Deadly Threats: The Longest 10 Seconds

The most stressful situation a police officer can face is an unexpected deadly threat—someone wanting to kill you or another person. You must react to it. And you don't have time to think.

Photo: Bradley NickellPhoto: Bradley Nickell

The high-priority call sound chirped on the police radio and the dispatcher said, "3-Baker-4, copy a call. A man armed with a knife is stabbing himself in his sister's backyard."

It was a hot evening in Las Vegas near the end of May in 1997. I had been a field training officer for a couple years and had a new officer with me. We also had an academy recruit on a ride-along in the back seat. My car was a full house with only one seat left for bad guys that night.

As we headed toward the call, more details came in from dispatch on the mobile computer. The suicidal man was named Jose and his sister was the party calling the police. Jose was high on drugs and had wrecked his sister's car so now he wanted to kill himself out of guilt.

I told dispatch that we were responding. Little did I know that I was about to face the heart-racing and potentially life-changing experience of a deadly force situation.

I'll get back to my story in a moment but first I want to impart some hard learned wisdom that might help you win a deadly force encounter.

Practice Under Stress

You are a cop. And what cops do is run toward danger and deal with it as it comes. So you have to ask yourself, are you ready to confront that danger?

When you train, do you do it with the understanding that it might be real someday? Whether it be defensive tactics, building searches, firearms training, emergency first aid, or any other kind of training, do you practice the way you want to react under stress? You should.

Every study ever conducted on performance during combat has shown that humans revert to what they've practiced when facing intensely stressful situations. If you train for it, it won't be foreign when your mid-brain kicks in and you start to lose fine motor control.

But the scientists running those studies have never faced the threats that you encounter on the job. So don't read their studies. Talk to veteran cops and take their advice because their practical experience has proven exactly what the studies have evidenced: People fight as they train when they are under stress. If you are poorly trained, it will show up when your life is on the line. Practice doesn't always make perfect, but practice might be enough for you to prevail or at least survive.

The most stressful situation a police officer can face is an unexpected deadly threat—someone wanting to kill you or another person. You must react to it. And you don't have time to think.

If you have time to think, there might be another solution. If there's another solution, it's not a deadly force situation. But when you have to react to an imminent threat, you will revert to what you've practiced. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Guns Can Fail

One of the most important things you can train for is a situation where your firearm doesn't work properly and you're faced with an imminent deadly threat.

Weapons malfunctions with semi-automatics happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common can be placed into four groups:

• Failure to fire, which includes an empty chamber, ammunition failure, unseated magazine, and/or mechanical failure of the weapon.

• Failure to eject the spent case or a "stove pipe."

• Failure to achieve battery, meaning the slide didn't fully go forward. This is usually caused by a dirty weapon, weak recoil spring, bad ammunition, or something coming into contact with the slide while firing.

• Double-feed, meaning a round is chambered after a spent case was not ejected and a second round is in the breech.

You need to train to clear these malfunctions. And when you train to clear them, make them and the stress you experience real. Stagger inert dummy rounds with live rounds in your magazines during training. Do some jumping jacks and push-ups on the range before you start each drill to get your heart rate up. Have your partner set up a double feed or stove pipe jam and holster your gun before you have to execute a timed shooting drill. Practice your immediate action and remedial action drills.

Marksmanship is great. But marksmanship while operating tactically is golden. These and many more training scenarios that your rangemaster can provide might punch your ticket to a long and prosperous retirement someday. But failure to prepare for the worst might bring a really bad day to your family that won't ever go away.

Over the Wall

OK. Back to my story.

The call was updated with information that Jose, covered in blood, had fled his sister's backyard and was jumping walls. We came into the area, and I had my new officer drop me off one street west of the sister's house.

"You take the car around the block," I said to my new officer. "Let dispatch know I'm on foot. I'm going to go through some of these yards and meet you on the other side. And don't let the recruit out of the car on this one."

