A police honor guard salutes the casket during a memorial service for Lakewood, Wash. police Sgt. Mark Renninger. Renninger and three other Lakeland police officers were gunned down by Maurice Clemmons as they worked inside a coffee shop. The other officers who were killed were Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards. AP Photo/Rich Schultz
Police work at the scene where Maurice Clemmons, who was suspected of gunning down four Lakewood (Wash.) police officers, was shot and killed by Seattle patrol officer Ben Kelly. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Photo of Maurice Clemmons.AP Photo/Pierce County Sheriff’s Department
Initially, Clemmons seemed unfazed by Kelly’s gunfire despite multiple hits to his torso. Note: Even a mortally wounded suspect can present a deadly threat, and you might not initially know whether your shots hit home.
Seattle police officer Benjamin L. Kelly, who shot Maurice Clemmons, described the scene during his testimony before a six-person inquest jury, Monday, April 5, 2010, in King County Superior Courthouse in Seattle, Wash.AP Photo/Mike Siegel, Pool
Although most officer safety training is devoted to developing tactical and physical skills, we must also focus on improving observation and decision-making skills.
FEATURED IN TRAINING
- Training Essentials for the Rescue Team
- Dispatching for SWAT & Tactical Call Outs Requires Preparation
- Lessons by the Decades: The FBI-Miami Shootout
- Fitness Requires a Commitment and Hard Work
- Staging Area
- Law Officer & the NSSF’s SHOT Show Law Enforcement Educational Program
- 4E Fitness’ DVD workouts
“What’s he up to?” Officer Ben Kelly wondered as he spotted the chunky figure sauntering down the sidewalk. The man—wearing a dark sweatshirt with its hood up—was shuffling along, head down, with that peculiar walk typical of dirtbags.
This neighborhood was relatively quiet this time of night. But it was in one of the city’s busier precincts with more than its share of gangbangers, and it was after 2:30 a.m., far past the time when most law-abiding citizens had gone to bed. Kelly suspected the man was up to no good but had no articulable reason to stop him. He filed the location and man’s description away in the back of his mind, cruised past him and kept going. Kelly hadn’t been able to get a good look at him because he had approached him from behind and the raised hood had obstructed his face when he drove by.
It had been a quiet shift so far. Three cars had been reported stolen from Sam sector within an hour of one another, which was unusual for the midnight shift but not very interesting. Nevertheless, it had given 39-year-old Kelly, a 4-year veteran of the department, something to do as he kept an eye out for them—one of which was a silver Acura.
About a block and a half after passing the hooded man he spotted a silver Acura parked next to the curb with its hood up. Pale exhaust chugged into the crisp night air from its tailpipe, but it didn’t look occupied. Kelly rolled past it before coming to a full stop—and then backed up. Stopping next to it, he checked it with his right alley light to make sure no one was inside, and then maneuvered in behind it.
After quickly noting that the plate matched the one on the stolen vehicle, Kelly called in the recovery and his location. He had barely hung up his mic when he glanced in his mirror and saw the hooded man coming up behind him on the sidewalk. At first, the man stayed on the sidewalk, but then he stepped off the curb into the roadway.
It was a rather unusual move that hinted he might be planning to walk up to Kelly’s driver’s door. Thinking that it was more likely the man was crossing over to the opposite side of the street, Kelly suspected that the subject might be wanted and trying to avoid contact. But before he could give the idea much thought, he realized that the cloaked figure, his head still down, was coming straight down the center of the street.
It wasn’t particularly unusual for someone to approach Kelly on the street, but something didn’t seem right. He didn’t know what to make of this guy. The idea that he might be the car thief crossed his mind, but he could also be a harmless citizen with a question. Not yet alarmed but growing increasingly uneasy, Kelly decided it would be better to get out and meet the ambiguous man outside. He opened his door, slipped out from behind the wheel and started for the back of the cruiser. But the man reached the back fender at about the same time, and there was something oddly purposeful in his gait. Without raising his cloaked head or saying a word, he continued forward.
Reflexively, Kelly thrust his left hand forward to maintain his distance and ward off any possible attack, prompting the man to raise his head. As the light from nearby streetlights swept over the man’s face, Kelly noticed that his features were conspicuously absent any emotion. That was odd—not necessarily threatening, but odd. Most people who take the trouble to approach an officer in the middle of the night have something important on their minds, and emotions are usually attached to things of importance. But the idea had barely entered Kelly’s mind when he spotted the mole!
