Lessons of Survival

On Easter Sunday 1998, I was injured when a suspect ambushed another deputy and myself with an AK-47. In the shooting's aftermath, I considered how I owed my survival to formal and informal training that others had given me.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

On Easter Sunday 1998, I was injured when a suspect ambushed another deputy and myself with an AK-47. In the shooting's aftermath, I considered how I owed my survival to formal and informal training that others had given me.

Since my officer-involved shooting, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the tactics and mental discipline that help officers survive deadly force incidents. And for the last several years as a member of the POLICE Magazine editorial staff and author of the magazine's "Shots Fired" features, I've had the opportunity to speak at length with numerous officers who have been forced to shoot people in the line of duty.

All of the officers that I've interviewed have volunteered generously of their time and energy, exhibiting a greater degree of candor than I could have possibly hoped for. And in those shootings where things could have been handled differently, perhaps even better, the officers involved readily acknowledged as much. Each is dedicated to sharing his or her experience so that their fellow officers might get home at the end of their own duty shifts.

Here's some of the information that they would like to share with you, the next generation of officers who may have to use deadly force on the streets.

You Are Never Off Duty

Kenneth Hammond was at the mall with his wife. Paul Ware was driving home. Spencer O'Bryan was at home, trying to get into his house. Ron Redding was at home, taking a nap. (You can read their stories by clicking on the links to their names in this article.)

Each of these officers was off duty, alone, and getting involved in a shooting was just about the last thing any one of them would have expected. Yet each found himself involved in just such a situation-and each was damn happy to have a weapon when he needed it.

But there are officers who routinely refrain from carrying firearms off duty. While for some it may be a matter of personal preference, I suspect that more often than not it is in keeping with the wishes of loved ones. If you refrain from carrying because your loved one doesn't want you to, ask your loved one to review the circumstances surrounding such shootings and consider the implications for each of the officers had they not been armed.

For however seemingly innocuous our daily routines, fate and circumstance can conspire to put us in life-or-death situations. Fortunately for each of these officers, they were not only armed, but had faith in both their weapons and themselves.

Prepare for the Worst

All of the officers I have interviewed for "Shots Fired" had envisioned themselves being in firefights long before the possibility became a reality. So when the time came, they responded quickly and reacted with conditioned accuracy.

Fort Worth police officer Paul Ware had considered the tactical implications of being engaged by a suspect while seated in the driver's seat of his personal pickup and how the vehicle's design could work to his tactical advantage: an elevated position (the high ground), tinted windows (obscuring the view from suspects outside the vehicle), and the offer of some additional cover and concealment (truck door, engine block, etc.). Such considerations paid off when he was confronted while seated in the cab of the truck.

Think about locations where you spend considerable amounts of time, then ask yourself: If I am confronted with a shooting situation in this location, what role will I play-survivor or victim?

Don't Rush In

Upon being dispatched to a call, one officer accidentally drove past the target location. Doubling back, he found himself parking across the street from his destination as opposed to on the same side as initially planned. In doing so, he'd unwittingly bought himself a couple of precious seconds that allowed him to quickly respond to an axe-wielding attacker.

With this in mind, don't rush into things. Unless the matter is a known life or death one such as an active shooter, take an extra second or two to get the lay of the land. If a neighbor is outside, ask them if they're aware of a problem and who the players might be.

Expect the Unexpected

Seemingly "low risk" calls sometimes turn out to be anything but. One officer was told a suicidal suspect wasn't armed, only to find out the hard way that he was. Another responded to a location expecting to find a subject wanting to turn himself in for an outstanding warrant. Instead, upon the officer's arrival the man charged the officer with an edged weapon.

The officer backed away from the subject as he drew his gun and fired, killing the man in what has become known variously as suicide by cop or officer-assisted suicide. Obviously, the nature of the call can be disarming; the intel as suspect as the people you're dealing with.

The threat may not always be visible, but may require immediate action. Faced with the prospect of having a physically stronger man pull a knife and stab him (as the suspect had already done to another man) or having the man take his service weapon from him and kill him, an Ohio lieutenant did not hesitate to fire. Remember: In any confrontation that you're involved in on duty, there IS a firearm involved-yours.