I approached a cinderblock wall that was about chest high and easy to climb. I looked over it and saw the courtyard of a small apartment dwelling—nothing out of the ordinary. The courtyard was completely enclosed by the apartment building and block walls. The only exit was through an iron gate at the far end about 60 feet away.

A quick hop and over the wall I went. As I dropped onto the ground, I realized the wall was much taller on this side, about a nine-foot drop.

At that very moment, Jose came around the corner of the building about 30 feet away. He was covered in blood from neck to waist. His once white T-shirt was splashed with crimson and the numerous cuts and holes in the fabric meant this wasn't something out of Hollywood.

"What's up, homie?" Jose said as he pulled a kitchen knife out of his pants. "Why don't you just shoot me, homes?" He stabbed himself in the abdomen five or six times as he walked toward me.

I pulled out my duty weapon, a Smith & Wesson 5906 9mm semi-auto, and trained it on him. "Put down the knife, Jose. Don't do this!" I yelled. I continued to give commands as Jose closed the distance.

Facing the Threat

You have been or should have been taught that someone with an edged weapon can close a distance of about 21 feet and cause serious bodily harm or death before you can pull out your gun and stop the threat. It's about reaction times. But I already had my gun out and it was trained on the threat so I figured I could give Jose a few more feet.

I retreated back to the wall I had come over and had nowhere else to go. Jose continued to close the distance while telling me to shoot him. It seemed clear that this was the proverbial suicide-by-cop scenario that occurs all too often in our communities.

Jose made it to about 15 feet away and I could wait no more for him to comply. I pulled the slack out of the trigger and waited for the bang. The trigger went all the way back to the frame. Then followed the loudest silence I have ever heard. Everything was in slow-motion. No click. No bang. My gun failed to fire.

I quickly executed a failure drill—tap, rack, reassess. I knew that if I couldn't get my gun to fire then Jose was going to stab and possibly kill me.

But fortunately, I was spared that stab wound.

While I was clearing the weapon malfunction, my sergeant appeared in the courtyard at the gate and yelled, "Jose!" Jose turned toward my sergeant and ran for the gate. In a fraction of a second, he was no longer an immediate threat to me. The distance between Jose and my sergeant was about 60 feet so he wasn't a threat to him either.

Jose ran through the gate out to the street where he was corralled by a handful of officers. Jose fell down and was dog piled as one officer held his knife arm down. Another officer struck his hand with a PR-24 to knock the knife away. He hit Jose's hand so hard that the knife blade broke off of the handle.

The danger was over. Jose was subdued and taken to the hospital with more than 20 stab wounds to his chest and abdomen. But the good news was that no officers were injured. And Jose was alive.

After everything settled down, I went back to the courtyard and found the 9mm round that I had ejected during the failure drill. The round was fine. I downloaded my magazine and dry-fired my gun. Everything was functional. The cause of the failure to fire was clear—an unseated magazine. I must have bumped the mag release button when I came over the wall. I'm a lefty so the button was completely exposed on the left side of the gun even when holstered.

Smith & Wesson semi-autos are designed not to fire the round in the chamber if the magazine becomes unseated. They are one of few, if not the only make that performs in this manner. Glock, Springfield, Beretta, SIG, all of the other big makes will fire the round in the chamber if the magazine is unseated or even fully removed.

The Takeaway

Jose did almost all he could to get his death wish that day. If it weren't for a weapon malfunction, things would have turned out much different.

And for me, it was really no different than if I had actually shot him. I was committed and performed the required action. Fortunately for him, the malfunction occurred. Fortunately for me, the split-second change in threat assessment after the malfunction provided another option. That and the luck of my sergeant showing up in the precise moment of need prevented a much worse outcome. Who says cops don't have guardian angels?

The moral of the story is this: Train the way you want to react under stress. Your life really could depend on it. You'd rather train for the worst and never need it than train for show and end up dead.

Bradley Nickell is a 22-year veteran detective with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. You can contact him on Facebook at

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