Editor’s Note: Brian Willis is the editor and author of If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street, a collection of real-life short stories written by police officers. Willis, who was recently named Law Officer’s 2011 Trainer of the Year, has committed to donating $10,000 to the ILEETA scholarship fund. Help support his efforts! If you enjoy this chapter, please consider purchasing the book--for yourself or a friend--at www.warriorspiritbooks.com. Enjoy and be safe.
It was about 0830 hours on a sunny summer morning and I was a young officer on patrol in a new district. As I cruised the streets—enjoying the sunshine, and familiarizing myself with my new patrol area—I noticed a stocky man about 25 years of age sitting completely naked on the side of the road. Now this was not a great neighborhood, but it was still unusual to see a naked man on the street at 0830 in the morning.
I notified the dispatcher of my location and informed her I was going to talk to him to see what was going on. As I approached, he casually looked up at me but did not seem at all surprised, or impressed, by the presence of the police. I asked him his name, which he gave me, and then I asked him what was going on. He looked up at me and simply stated, “I’m just not happy.”
His clothes were on the grass beside him so I asked him to put his clothes on and told him we would talk about things after he was dressed. As he stood up, I noticed that he was about 5’9” tall with a muscular build sculpted from years as an ironworker. He put his pants on and then started to walk away. I told him, “Stay here. We need to talk.” At that point, he ignored me, walked over to the police car, and climbed into the driver’s seat. (I took the keys with me when I got out of the car but left the door unlocked and the window rolled down.) At this point, he realized that the keys were not in the ignition and he casually turned to me and stated, “Give me your keys. I am going to take your car.”
Needless to say, I was a little shocked and annoyed by his attitude and politely told him to get out of my police car. (Ok, I may not have been that polite and, yes, there may have been some swearing involved in the commands I gave him. He was, after all, trying to steal my car.) After a few minutes of back-and-forth banter, he finally got out of the police car and started to walk toward me. I drew my 26" hickory baton and loaded it—as I had been taught—in the upper cradle position. I had already radioed dispatch and requested a backup unit. I told the subject to stay where he was but he ignored all my commands and continued walking right at me with a look on his face that told me we were going to be in a fight. As he got closer, I drove the tip of my baton into the middle of his chest in a spearing motion and then I hit him as hard as I could with a two-handed strike to his left arm, just above the elbow, and a second strike to the outside of his left knee.
When I struck the outside of his knee there was a loud sound that reminded me of a piece of dry wood breaking. I immediately looked at my baton as I thought I had just broken it on his knee. The baton was still intact. He simply stood there through all three strikes and never even flinched. My first thought was, “Shit, I’m in trouble now.” That thought was immediately followed by three more full power strikes to the same three target areas. Once again, he stood there without flinching then calmly stated, “Ok, I will get into the back seat then.” He turned and unlocked the rear door of the police vehicle and climbed into the rear passenger seat on the driver’s side.
It was at that point that he seemed to become aware of the shotgun in the rack mounted to the dash between the driver and passenger seats. In an instant, he climbed into the front passenger seat and began trying to break the shotgun free from the rack.
At the academy, just a few years earlier they had forgotten to cover this type of situation with us. I climbed into the front driver’s seat and began striking the subject with my baton in a futile attempt to get him off the shotgun. I then went around to the passenger side, opened the door and continued my attempts to get the subject out of the car. Eventually the subject grew tired of this “game” and climbed out of the vehicle. I continued to give him commands telling him that he was under arrest and to get down onto the ground. He continued to ignore all of my directions and so I continued to strike him with my baton as hard as I could in an attempt to get control of him before he got hold of me.
The situation digressed to the point where he was in the middle of the street yelling “Help, police, he’s beating me up.” I responded by yelling, “I am the police, get on the ground,” and hit him again. Dispatch kept calling me to make sure I was ok and I responded that I was—but needed another car as soon as possible. Finally, another one-man car arrived on the scene. This caused the subject to turn his back to me and when he did I came up behind him and hit him on the outside of his other knee as hard as I could with a two-handed strike.
Cal, the backup officer, later told me, “When I rolled up and saw the two of you just standing in the middle of the street I assumed there was no real problem. But, when you came up behind him and hit his knee with a blow that would fell an oak tree and he just stood there without flinching, I knew we were both in deep shit.” Needless to say, a huge fight ensued during which we were eventually able to get the subject handcuffed and placed into the back of my police car. The subject, whom I later learned was a drug dealer from Toronto and had only been in our city for less than 12 hours, started crying and apologizing for his behavior.