At roll call, his shift had been thoroughly briefed on the man coming toward him. It was Maurice Clemmons, the blood-crazed madman who had killed four Lakewood officers 42 hours earlier in a coffee shop just 35 miles away. An officer had spotted Clemmons the night before in another precinct, leading to an all-night SWAT callout, but the killer had managed to slip through the perimeter before it could be fully secured. It had been a depressing end to another frustrating chapter in the biggest manhunt in the state’s history, but one of the sergeants in Kelly’s precinct had been at the scene.
While there, he had picked up a lot of intelligence that he had disseminated during the briefing. Two things of particular importance had stood out. First, Clemmons had told family members he wouldn’t be taken alive but would shoot any officer he saw. Second, he was believed to be armed with one of the slain Lakewood officer’s guns. Having just come back from his days off, Kelly had known very little about Clemmons before then, but he had seen his photo on the news. What had stood out most in that photo was the large mole on Clemmons’ left cheekbone. There it was.
“Holy shit!” thought Kelly.
He went for his gun—a Glock 22 loaded with 180 grain, .40 caliber Gold Dots—but even before his hand reached it, he saw Clemmons’ blank indifference flip over into desperate alarm. The cop-killer knew he’d been made. Kelly could see Clemmons’ hands down at his sides and both looked empty, but he wanted to make sure. “Show me your hands!” he demanded as he drew the Glock.
Clemmons ignored the command and kept coming. Surprisingly, he didn’t make a direct frontal attack. Instead, he broke into a fast-paced walk and swerved over to his left in an attempt to skirt around Kelly. His right hand was reaching for his waist as if to draw a gun, but for some reason he was having trouble reaching it.
Twice more Kelly ordered Clemmons to show his hands, and twice more Clemmons ignored the commands as he swept around him. “This guy just killed four cops and he’s going for a gun—I’m not going to wait any longer,” thought Kelly. He opened fire. Three quick shots lit up the night, and his target was just feet away. It looked like he couldn’t miss but the cop killer didn’t slow or stumble, or even break stride. He didn’t groan, expel breath, flinch or show even the slightest hint that he’d taken any rounds. Kelly thought he’d missed as Clemmons broke into a full sprint and ran between the two cars toward the closest house.
The home’s front yard was bordered by a row of thick, eight-foot-high hedges, and the house and yard behind it were shrouded in shadows. The only gap in the hedgerow was the entrance, and Clemmons was heading straight for it. Once inside, he would be out of sight and able to escape in any one of several directions—or worse, be in position to stop and wait in ambush for Kelly.
Kelly couldn’t let Clemmons get that far. It was clear what he had to do: He fired four more times at Clemmons’ fleeing form. Again, the man showed no signs of being hit. He sprinted the short distance to the hedgerow and disappeared through the gap before Kelly could fire again.
Believing he had missed with all seven shots, Kelly was acutely aware that Clemmons might come back for another try at him. He tried to use his portable radio to call for help but couldn’t get through, and then tried again with the same results. He grabbed the mic from his dashboard and made a third attempt, again with no luck. But he had spied his shotgun as he leaned into the car and realized it would be a good idea to grab it. He hit the release button, snatched the weapon from its rack, laid it across the roof of the cruiser, and started scanning for Clemmons. He tried his walkie-talkie again, this time with success. As he put out the call, he struggled to cover any approaches Clemmons might use to mount an attack.
Within seconds he spotted his adversary, but it was obvious the man was no longer a threat. Clemmons was down, lying on his stomach in the gap in the hedgerow with just his head showing. He was looking directly into Kelly’s face, his features once again expressionless, as he fought against the rattle in his chest to breathe. It was obvious that it would be useless to issue any commands, so Kelly didn’t bother.
Kelly could already hear sirens coming his way but he wasn’t taking any chances. He stayed put and waited as he continued to look down the barrel of the shotgun into Clemmons’ face. Meanwhile, Clemmons just stared right back at him with that blank look in his eyes.
As soon as enough help arrived to make a tactically sound approach, Clemmons was cuffed and searched. It was now safe for the paramedics to move in, but Clemmons was already dead.
Four of Kelly’s seven rounds had found their mark. One had drilled its way through his right lung, one had pierced the other lung, another had ripped through his lower abdomen and bowels, and the fourth had penetrated his right thigh. The gun he had taken off the Lakewood officer was found hung up in his clothing.
