Between the three years he'd spent with the Glendora (Calif.) Police Department as a cadet and an additional 12 more as one of its patrol officers, Cpl. Chris Stabio knew the Los Angeles County foothill community better than most residents and even most local officers. He also knew that while the city wasn't immune to armed robberies, they weren't exactly common to the area.
So when Stabio heard that a serial robber had been hitting local businesses in May 2011, he was no less concerned than any of his peers. The first crime had occurred at a Subway restaurant the previous day. The most recent robbery was at a Kohl's department store during the start of the PD's PM shift, and had resulted in the shift briefing clearing out so that oncoming troops could assist others already working the call.
Officers had been able to identify 29-year-old Luis Valera as a suspect and even tracked down his residence to a mobile home park in the city. Stabio was among those who responded to the park in hopes of locating Varela, but little came of the visitation save for the identification of a couple of the suspect's relatives.
Five hours into the shift around 10 p.m., a citizen informant advised that Varela had been seen leaving the mobile home park and approaching a Mobil gas station at the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and Route 66.
Where Would I Go?
Several officers proceeded south on Grand Avenue from Route 66, as Stabio asked himself: If I were the suspect, where would I go to avoid the police?
Stabio quickly realized where he would go: toward the recessed parking lot of the shopping complex across the street.
As other patrol units ventured elsewhere, Stabio continued west through the intersection and entered the north side of the shopping center parking lot. He spotted a young male about 50 feet from the front doors of a Ralphs grocery store. The man's appearance—white shirt, black pants, black baseball cap, and carrying a box—matched the description of Varela that'd been put out just moments before.
This is the Guy
Stabio cruised south a bit, disbelieving that he could be lucky enough to have zeroed in on the suspect that quickly. But as he drew nearer, he came to a conclusion: This was the guy.
Pulling his police car behind the man, Stabio put the car into park. As he did, the man looked over his shoulder at Stabio—and quickened his pace. Stabio stepped out of his driver's side door and drew his sidearm.
And with that, the young man was off like a shot and darting through the front doors of the grocery store.
The Check-out Line
When this particular Ralphs had gone from a 24-hour store to a midnight closing Stabio couldn't recall. But he did know that it wasn't unusual for customers to patronize the store right up to closing, and the 10 p.m. hour meant that the odds were pretty good there’d be no shortage of patrons inside.
This fact coupled with his familiarity with the suspect's criminal history—"stalking" and "assault with a firearm" convictions—were enough for Stabio to have engaged the suspect before he reached the doors save for one thing: He could not be positive that Varela and the man he was following were actually one and the same.[PAGEBREAK]
Still, all signs were pointing that way, and while officer safety prudency might have dictated some alternate recourse in another time and place, the thought that the man might afford himself the opportunity to insinuate himself among shoppers and possibly take a hostage didn't sit well with the officer. He sprinted after the man.
Stabio believed that he could control the problem if he could just keep the man in sight. At the very least, he could prevent his fears from being realized inside the store.
During the two-to-three seconds the man disappeared from view as he rounded a corner inside the store, Stabio put out over his radio that he had a suspect in the Ralphs and gave the address. Stabio cleared the automatic doors, and his eyes picked up the suspect straight ahead of him beside the conveyor belt at a cash register.
"Police!" he yelled again. "Let me see your hands!"
The suspect spun counterclockwise to face Stabio. His face was contorted into a grimace and his lips seemed to mouth an unheard profanity.
He raised his right arm toward Stabio. In his hand was a dark object. That the object was a firearm didn't become apparent until Stabio was about almost six feet inside the front door and it started spitting fire at him.
An incongruous auditory exclusion descended upon Stabio just then. For a while the rounds being exchanged between himself and the suspect became muted, he was picking up other sounds: The ting-ting-ting sounds of his spent casings hitting the ground as he returned fire...the store's front windows just behind him shattering under the onslaught of the suspect's firearm.
"Flashbulb memory" kicked in, too, as everything about him physically seemed to slow even as his processing skills went into hyper-drive. The suspect was rapidly firing his 9mm Glock, but an eternity seemed to pass between the first muzzle flash and the second.
Stabio continued to advance, moving as quickly and as far left as he could as he continued to engage his assailant. He fired three rounds before dropping to a knee in a bid to verify that he hadn’t been hit and to figure out his next move. He conducted a tactical reload, slipping the ejected magazine into his pants as he stood back up. The suspect ducked behind the display case at the end of the counter and continued to hold up his hand and fire recklessly at Stabio.
He's On the Floor
Stabio didn't want to continue deeper into the store, away from cover and available egress. But viable options seemed to be diminishing by the millisecond, and he soon felt the lack of any possible choice.
