing himself in hypothetical situations and considering options available to him had paid off, as well.
These days, Van Alstine shares his own experience with other cops through forums with other agencies about Second Chance Body Armor. He makes a point of reminding officers of just how quickly things can turn bad and where you want to be mentally and physically when it does.
Van Alstine has received multiple awards for his courage that night, including several certificate awards from Second Chance and BAE Systems and an Officer of the Year nomination for Cobb County. He has also received a certificate and nomination from the State of Florida Law Enforcement Hall of Fame. He currently works for the Pickens County (Ga.) Sheriff's Office.
What Would You Do?
Have you considered how you would react if you were shot? Do you believe that you have mentally conditioned yourself to fight through the pain, even if you think you might be mortally injured?
Sound off in the comments below.