Thus ended one of the darkest chapters in the history of American law enforcement. Nothing would ever fully atone for the loss of the four valiant Lakewood officers two days earlier, but justice had been served. Maurice Clemmons would never kill again, and Ben Kelly—whose vigilance and quick action had saved him from being Clemmons’ fifth victim—had been the one who put a stop to his bloody crusade. Officer Kelly had been unscathed in the gunfight, and still serves the citizens of Seattle as a patrol officer in the same precinct.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of what happened that night, it’s important to note that there’s strong evidence to indicate that that the Acura hadn’t been left where it was by chance. After the Lakewood ambush, numerous family members and friends had helped Clemmons evade capture, and strong evidence indicates that the car had been left at that particular location by one of his many accomplices so he could use it to leave the area. Considering how close he had come to being captured the night before, he probably wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible, which would explain why he didn’t just head off in another direction after Kelly passed him on the street.
Desperate to get away, and more than willing to kill another officer to make it happen, it’s very likely that Clemmons had made up his mind to kill Kelly long before he walked up to him. Considering his tragically successful attack on the Lakewood officers, he was probably quite confident that he would be able to ambush Kelly in the patrol car. But fortunately, his luck had run out. The officer he had chosen to target was alert enough to detect his approach before it was too late.
Discussion & Analysis
Despite all the well-deserved accolades he’s received, Officer Kelly humbly claims he was just doing his job and gives all the credit to his trainers. Although his trainers certainly deserve this praise (see the training section of the analysis), Kelly sells himself short by ignoring his own role in the outcome. Had he been any less alert or any slower to comprehend the danger, it’s very likely that Clemmons would have shot him long before he could bring any of his training into play.
This point highlights a serious shortcoming in police training today. Although almost all officer safety training is devoted to developing the tactical and physical skills that are so essential to winning on the streets, it’s a serious mistake to count on those skills alone for our safety. Unless we can spot a threat, identify it as such and then quickly decide on a proper course of action, it’s often too late to apply the tactical and physical skills needed to counter it—no matter how good those skills may be. The fact that more than 52 percent of our officers murdered in the past decade never managed to draw their guns1 makes it clear that tactical and physical skills aren’t enough. We must also focus on improving observation and decision-making skills. This case dramatically illustrates how vital these skills can be to winning on the street.
The following analysis will discuss this matter in further detail, as well as a number of other crucial learning points. These include lessons related to the role instincts play in detecting danger, the importance of disrupting an assailant’s attack plan, use of deadly force in questionable situations, training, foot pursuit concerns, cop-killer mindset and winning mindset.
These lessons can save lives. We owe it to ourselves, our citizens, and most importantly, the four valiant Lakewood officers who died in Clemmons’ ambush, to learn as much as we can from them. Space limitations prevent us from printing a full discussion of these hard-won lessons in our magazine, but a thorough analysis of this incident is posted on LawOfficer.com. Before you read it, however, review the discussion questions below and answer them on your own.
1. The fact that Kelly was alert enough to spot Clemmons in his mirror subsequently led him to step out of his patrol car and contact Clemmons outside, which in turn enabled him to recognize Clemmons and quickly respond to his intended attack. What can you do to improve your ability to scan for danger signs and properly assess the significance of anything suspicious you see?
2. Although Kelly didn’t realize the magnitude of the threat confronting him until he recognized Clemmons, he felt uneasy when he saw him approaching his patrol car. What does this indicate about the importance of trusting your instincts?
3. When Kelly exited his car and approached Clemmons, Clemmons lost the element of surprise. Just seconds later, Clemmons ran into another minor, but unexpected, complication when Kelly thrust his hand forward in a simple defensive measure, which caused him to raise his head and be recognized. With his attack plan now disrupted, he had lost the initiative. How much influence do you think this had on the outcome? Why? What does this say about the importance of doing something to disrupt your assailant’s plan of attack? Does your response necessarily have to be a high-profile action in every case, or can it sometimes be something more subtle?
4. Like most officers, Kelly ordered Clemmons to show his hands as soon as he realized he might be armed. This is a very dangerous thing to do, because it gives the offender permission to move his hands at a time when your safety demands that he do the exact opposite. Do you agree that it’s safer to order him not to move, preferably after you have moved to a position of advantage? If so, how can this best be accomplished?
