When Carbondale, Ill., Police Officer John Doogan and his partner arrived at the cottage house on Beveridge Street on Jan. 29, 2007, all they knew was that it was a domestic call and that such calls took all shapes and forms. Invariably, it was a safe bet that there was a generous dose of anger involved, and even money had it that there'd be a sprinkling of hysteria in the mix. About the only thing that couldn't be counted upon was there being much of a domestic nature involved.
But on this day, neither officer knew just how out of control things had gotten before their arrival and how bad things were about to get. At the scene, they contacted an uninvolved third party who led them through the rental property to a locked door.
Usually, the officers would have taken their time to announce their presence; maybe ask for someone to open the door. But the sounds coming from the other side of the door were of such a horrifying nature that such formalities were abandoned in favor of Doogan's partner booting open the door.
On the Other Side
The sight that greeted the officers as the door swung open was a chaotic one: A bloody and distraught man stumbling back across the bedroom in a bid to get some distance between himself and a second man wielding a large kitchen knife. Both officers yelled at the attacker to drop the knife. Instead, the suspect propelled himself at the victim and tackled him onto the bed.
Doogan had participated in role play situations and simulation drills, all designed to afford him the opportunity to instantaneously size up a situation and take appropriate action. But with each situation he'd been given some skeletal context, a thumbnail sketch of the characters involved, their relationships to one another, and the crux of the problem. It'd all been valuable—invaluable, even. What he was being presented with today was something entirely different. He'd just been dumped into a life-or-death situation with next to zero preparation. And unlike the simulator shoot/don't-shoot scenarios, this one was being played out for real.
The sight of the knife's edge as the suspect slashed wildly with it at his screaming victim brought things instantaneously into focus, effectively sealing the deal and the man's fate. With his .40 caliber Smith & Wesson Sigma already in his hand, Doogan leveled it at the threat and fired.
Doogan's intended double-tap was only half-realized. The Sigma jammed after the first shot.
Doogan's training kicked in and he racked the slide back, clearing the stovepipe jam and prepared to line up his next shot. That was when he realized that there would be no need for a second shot.
Dealing With It
For the victim, the nightmare had ended.
For his rescuer, it had just begun.
Intellectually, Doogan was able to process the event fine. He'd been summoned to the location and reacted in accordance with his training and the needs of the situation. The sight of the slashed victim...the momentum and ferocity of his attacker's assault...all this was at one level easily reconciled with his decision to use deadly force against the attacker.
But Doogan also found himself wondering what the suspect had been thinking in the seconds when the two officers' presence became known in the room. Had the 22-year-old Lawrence Wirth even been thinking? Or had Wirth been all too aware of what he was setting into motion the moment he leaped upon the victim in their presence?
"Suicide by cop had crossed my mind because he looked right at us," Doogan reflects. "He knew we were there. I have no doubt in my mind that he understood the situation and then continued on with his course of action."
Doogan says the man never said a word to the officers, and the only sign of acknowledgment of their presence was in his renewed determination to finish off his victim. For their part, Doogan and his partner had at least tried to dissuade the man verbally, telling him in no uncertain terms to drop the knife, then responding with tactics appropriate to the situation.
"I covered the other officer as he was kicking in the door," Doogan says. "It took one or two kicks and the door came open. I was the first through the door. As soon as the door kicked in, we announced ourselves. He immediately went toward the victim. The bed was off to the left of the doorway. As I entered, I fired the shot. The suspect tackled the victim onto the bed. When I took the shot, the suspect was on top of the victim with the knife. He had the knife in his hand and was attempting to stab the victim, but the victim was fending him off. It wasn't like your classical hand in the air and struggling with the knife."
Explaining the stovepiped round, Doogan observes that it wasn't a common problem with their .40 caliber Sigmas. "But our Sigmas were getting kind of old at the time. Shortly thereafter, our department replaced our weapons with Glocks. I just had a duty shirt on, so the slide didn't hit anything on the recoil."
