Recently, I got to thinking about Nicola Cotton, the New Orleans police officer shot and killed with her own sidearm by a wanted rape suspect early this year. For seven minutes, Cotton struggled with her assailant in clear view of numerous civilian witnesses. None came forth to help the officer who was half the size of her assailant. Cotton, as well as the unborn baby she was carrying, paid the ultimate price for the apathy of those who milled around, idly intrigued by the sordid life-or-death drama that played out before them.

I was both depressed and disheartened by the incident. Depressed by the loss of another officer’s life; disheartened that so many she was trying to protect didn’t try to do as much for her.

People often ask, “Who watches the watchmen?” But they might be better served to ask, “Who helps them?”

Not that cops can’t be their own worst enemy, occasionally getting into situations over their heads. Worse still, they’re like men who refuse to ask for directions: A cop, regardless of gender, can have a macho “I can handle it” paradigm that overrides his or her sense of self-preservation.

Fortunately, there are those civilians who—requested or not—will jump into the fray in a cop’s hour of need.

People like twenty-one-year-old Ben Saks, who in 2006 was shot in his left hand while helping a police officer.

Or Texan Travis Neel, who, having witnessed the shooting of a Harris County deputy sheriff, pulled his own gun and fired, driving the deputy's assailants away.

Then there’s Ralph Festavan, who watched as a heroin peddler attacked a Shreveport (La.) policeman and grabbed the officer's gun. Festavan ran to a nearby patrol car and grabbed a shotgun, which he used to shoot and kill the offender.

I should also mention Floridian Vincent McCarthy, who didn’t hesitate to lend help to a police officer struggling with a man and woman at the side of the road. When his own efforts failed to deter the man’s assault on the officer, McCarthy shot the cop’s attacker once in the leg with a pistol he was licensed to carry, stopping the attack.

These and many other citizens have put their own butts on the line to go out of their way to assist officers, often saving their lives.

Ironically, numerous psychological studies have shown that the fewer people present at the scene, the greater likelihood an officer might get desperately needed assistance. Observers to problem situations often assume that someone else is going to intervene and that this anticipated interloper—such as another officer—will somehow be more qualified to help than they are. This “bystander effect” is reinforced when people look to see what others are doing, all of the witnesses in effect becoming mutual inhibiters to one another.

If faced with such a situation, it’s incumbent upon you to identify an individual and tell him what to do to help you. By placing the responsibility upon a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse among several bystanders, you could save your own ass. At the very least, you’ll give his conscience some badly needed grief if he just stands around and the situation goes further south for you.

But when civilians decide to help, their assistance can be invaluable.

Just ask Ramiro Martinez, one of two hero cops who shot and killed Charles Whitman. He will tell you that civilian Allen Crum, who volunteered to accompany the officers to the top of the university Tower, was a “rock of Gibraltar.”

So continue to take precautions. Use officer safety practices to minimize the prospect of your having to go mano-a-mano with some suspect. Always try to keep the sympathies of witnesses on your side by displaying patience and professionalism. Don’t be shy about asking for assistance from everyday people should you find yourself in need. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response.


Author

Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Associate Editor

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio
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