5. Considering the totality of the circumstances, there can be no question that this shooting was justified. However, Kelly never saw a gun and Clemmons was either moving past him or running away each time Kelly fired. What were the factors that justified the use of deadly force in this case? What might make an officer hesitate in a similar situation, especially if the offender didn’t pose as obvious a threat to the officer and others as Clemmons did? What can you do to help prepare to make the right shoot/don’t shoot decision when the justification for shooting is not especially clear?
6. All Seattle officers who work the streets must complete an annual 40-hour street skills course, which includes classroom training, control tactics and force-on-force scenarios with special focus on lessons learned from notable local police shootings. Why is this kind of training so crucial to officer safety? How important do you think it was to Kelly’s success? What can an individual officer do to get the most out of the training he receives?
7. Kelly had been trained to terminate foot pursuits of armed offenders once he lost sight of them. Do you agree that foot pursuits should be terminated in such cases? Why?
8. What does this incident tell us about the importance of being ready for anything on the street? How can you prepare yourself to win against predators like Clemmons?
9. In what ways did Kelly’s attitudes and actions exemplify winning mindset? Discuss other factors that contribute to winning mindset.
Officer Kelly had been lucky to spot Clemmons when he did, but there was a lot more than luck involved in the outcome. Among other things, he was sharp enough to turn the tables on Clemmons before Clemmons could initiate his attack. This is a critical point worthy of further discussion, but first it is important to identify and discuss the four critical steps that must be taken in order to respond to any threat.
Since we can’t respond to a threat we don’t see, step 1 is to detect the threat. The second step is to identify the threat as such, and the more accurately we can do that the better. Third, we must decide what to do about the threat, which in law enforcement includes determining what level of force is legally justified as well as the specific action needed. Finally, we must execute our action plan.2
This presents a serious problem for law enforcement, because action is always faster than reaction and police officers rarely have the luxury of being proactive in the use of force. In almost every case, the offender is already in the action phase of the attack (step 4) before the officer even has a chance to detect it (step 1), thereby causing the officer to lag dangerously behind. There are exceptions to this, of course, but is a common problem that regularly puts officers at a severe disadvantage.
But this problem it not insurmountable. One way to help overcome it is to speed up the steps, and another is to find a way to disrupt your assailant’s plan of attack. Anything that disrupts his plan even slightly will force him to re-think it and then execute his decision. This takes time, thereby forcing him into a position where he will have to play catch up. It also forces him to think faster under heightened stress, which increases the chances that he will make a mental or physical mistake.
Much of this analysis will discuss how Officer Kelly utilized both of these options to his advantage, and how by example, other officers can use them to their advantage as well.
After stopping behind the stolen Acura, Officer Kelly’s attention was focused primarily on checking it out and using his radio. Nevertheless, he didn’t let these matters distract him from scanning his surroundings, which in turn allowed him to spot Clemmons in the mirror. This one small act was one of the most important factors in the entire encounter, in that it led to other observations that ultimately spurred him into action. He had taken step 1, and was now rapidly entering step 2.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to be as constantly vigilant as we should be. Besides the complacency that plagues all of us at times, it is easy to get so distracted by other things that we forget to scan for danger as often as we should. It is to Officer Kelly’s credit that he was alert enough to avoid this trap, but no officer can be immune to it all the time. It is a problem that we can never eliminate entirely, but we can significantly alleviate it by making a habit of always scanning our surroundings while asking ourselves, “What is there about this situation that can make me vulnerable, and what can I do about it?” Like all habits, this habit is acquired through repetition. Therefore, the best way to develop it is to consciously put it into practice on every call and in every street contact you make, no matter how mundane the situation may seem. This takes commitment and effort, but safety awareness can eventually become second nature. Once you have established this habit, you will be much more likely to at least glance around occasionally to scan for danger, even when your main focus is elsewhere.
Another way to improve observation skills is to literally train yourself to see better. Police officers like to think of themselves as trained observers, but how many of us have ever been taught how to see more of our environment, more rapidly and with greater clarity? Fortunately, this kind of training is now available to law enforcement, and it works as follows:
Although the eyes take in images of everything within their field of view, the brain can only process a small amount of visual input at a time, and therefore misses much of what the eyes pick up. To help overcome this limitation, this training uses various visual exercises that train the brain to process more of its visual input, and to do it with greater clarity. The result is improved observation skills and threat recognition. However, since these newly acquired skills are perishable, long-term retention of them requires a commitment to practice the exercises frequently (at least twice a week for no less than 15 minutes per session) for several months, and then regular maintenance exercises thereafter. Nevertheless, the benefits are well worth the effort. Officers who are interested in receiving this training or learning more about it should contact Observation On Demand, LLC 3 or Snipercraft, Inc.4
The Role of Instincts in Detecting Danger Signs
Another critical factor in this case was Officer Kelly’s ability to quickly recognize that something was wrong as Clemmons approached him. However, it is important to note that he wasn’t consciously aware of the magnitude of the threat until he saw Clemmons’ face. Fortunately, as soon as he saw Clemmons walking down the center of the street he instinctively knew it would be safer outside his vehicle and got out. Since Clemmons almost certainly planned to kill him while he was still behind the wheel, this simple act probably saved his life.