Take Your Training Seriously

Time and again, officers that I have interviewed have cited their debts to rangemasters and tactical trainers. More than one even acknowledged having resented going through training sessions, lamenting the impact that such training had on sleeping patterns and schedules, as well as a perceived general redundancy to the proceedings. But once their training kicked in when they most needed it, they realized how important it was to have been repeatedly subject to the same survival rhetoric and tactical training.

Los Angeles County Sheriff 's deputy Vincent Durante was one such officer. When he experienced a weapon malfunction in the middle of a shootout, he readily cleared the weapon and re-engaged the suspect. Laurel, Md., police officer John Sims, Jr., actually participated in a SWAT shooting exercise that anticipated his OIS in the hours preceding it. While he'd missed the head shots at the range, he made one when it most counted-in the seconds following his having been ambushed and fired upon by a suspect. In these shootings and others, it was the officers' training that gave them the edge over the suspect.[PAGEBREAK]

For Want of a Nail...

Paying attention to little things can pay huge dividends. Things like good officer safety practices and wearing protective vests.

Things like making sure you have enough nutrition and rest. Remember, a shooting may occur first thing or at the end of a shift.

Cochise County, Ariz., deputy Tony Parrish found himself facing a shotgun-wielding suspect at the end of an enervating three-hour desert search. By keeping himself hydrated and his nutrition up with energy bars during the trek, he was able to immediately and effectively respond to a threat.

Nothing Is Routine

What is commonly referred to as a routine stop is nothing more than one which hasn't gone south. Treat each and every stop with respect. Officers have been killed by children and octogenarians.

Don't be predictable on your approach, whether to a car or to a house. Do the unexpected and keep potential assailants off guard. But remember that parking a little further away from the location is no guarantee-two Riverside, Calif., officers responding to a domestic were victims of a sniper attack despite having parked 75 yards away from the location.

Once out of your car, take an inventory of your environment. Know what cover and concealment is available should you suddenly come under attack.

Down Is Not Out

Jennifer Fulford was shot seven times, yet succeeded in killing both of her assailants. Despite being center punched by a suspect's bullet, Marty Alford was able to get off the ground, take the fight to the suspect, and take him out. When Freddy Williams was shot in the face, the injury only made him fight harder against the possibility of dying and not being able to raise his son.

Of course, what's true for you is also true for your adversary. The suspect is not necessarily done just because he or she has been shot. More than one officer thought he'd fired a round with mortal implications for the suspect and the suspects kept fighting. Mortally wounded suspects can still present a great threat, as they are often capable of firing additional rounds. Officers should not only continue to engage until the threat is over, but also continually move so as to avoid getting caught flat-footed and vulnerable.


Officer Ware was off duty and stopped at a red light when he was confronted by gang members, one of whom, Ronald Bickman, attempted to carjack him at gunpoint. Ware elected not to exit his vehicle to confront the suspect, as potential migratory gunfire would expose other commuters to potential injury.

Ware was nonetheless able to successfully shoot the suspect through his tinted driver's window while minimizing himself as a target. Ware subsequently covered and detained both suspects pending the arrival of Arlington Police Department officers.

Lessons learned:

Anticipate situations before they occur.

Develop contingency plans in case you find yourself engaged by a suspect in environments you frequent.

Continually reevaluate your situation, reconciling good officer safety tactics with the best interests of others who stand to be affected by your actions.


While visiting a mall with his wife, the off-duty Hammond engaged active shooter suspect, Sulejiman Talovic, in a fiirefight after Talovic had killed five and wounded several others with an assault rifle.

Using his Kimber .45 semi-automatic and various structural barriers to absorb incoming rounds, Hammond was able to prevent the suspect from killing or injuring any additional victims. Hammond's actions helped responding Salt Lake City police officers corner and kill the suspect.

Lessons learned:

Be mentally and physically prepared to act in an on duty capacity while off duty.

Let responding officers know of your involvement to avoid friendly fire situations.