He had a clear-cut appraisal of his predicament: He was going up against an armed and desperate man whose determination to kill him was not in question. But any concern for his own welfare was kept in check by the knowledge that his failure to find and stop the man might allow the suspect to maneuver himself to a position where he would be able to get the drop on him. He was worried, too, for the Ralphs employees and patrons who remained inside the store. There was no way that he was going to allow the suspect the opportunity to use someone as leverage.
After he reloaded, Stabio made the decision to keep moving forward. As he did, he yelled at a couple of cashiers cowering behind their checkstands who might have seen the suspect and where he’d gone. But they could not answer; each appeared to have been overcome by the events of the preceding seconds.
Suddenly, a bag boy who had hit the deck behind the suspect yelled that he was on the floor. Stabio peeked around the corner and found the suspect on the ground with a gunshot to his head and a Glock handgun still in his hand.
The officer covered the suspect for 15 seconds and then put out that the suspect was down. Customers and employees began to flee the store as a succession of officers and paramedics filled the void they created. They assembled a team and worked on the suspect and escorted Stabio out.[PAGEBREAK]The suspect was pronounced dead the next day at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.
Leading up to this encounter, Officer Stabio viewed other officer-involved shootings as learning experiences.
"It became in my mind an inevitability that this was probably going to happen at some point in my career and it really thrust it into the forefront of my mind. I started to think about what I would do, how I would react. I think it allowed me to go a little bit on auto pilot that night."
He views his own shooting in the same light, evaluating his actions and decisions that night with a critical eye.
"With the advantage of hindsight, I would have shot slower," Stabios says. "Eighteen to 20 yards is a decent distance for an engagement with a handgun. It's certainly doable. Our qualifications for the longest time were at 25 yards, so it's not like I hadn't shot at that distance before. I was also upset at myself because the folks that instruct on the range were always telling us you can never miss fast enough to win the gunfight. Thinking back on it, I would have taken an extra half second to a second to make sure I had a sight picture on him because my sights were blurry and they were moving. I remember seeing my sights drift across him, but I was focusing so much on moving as quickly as I could so I would present a harder target for him to hit. So I didn't focus quite enough on what I should have been doing."
One thing Stabio does not second-guess is his decision to pursue the suspect into the supermarket. "Knowing what happened and knowing what could have happened, I would still do that," he says. "The possibility that something tragic could happen to the people in there is significant and what are they going to do? They're going about their day, shopping and not paying attention to that sort of thing. If the police don’t go in after him, he's just going to be able to do whatever he wants? That’s not right. So I would still chase."
Since the shooting, Stabio continues to use this experience as a learning tool and hopes that other officers will learn from his experience. He also hopes they will talk to him and other officers who have been in deadly shootings about their emotions during the incident and afterward.
"Nothing had ever hit me quite that hard," Stabio says. "It wasn't what I expected. Although I was concerned that I was going to be killed. I didn't feel anything. I didn't feel anger. I didn't feel much in the way of fear, not like I would have expected. It was like an absence of emotion from the time that it started through the whole night. Afterward, I don't remember feeling upset, but I was happy to be alive. For a while I dreamed about it. Most of the thoughts about it are when I'm awake. Nothing terrible. If anything, it has served to make me better, faster, more aware."
Stabio uses memories of the shooting to prevent him from being complacent on the job. He says it's made him sharper and more vigilant.
"If I feel like I'm getting lax or feel like I'm not as sharp as I should be, I let the events push back into my head a little bit and it gets me in the right frame of mind so that if this were to happen again, I could take the things I knew before and the things I’ve learned—I've learned a lot from this—and still win," he says.
Stabio continues to work patrol as a field training officer, is a member of a regional SWAT team, and continues to serve as both the firearms trainer for the team and an assistant range master with the Glendora Police Department.
For his actions in the Valera shooting, Stabio was presented his department's 2012 Medal of Valor and recognized with the California Robbery Investigators Association Officer of the Year Award.
What Would You Do?
Put yourself in the shoes of Cpl. Chris Stabio of the Glendora (Calif.) Police Department. An armed robbery suspect has just run into a grocery store. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- How do you feel about going in foot pursuit of a suspect who is possibly armed? Would you have followed the man into the store? What other options might you explore in detaining or arresting the man?
- Stabio notes that if he could do it over again, he would have slowed down his shooting and gone for better target acquisition. Do you feel that your department does an adequate job of training in this area? What more can be done in-house so as to anticipate the reality of a deadly force encounter?
- Stabio made a conscious decision to continue advancing on the suspect after shots had already been fired. Would you have attempted to close the distance? How important is it to you to be familiar with the layout and patronage of commercial businesses in your area?