The importance of acting on our instincts cannot be overstated. As we get more and more accustomed to dealing with risky situations without serious injury, we become complacent and start to ignore our instincts over time. This is rarely happens when our instincts alert us to grave danger, but we often suppress them when, as in this case, something just doesn’t feel right. This can be a critical mistake, because overlooking just one subtle danger sign on the street can prove fatal.
One thing that can help us take our survival instinct more seriously is to understand that it is not just some kind of inexplicable sixth sense. Rather, it is an integral part of our natural defense system that occurs in the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is far more alert to our surroundings than our conscious mind is, and it is also much faster at processing vital information about possible threats to our survival. When it detects anything it deems to be dangerous, it instantly conveys that vital information to the conscious mind in the form of a sense of alarm, or in the case of less obvious signs of danger, uneasiness. Often at least some of these danger signs are so subtle that we never become consciously aware of them, which explains why we sometimes often feel uneasy without knowing exactly why. But rather than blowing this feeling off, we need to recognize it as the vital early warning system it truly is.
In this case, Officer Kelly had noticed a number of things that seemed suspicious, including Clemmons’ peculiar shuffle and lowered head; the stolen car with its engine running; Clemmons’ obvious movement toward driver’s side of the patrol car; and Clemmons’ purposeful gait, still-lowered head, and odd silence as he walked up to him. Though Kelly didn’t consciously consider any of these observations to be much of a cause for concern, his subconscious mind realized that something was amiss. It quickly did the math—probably after adding some details of its own that never rose to the conscious level—and told him it was time to take action.
Thankfully, this meant that he didn’t have to wait until he recognized Clemmons to begin defending himself, because it would probably have been too late by then. He had followed his instincts without waiting to see more, and that had given him the edge.
Interestingly, the initial actions he had taken were hardly remarkable. He simply got out of his car and then thrust his left hand forward when Clemmons got too close. But that was enough. This is an important point, because it shows that we don’t necessarily have to initiate a high profile response when our instincts warn us of possible danger. Often a subtle shift in tactics or position, or a relatively minor physical act like Kelly’s action of putting one hand out will suffice. Some situations will require a much more overt response of course, but in many cases the actions taken may even go unnoticed by anyone but the officer himself. The key is trust our instincts enough to act on them.
Disrupting Your Assailant’s Attack Plan
The reason why Officer Kelly’s subtle actions were so effective in defeating Clemmons—and why similar actions can also work for other officers—is because they disrupted Clemmons’ attack plan. Though very simple, they apparently were not what Clemmons expected. As mentioned earlier, Clemmons had evidently planned to shoot Kelly while Kelly was still behind the wheel, and he had fully expected to be successful. When Kelly exited his car instead, Clemmons lost the element of surprise. Then just seconds later, Clemmons ran into another minor but unexpected complication when Kelly thrust his hand forward in a simple defensive measure.
With these two low-profile acts Kelly had disrupted Clemmons’ plan enough to force the man into making one small mistake that changed everything. Clemmons raised his head and Kelly, now fully aware of whom he was dealing with, went for his gun. Clemmons had lost the initiative, forcing him to rush to catch up, which probably accounts for his fumbled draw. And his botched draw may account for why he made the rather unusual decision to try to avoid Kelly by circling wide around him instead of doing something more typical, like turning around and running away, sprinting off to his left, grappling with Kelly as he had done with Officer Richards in the Lakewood shooting (see the Officer Down article in the August 2011 issue), or simply trying to outdraw him. Clemmons may have had a more rational reason for doing this, but his actions were peculiar enough to indicate that he wasn’t thinking clearly. If so, Kelly’s actions were most likely the cause.
Show Me Your Hands!
