Splitting Seconds

Don't let 'routine' get in the way of solid officer safety tactics. Familiarity breeds false security.

We all work in the field and, as most of us know, sometimes things happen that are unexpected. Part of our job is being able to think on your feet, react and be flexible in your response.

Suppose you are helping with a gang suppression sweep. You know the type; outstanding arrest warrants are served and contacts are made with every suspected gang member.

Four of you are riding in an unmarked van, wearing the typical gang raid gear. The van you're in is being driven down a residential neighborhood in a well known Hispanic gang neighborhood. You are team member of the gang unit, have been a police officer for 12 years and you are also a SWAT team leader. As a leader, you are extremely safety conscious and with years of specialized SWAT training, you are in good shape.

As the van drives down the street, you notice a young male Hispanic standing in the driveway of an older home. The house is set up so the front door faces southward and along the east side of the house is the stucco wall. The driveway is on this side. It is a long driveway; so long that three cars are parked behind each other. You notice the cars are parked in a way that  forms a corridor between the cars and the east side of the house. The house wall ends at the end of the third car, so there is a corner there. Past the corner you can see what appears to be the beginning of an unattached garage.

The van passes the house slowly. As it does, you recognize the youth standing in the drive. He has an outstanding arrest warrant, misdemeanor for "giving false information to a police officer," and he is a known gang member.

A Quick Plan

You let the rest of the crew know as the van continues to drive down the street, past the house. A plan is devised. The van will make a U-turn a couple of blocks away and head back toward the subject. There have been prior contacts with this gang member. They have all been non-aggressive and no weapons have ever been found on him. In fact, this gang member has been docile and he has always been cooperative.

The service of the arrest warrant should be fairly easy. It's simple and fast and, more importantly, the strategy has worked many times before without a hitch.

As the van drives back into the area, the subject is still standing where he was earlier. The van slowly pulls over to the right and you are the first out. You are only about 10 feet away and start to walk quickly toward the subject. When you are within 7 to 8 feet he recognizes that you are the police. Suddenly, he bolts back toward the rear of the house before you can yell, "Foot pursuit!" to the rest of the team. The race is on.

The front door of the house was to his right rear side and was only about 15 feet away. Why didn't he run there? Instead, the subject runs toward the backyard along the corridor between the house and the parked cars. You are running after him in a second and are yelling, "Stop, police!" All this happens within a couple of seconds and now you are only about six feet behind the subject, running after him.

Things Get Serious

At the end of the east side wall of the house, the subject turns sharply to the left. You follow, but when you turn the corner a second later, the nightmare develops. You see the subject standing on a porch behind an older woman. He has a gun in his hand and is chambering a round by pulling the slide back. Next to the woman an older man is standing, looking at you and the subject with a shocked look on his face. The woman is not struggling or saying anything, just standing there with a bewildered look on her face.

Within the blink of an eye, you have stopped running and are about 12 feet away from the subject. He is now aiming the semi-automatic pistol at you. You stand there, with no cover, no concealment and no gun in your hand. Remember, this was only for a misdemeanor arrest warrant.

Time often seems to slow down during these incidents. You can see the subject and you can clearly see the barrel of the gun. He is aiming the gun directly at your chest. You can see the woman and she is not saying anything or attempting to move. She doesn't even look scared.

You start to think about engaging the subject in a gun battle. He has the drop on you, and you think about how many rounds you can take before you get a shot off. Do you continue to close on the subject, even though you are at a dead stop? You notice the two are standing right in front of a screen door on a rear porch and you cannot see what is behind it.

By now the older man has started to say something to the subject holding the gun. He hasn't moved, but is yelling at the gang member. You can feel the pressure of the situation mounting. The rest of the team will round the corner in a second, you are standing in front of a hostage, there is another potential victim (old man) standing right next to the armed subject, you have a gun pointed directly at you, and you're standing in the open with no gun in your hand. Right now you have to make a decision and make it quickly. All these thoughts occur within a second. During that second you are not moving, but your brain is going faster than a Pentium IV 1.5GHz microprocessor.

You decide to retreat behind the wall toward cover and concealment. Instinctively, you turn and run back toward the corner of the house, at the same time removing your weapon from its holster. As you turn the corner, you warn the other team members.

You turn around, now armed, and sneak a low peek around the corner. By this time you still see the older lady and man standing there, but the subject is gone. The older couple looks toward the backyard. You tell the other team members and ask if the people are OK. Then you hear a dog start to bark in the rear neighbor's yard. You and the two team members start the search and the driver of the van responds to the next street and calls for backup.

The rear neighbor's rooftop is almost level with the backyard you are in. The houses to the rear were built on a lower level. So, now you are on top of a roof looking for an armed suspect. As you get toward the front of the house, a man comes out from the house you are on top of. He immediately tells you there was someone on his neighbor's rooftop, just seconds ago, and that person jumped off and is hiding across the street.

The Game Is Afoot

You and the other team members jump off the roof and focus your attention across the street. You locate someone hiding to the rear of a car parked in the driveway. You order the subject out and it is the gangster who just pointed a gun at you. The young man is taken into custody, but he is not armed.

You backtrack the route the suspect took and, on top of the roof where he was just seen, you find a loaded 9mm Berretta with one round in the chamber and you start to breathe again.

This story is not fiction. It actually happened to members of the gang team I am assigned to. The reason I share this story with you is that my good friend was the first person out of the van. Sergeant Tom Basham of the Fullerton (Calif.) Police Department and I have grown close during the past three years.

In hindsight, Tom told me the parked cars made it impossible for him to "pie" the corner of the house. Pie is a term used to describe a specific method in viewing around corners and entering a room.

Tom and I talked about this incident over and over. We both feel the retreat to cover and concealment was prudent. Although, Tom was quick to point out that for a split second his back was turned away from the suspect. We both came to the conclusion that the gang member pointed the gun at Tom to help himself get away. Tom told me he felt if he had made an aggressive move, like charging or arming himself, the 19-year-old gang member would have fired. The retreating action actually de-escalated the situation.

Remember, you have to be flexible with field strategies. Gang members seem to be arming themselves on a more frequent basis. As a cop, you have to ask yourself the question, "What would I have done in the same scenario?" Be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.

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