Exploit best available cover and concealment.

Surviving the Aftermath

How will you react to a shooting? The psychological impact of one shooting cost two offi cers their careers: One for having hit the suspect; the other for having missed.

Can you live with the prospect of having to take another's life? You'd better be able to. Failure to do so can mean the lives of yourself, your fellow officers, and innocent citizens.

Some officers have been surprised by the number of investigative bodies that descended upon their shootings. A few that I have interviewed were even taken aback by having to surrender their sidearm. It can have great psychological impact on an officer when he or she is officially disarmed.

But remember, a shooting will not destroy you unless you let it do so. If you need help afterward, get it. If you don't, don't feel bad about it. Everyone reacts to a shooting differently. It doesn't make you a bad person.

Coping with the shooting and its aftermath is part of officer survival. And for the most part, cops do survive officer-involved shootings physically, spiritually, and professionally. Most of the officers that I have profiled in "Shots Fired" continue to work in their chosen field. They do so because they were able to deal with both the short-term and long-term implications of a shooting.

If it happens to you, you will be able to move forward as well. And if you study the tactics that other officers have used to prevail, then you will be ready when you have to shoot to save your life or the lives of others.[PAGEBREAK]


Officer Redding had just laid down for a nap when gunfire erupted outside his Long Beach, Miss., home. Advising his wife to dial 911 and let officers know what was happening, Redding grabbed his ballistic vest and sidearm. Before venturing outside, Redding looked through a window and saw a man kidnapping a neighbor at gunpoint and escorting her down the street.

Before following the man, Redding checked the trunk of his vehicle for his AR-15 only to realize that he had lent it to a fellow officer the previous day. Redding used optimal cover and concealment in traversing several properties to a point where he was able to engage the suspect, who had already killed two police officers and injured a third. Despite being outgunned, Redding was able to engage the suspect, Clinton Byrd, and kill him with a well-placed shot.

Lessons learned:

Have the presence of mind to avail yourself of as much of your duty gear such as your gun and ballistic vest as available to optimize your chances for survival.

Have the presence of mind to upgrade your weaponry, if possible.

Get as much visual or auditory intel as you can before involving yourself in a situation.

While suppressive fire has its virtues, a single well-placed shot can effectively end a situation.


Officer O'Bryan had just arrived home after the end of his shift to find a stranger on his property at three in the morning. After the man had seemingly disappeared, O'Bryan cautiously surveyed his property using his flashlight. He eventually located the man hiding behind a small fence at the property line.

Illuminated by O'Bryan's flashlight, the man suddenly stood up to engage the officer in a disconcerting dialogue before displaying seeming compliance with O'Bryan's commands. But after initially proning himself out on the ground, the suspect suddenly pulled a gun on the officer. O'Bryan fired first, killing the man.

Lessons learned:

Trust your instincts. If you perceive a danger, act accordingly.

Recognize that suspects who are seemingly compliant with your lawful orders may, in fact, only be buying time or angling for a surprise attack.

Always be prepared for a split-second engagement.

After engaging a suspect, shift position or take an unpredictable approach in effecting his arrest and/or securing his weapon.


Deputy Fulford responded to a call of strange men occupying a home. Arriving at the location, Fulford was met by a frightened mother whose scant information consisted of letting her know that her children were in an attached garage. Wanting to extricate the children from whatever situation might be developing, Fulford entered the garage and was assaulted by a hail of gunfire coming from opposite ends of cars parked inside the garage.

But despite being struck seven times by incoming rounds, she was able to conduct a tactical reload and eventually killed both of her attackers. Her fellow officers arrested a third suspect for take-over residential robbery. Amazingly, none of the children who were situated in one of the parked cars during the shootout were injured.

Lessons learned:

Never assume that information being communicated to you on the scene is accurate or complete.

Even if not consciously confronting suspects, you may be ambushed by them at any time.

When fighting a two-front fight, initiating suppressive fire can keep suspects from getting an accurate bead on you.

Never give up. Just because you're wounded that doesn't mean you are out of the fight.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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