The Hammer's Falling

Sometimes the best tool available to a cop is a well-turned phrase.

It was about 20 years ago, and I was a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff working out of the Malibu substation. I was watch commander that evening and noticed the desk had been trying to get 101 on the air for 10 minutes. "What's 101 got?" I asked the dispatcher.

"Probably nothing," the dispatcher said. "Just following up on that two-eleven broadcast."

"What two-eleven broadcast?" I said, not raising my voice.

"I thought you heard it. Culver City Bank of America with a named suspect and an address at the Sands Motel."

The closest valley unit was 20 minutes away, so I gathered the night detective, the jailer, and a radio car, and we rolled from the station to assist.

The Sands is a two-mile shot straight down Pacific Coast Highway (California 1), the road that flows north to south down the California coast. It should have been a short drive, but for the last half mile, traffic was stopped and we had to use the center divider. When we got to the Sands, we saw what had caused the traffic jam.

In the middle of the highway were three deputies, two Highway Patrol officers, and a Fish and Game warden. All stood in a circle surrounding a short, rodent-like man in a slept-in blue business suit. Each officer pointed a weapon at the man, and it looked like-with them all aiming at the small man in the center-if they all shot at once, they'd kill one another.

"Order him down on the ground and I'll cuff him," I said to one deputy holding a shotgun.

"I told him," the deputy said. "He won't go." The small man stood stiff and still, arms out like a cowboy gunfighter. He avoided eye contact.
Seeing his chances fade with the new arrivals, the small man tensed for a major effort. His trigger finger twitched as he weighed his options. His wheels were turning, and you could see what he was thinking. Did he want to be the smallest white guy in the yard at Lompoc State Prison for the next 20 years or did he want to go out in a blaze of glory?

The shotgun deputy sensed the robber's moment of decision, saw his hand inch closer to the belt, "Don't do it," he commanded. "Don't even think about it." But he was going to draw.

Suddenly, there came a moment of inspiration and like a miracle, golden words rolled off the deputy's tongue.

"The hammer's falling," he called out. 'I mean it; the hammer's falling!"

At this, all involved showed new interest. "The hammer's falling," has an ominous ring. "I'll shoot you" just doesn't compare. The shotgun deputy, pleased and proud, rolled the phrase on his tongue. Almost jubilant, he'd have yodeled if he knew how. "The hammer's falling." True, the Ithaca he was pointing at the suspect didn't have an exposed hammer, but it was in there somewhere and if he pulled the trigger, it would fall with catastrophic effect for the guy on the business end of the barrel.

The suspect heard those words and the no-nonsense tone of the deputy who said them and he froze. Then the jailer, taking advantage of the distraction, wrapped his arms around the small man from behind and smothered him in a bear hug. The problem was instantly over. The small man, arms pinned to his side, fell face forward, the jailer on top of him. A subsequent pat down revealed a loaded revolver and $3,250 on his person.

Maybe the jailer's quick thinking ended the standoff. But it was the right word at the right time that really saved us all from having to shoot that man that night. When the deputy holding that Ithaca told him "the hammer was falling," the suspect had no doubt that he was about to be hit with all the force of a 12-gauge at pointblank range. It convinced him that we meant business and he had no chance.

I learned that night that the right words said with the right tone can make all the difference. Of course, you also have to have the guts to make the hammer fall when the bad guy gives you no other choice.

Jon Love served 26 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, mostly as a patrol watch commander. He served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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