Officer Kelly was reasonably certain that Clemmons didn’t have a gun in his hand when he first recognized him, but he wanted to make sure. As a result, he made perhaps the most common mistake we make when confronting armed offenders—he ordered Clemmons to show his hands. Fortunately, since Clemmons’ gun was still concealed somewhere in his clothing, this didn’t make any difference, but for many less fortunate officers it does.
This command is almost universally given in situations like this one, probably out of habit and at least in part because that’s how it’s done in the movies. But there is another reason more basic to human nature. Officers say it because, like Officer Kelly, they want to know. Still, it’s very dangerous because it gives the offender permission to move his hands at a time when your safety demands that he do the exact opposite. By ordering him to move, you create the expectation in your own mind that he will comply nonviolently. This leaves you mentally unprepared to react if he draws a gun, and, since action is always faster than reaction, he will invariably get off the first shot.
A safer option is to move to a position of advantage, like cover and/or a point behind him, as you draw; then order him not to move. Once you have him frozen in place at gunpoint, you can more safely order him to show his hands with deliberate, step-by-step commands like those used during high-risk traffic stops. Of course, this isn’t possible when, like Kelly, you are in very close proximity to the suspect. In that case, it is best to raise your support hand to about solar plexus level as you move off to one side of him, and then order him not to move. The purpose of raising your hand is not just to keep the subject away, but to deflect his weapon if he draws one. As you deflect his attack, move in closer while countering with gunfire until he is neutralized (see the close quarters “Extreme Close Quarters Armed Attacks” section of the Officer Down article in the August 2011 issue for further details). Though unconventional, this tactic makes the best of a very dangerous situation by moving you out of your assailant’s direct line of fire while positioning your support hand to quickly deflect an attack if necessary.
Use of Force in Questionable Situations
This case also highlights a critical concern regarding the third step in responding to an attack—decision making. Considering what Clemmons had done and the danger he posed to Officer Kelly, other officers and anyone else who got in his way, there can be no question that the shooting was justified. However, Kelly never saw a gun and Clemmons was either moving past him or running away each time he fired, which could muddy the waters in the eyes of some.
This observation is not meant to imply in any way that Officer Kelly used unreasonable force. In fact, there were a number of factors involved that not only gave him every right, but in this author’s opinion the duty, to shoot Clemmons. These factors included the following:
- Kelly recognized Clemmons, and knew he was wanted in the brutal murder of the four Lakewood officers.
- From the roll call briefing, Kelly had good reason to believe that Clemmons was armed with a gun he had taken off one of the slain Lakewood officers.
- Kelly had been advised that Clemmons told family members he would not be taken alive, but would shoot any officer he saw.
- From the way Clemmons had just made contact with Officer Kelly it was reasonable to believe that he had intended to kill him, which reinforced the likelihood that he was not only willing to use deadly force, but armed.
- Clemmons was heading for a location where he would soon be out of sight, making him considerably harder to catch and much more dangerous to follow.
- Officer Kelly was alone and no one knew he was in danger.
Under the circumstances, it is clear that, as a public servant sworn to protect those he served, Officer Kelly was duty bound to stop Clemmons before he hurt someone else. It would be hard to find an officer who doesn’t understand this at the academic level, but knowing something academically and being able to apply it under high-stress, rapidly-evolving lethal conditions are two very different things. Furthermore, while every officer has been taught that it is lawful to shoot fleeing felons under certain circumstances, they are not immune to influences outside the classroom. Like everyone else, they learn from what they see on television and in the movies, and are also influenced by society’s expectations. Most lay people don’t understand how an officer could find it necessary to shoot a fleeing felon, and many even consider it illegal and morally wrong. And how often do TV and movie cops shoot someone in the back?
When required to make a split-second, life-or-death decision under stress, such conflicting pressures can cause confusion and hesitation with possibly fatal results. On the other hand, we certainly don’t want to take a life unless necessary and legally justified. To his credit Officer Kelly made the right decision, but we must also remember that the totality of the circumstances weighed very heavily in favor of that decision. In many cases the decision isn’t that clear cut. So, how can we do a better job of equipping ourselves to make these kinds of tough decisions?