Shortly thereafter, the patrol sergeant, whom I had never seen in my life, arrived at the scene. He listened to my rendition of the story and was apparently unimpressed with my performance. He stated, “You pussy, we are going to have to send you back on the stick course.” With that, he got back into his van and drove off leaving me stunned on the side of the road.
Cal and I teamed up and transported the subject to the hospital for both a physical examination and a psychological assessment. At the hospital, the subject went ballistic and bit me on the arm while we fought to restrain him to a gurney using our handcuffs and the hospital restraints. After listening to my description of the events, the doctor in the ER felt the subject was under the influence of PCP. This was later confirmed by blood tests and the doctor requested a psychiatric assessment with the recommendation that the subject be detained. While waiting for that assessment the subject told me, “You are lucky I couldn’t get that shotgun out of your car or I would have fucking killed you with it.”
Despite the events at the scene and this statement in the hospital, the psych team determined the subject was “lucid and posed no threat to himself or others.” Based on that assessment they refused to detain him for mental health reasons. (Interestingly enough, the psych team was adamant that we keep the subject restrained for their safety while they interviewed him.)
Following my tetanus shot for the bite mark on my arm, I called the supervisor in the Arrest Processing Unit to advise him of everything that had transpired and to tell him that we would be bringing the subject there for processing. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that the subject had not done anything for which he could be arrested and that I was not to bring him to Arrest Processing because he would refuse to accept him. Despite all my arguments that he needed to be locked-up for the safety of the public, that he attempted to steal my police car, and that he had assaulted a police officer when he bit me at the hospital, he was unmoved. He then angrily told me to release him and not to bring him downtown, and then he hung up the phone. Based upon my earlier dealings with the patrol sergeant, we decided that we couldn’t turn to him for guidance and so we reluctantly informed the hospital staff that the subject would simply be released from the hospital.
The subject was unchained from the bed and escorted from the hospital property never to be seen or heard from again. He never sought medical treatment at any of the city hospitals and he had no further contact with members of our police service. It seemed as though he simply vanished. I believe he somehow made his way back to the airport and flew home to Toronto unimpressed with our “western hospitality.”
I returned to the office, finished my notes, submitted an information report, and went home a bit rattled by the day’s events. For a few years following this event, I was affectionately referred to by my always-supportive peers as “The Stick Man.”
Looking back on that day there are a number of things I learned that I wish I had known in advance:
I wish I had known about subjects like this one who were under the influence of PCP and how they may react.
I wish I had known that sometime in my career I would likely encounter the monster man who, unlike my academy classmates, would be un-phased and unimpressed by my use of the baton.
I wish I had known that techniques that work in training don’t always work in the field. I was shocked when the first three baton strikes, delivered with full force to trained targets areas, had absolutely no effect on the subject. I was even more surprised when the next three strikes, again delivered with maximum power to the same targets, had no effect either. In fact, during the course of this encounter I estimate I delivered 20–25 baton strikes, each as hard as I could, with no effect. I have learned to accept that no technique or tool is 100 percent effective 100 percent of the time on 100 percent of the people. I have also learned to build failure drills into all my training and expect tools and tactics to fail. Training for failure allows you to quickly transition to other force-response options and continue to win the fight. Having said that, the baton was effective in that it kept the subject off me. I was grateful I had taken it with me when I got out of the car.
I wish I had known techniques for weapon retention. I’ve since learned the importance of weapon retention training, because 15–25 percent of all law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty over the past 30 years have been disarmed and killed with their own weapons. At the time, we weren’t taught techniques to retain our weapon if a subject attempted to disarm us. Although, in this situation the subject didn’t attempt to grab my revolver (yes, we used revolvers back then), I’ve often wondered what I would have done if the subject had grabbed my weapon. At that time, the issued holster could easily have been ripped wide open and the fight would have gone to a completely new level. He did attempt to disarm me of my shotgun that was in the vehicle, but was unsuccessful. That was never covered either.
I wish I’d known that not everyone in a leadership position is a leader; that not all supervisors are going be supportive of you; and not all of them are going to step-up and do what’s right when it’s needed. In the years that followed this incident, I got to know the patrol sergeant very well and grew to have a great deal of respect for him as a boss. He was, in fact, very supportive of the officers that worked for him. At that moment in my career, however, I needed something more from him than to be called a pussy. I didn’t need a hug, but I needed some support and direction. As for the staff sergeant in Arrest Processing, time and experience served to confirm my impression that he was arrogant, incompetent and lazy. His attitude that day put myself and others at risk needlessly.
Train hard. Expect tools and techniques to fail, and train to transition to other options and stay in the fight. Train your weapon retention skills. Train hard for the unexpected. Then when it happens, it will be neither hard nor unexpected.