Despite the disconnect between what Doogan had at some level been conditioned to expect and the reality that he experienced during the incident, he objectively appraises his ability to process the scene and react to it as appropriate.
"I've been in some high-stress situations in the military. I remember things going through my head: front sight posts as I was bringing the weapon up. I was conscious the victim was there, which is why I aimed high on his body instead of center mass. I knew that was the only way to stop his aggression at the time and that I had to take the shot. I knew that was the safest shot to take because the victim wasn't in correlation to the suspect," Doogan explains.
Still, the six-and-a-half-year law enforcement veteran found himself mentally revisiting that scene throughout the days and weeks that followed, the incident embedding itself in his mind so as to eclipse the reality that was often right before him. And still he was expected to perform, to go out and face the new challenges confronting him every day.
"The department had me meet with the department psychologist, and he's the one that I wasn't impressed with at all," Doogan says. "But at the time I was meeting with him, it wasn't quite as evident as it became later on."
Doogan says that later on his nights got really long and difficult. "After several weeks, I started to have some anxiety issues, bad dreams, trouble sleeping. When you're not sleeping and having anxiety, it kind of affects everything. So it was several months before I actually sought psychological help on my own. I was still confused with what I was going to do and how I was handling the situation. Possibly, if I had more time to sort things out, it would have been easier to stay. But you can't not work for a certain period of time before they expect you to come back. They expected me to come back while I was going through the deepest part of that; I wasn't ready."
Despite his belief that the agency's expectations that he would return to duty shortly after the incident made his anxiety even worse, Doogan is quick to distinguish the attitude of the agency and that of his fellow officers.
"The guys supported me, definitely. It was more the upper echelon types. They seemed more interested in the prospective litigation," he says. "There were no lawsuits filed. I got a minor settlement when I left the department. I think that was kind of the standoffishness from the upper echelon side of it. The officers always supported me. If it would have been some kind of group that specialized in a PTSD environment, there's a pretty good chance I'd still be an officer. I regret leaving the department. I miss the officers I worked with. I miss the work."
Leaving the Force
Doogan never had the occasion to speak with the victim directly. But state police investigators were good enough to pass on something that the man shared with them. "That officer saved my life," the victim said.
"That officer" is appreciative that state investigators took the time to pass along the man's sentiments.
"It's a great help. All along, I knew that I acted correctly. There was no way to stop the situation. I fired one shot and it was over," Doogan says.
As good as it was to hear that the victim was grateful, however, it wasn't enough to keep the nightmares at bay. Doogan had long recognized the potential for his having to take another's life, and at some level reconciled himself to it. Certainly, he'd done more than an adequate job when it came time for him to do what he had to do. But he was ill-prepared to deal with its aftermath.
"The thoughts go through your head over and over again," Doogan says "They're not as bad now, but on occasion I still have them. I don't think it's the kind of thing that ever really goes away. Probably one of the best things I've done is talk to my grandfather who is a Korean War veteran. He went through some pretty horrible stuff. Some of the ways he's coped have helped me. The best thing was talking about it with somebody who's been there and who understands what you're going through and doesn't give you the whole psychobabble crap. We've been through this, we're here to help you kind of thing."
And sometimes the aftermath of a situation can in its own way prove fatal, as well. It proved fatal to Doogan's career in law enforcement.
"I'm not with the department any longer," Doogan says. "I was diagnosed with PTSD and decided not to continue a career with the department."
In keeping with his life-long desire to help people, Doogan gravitated to nursing. "I'm a student, working toward finishing my degree. I'm currently a certified nursing assistant and working toward my RN," he says.
Still, he misses his law enforcement career, and believes that, had he been given adequate psychological support, it could have been salvaged.
Doogan hopes other officers who may be experiencing PTSD in the aftermath of their own shootings recognize as much and seek out appropriate assistance in dealing with it. And he hopes their agencies are conscientious in retaining qualified interventionists to that end. "I know I wish mine had," he says.
Editor's note: Read other "Shots Fired" features here.