The answer lies in training. It isn’t enough to hear a periodic lecture on use of force; we must gain realistic experience in making hard use-of-force decisions if we truly want to get better at it. The best way to do this is with force-on-force and/or computer-based training. But the scenarios presented should not be limited to those that require nothing more than making distinctions between handguns and cellphones, or deciding whether an individual is reaching for a weapon or something harmless. While these are certainly important and should be part of the training, we need to do more. Scenarios should include harder use-of-force situations, such as active shooters who are actively shooting victims or fleeing. Should the trainee withhold fire? Should he issue a verbal warning first? What if there are innocent citizens in close enough proximity to the shooter to be at risk from the officer’s gunfire? Other examples are a gunman who is about to ambush the trainee’s partner when there isn’t time to warn the partner, or an obviously hostile, non-compliant suspect who is loading a gun and refusing to put it down. There are countless actual cases that can be used to develop very good scenarios for this purpose, including many recorded on dash cams. We just have to look for them.
A lower-cost option that can be used in lieu of, or supplemental to, reality-based training is case studies based on actual court decisions and other real-life situations. This can be a very effective way to develop practical shoot/don’t shoot decision making skills, especially if the case studies are progressively more difficult. When possible, it also helps to break into small groups for discussion, because most people will express new ideas more freely and learn more in small groups.
For individual officers, a third option is to read through key court decisions on the use of force like Graham v. Conner and Tennessee v. Garner, and examine the conclusions made by the justices with an eye to understanding how they came to those conclusions. If done on the internet, links in the texts of these cases can be used to study other important use-of-force cases in the same way. This kind of training will lead to a better understanding of how the courts view use of force, which in turn helps develop the specific mental processes needed to make better use-of-force decisions.
As in so many of the other incidents recounted in this column, this shooting offers a dramatic reminder of the unpredictability of a handgun’s “stopping power.” A firearm is, and will probably remain long into the future, the most effective means for stopping aggression, but we should never depend on any firearm to make one-shot stops. We should be confident in our sidearm, and back up that confidence with a high level of proficiency through top-level training, but we also need to understand its limitations.
Like many officers, Officer Kelly was surprised by his pistol’s apparent ineffectiveness, but he didn’t let that frustrate him or distract him from doing what he had to do. He persisted with gunfire, and it paid off. Make the best shots you can and be ready to stop shooting as soon as the offender is no longer a threat, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see immediate results. Always be ready to keep shooting if necessary, or if that doesn't work, to do whatever else it takes to win.
A lot of the credit for Officer Kelly’s success belongs to his department and its instructors. All Seattle officers who work the streets must complete an annual 40-hour Street Skills course, which includes classroom training, control tactics, force-on-force scenarios, and live firearms training. Besides regular qualification, the firearms training includes shooting while moving, shooting at moving and multiple targets, barricade shooting, stress courses, etc., with special focus on lessons learned from the local police shootings. This kind of street relevant officer safety and firearms training may cost more and require more effort and commitment from the agency and trainers, but it saves lives.
On the other hand, as Officer Kelly is careful to point out, trainers are not the only ones responsible for quality training. Every officer has a responsibility to himself to train hard, train like he means it, and squeeze the most out of every minute of training he receives. Since the shooting, Kelly is now more convinced than ever that we react on the street like we are trained, and that our level of commitment to training will dictate how well prepared we are when the time comes.
He also points out that he often participated as a role player in the department’s force-on-force training. By giving him the opportunity to think about various aspects of violent encounters and come up with new ideas, he learned how to think with greater clarity and flexibility in use-of-force situations. This is a very important point, because the best way to get better at anything, including ways of thinking, is to do it. By experiencing the dynamics of combat, even if only simulated, Kelly learned how to think better under those conditions. This is one of the major virtues of reality based training.
In addition, as a role player Officer Kelly was able to see things from the assailant’s point of view. He learned how an officer’s actions are perceived by others, how vulnerable officers can be if they aren’t careful, and how violent offenders think. One of the keys to winning in combat is to understand your opponent, and nothing does that better than playing the “bad guy.” Officer Kelly suggests that every officer take advantage of doing so whenever possible, and that’s good advice.
Foot Pursuit Concerns
One aspect of Officer Kelly’s training that may well have saved his life was its emphasis on foot pursuits. Foot pursuits were often the theme of Seattle’s force-on-force training, and the instructors made it clear that officers should stop chasing armed offenders once they have lost sight of them. There are few things more dangerous than chasing an armed offender on foot, and the danger is considerably magnified once he disappears from view. No one likes to lose a suspect, but we must recognize that he owns the area along the route of his flight as soon as we lose sight of him, especially at night. After that, we are flying blind into an area he controls.
Clemmons was streetwise enough to understand this, and bloodthirsty enough to use it to his advantage. In fact, the only logical reason why he would have chosen to return to the gap in the hedgerow instead of continuing to run is that he wanted to kill Officer Kelly. And if he was that determined to kill Kelly, it only stands to reason that he would have ambushed him if he had chased him into the yard.
As tempting as it may have been to chase Clemmons, the plain truth is that there is a good chance that doing so would have led to another cop’s funeral, another notch in Clemmons’ gun, and the continuing freedom of one of the most dangerous murders in recent history. Any other officer who came across him would have been at grave risk, and Officer Kelly would have died in vain. When legally justified in a case like this, it is far safer and more effective to do what Kelly did. Trust in your firearms proficiency, take the shot and keep shooting until the threat is neutralized.
Cop Killer Mindset
Officer Kelly had one nagging question in the aftermath of the shooting: Why didn’t Clemmons draw his gun sooner? This is an interesting question, because the answer gives us some important insight into Clemmons’ mindset. The fact that he headed directly for the driver’s side of the patrol car instead of staying on the sidewalk indicates that he planned to shoot Kelly while Kelly was still behind the wheel. Very likely, he would have known that this offered him the best chance of getting several shots off before Kelly could defend himself. It was a tactic had been tragically effective in the Lakewood ambush, and driven by hatred as he was, Clemmons would have wanted to use a tactic that had worked for him before. Under the circumstances, it would make sense that someone as streetwise as Clemmons would consider the possibility that Kelly might see him coming, in which case he would not want Kelly to spot the gun until it was too late.
Clemmons was a hardcore, streetwise predator who hated the police, making for a volatile combination that led to the horrendous Lakewood shooting. Unfortunately, he was not alone in his predatory nature, street-hardened instincts, or hatred for police officers. While this dangerous formula is seldom found in the general population, the nature of police work demands that we cross paths with such people far more often than others do, and when that happens we are duty bound to deal with them. This realization should give us cause for healthy concern, but we must never allow it to lead to undue fear or fatalism. Rather, it should motivate us to train hard, stay sharp, and keep fighting no matter what.
Officer Kelly was able to safely bring Clemmons’ hate-filled campaign to an end primarily because he was alert, trusted his instincts, thought fast, and took decisive action in the face of grave danger. He never let fear or stress distract him from what he had to do, but kept thinking on his feet when the pressure was on. His decisiveness and coolness under pressure should be an inspiration to us all to remain vigilant at all times, trust our instincts, stay focused on what needs to be done to win, and maintain the highest level of mental and physical preparedness.
- Make it a habit to always scan for danger signs while asking yourself the question: “What is there about this situation that can make me vulnerable, and what can I do about it?”
- Consider taking a class on rapid threat recognition in order to improve your observation skills.
- Trust your instincts.
- One of the most important things you can do if attacked is to do something to disrupt your assailant’s plan of attack. Although this will sometime require a high-profile response, in many cases a more subtle response will be enough. Doing something is always better than doing nothing.
- It is very dangerous to order someone to show his hands. A safer option is to move to a position of advantage as you draw and then order him not to move.
- A thorough understanding of the legal issues related to the use of force is crucial to proper decision-making in stressful, rapidly-evolving lethal encounters. Make sure you fully understand both the law and your department policy regarding use of force.
- Don’t expect one-shot stops from any firearm. Keep shooting until the threat is terminated, or do whatever else it takes to win.
- Train hard to get the most out of any training you receive, and seriously consider acting as a role player during force-on-force training whenever possible.
- Except in the most extreme situations, officers should stop chasing armed suspects once they lose sight of them.
- Never underestimate an adversary’s capacity for violence, but don’t let this realization lead to undue fear or fatalism. Instead, use it to renew your commitment to train hard, stay sharp, and keep fighting no matter what.
Remain vigilant at all times, trust your instincts, stay focused on what needs to be done to win, and maintain the highest level of mental and physical preparedness.
1. F.B.I. (2010). Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2010. Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, table 12. <http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/leoka/leoka-2010/tables/table12-leok-feloniously-victim-use-of-weapon-01-10.xls.> at 24 February 2012.
2. Readers who are familiar with USAF Col. John Boyd’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop concept will probably notice how closely this concept parallels Boyd’s. This because it is essentially a simplified version of the OODA Loop that has been further modified to make it more specifically applicable to sudden police combat.
3. For more information, contact Observation On Demand, LLC at:
Observation On Demand, LLC
Website: www.observationondemand. com
4. For more information, contact Snipercraft, Inc. at:
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Law Officer intends to run an “Officer Down” article by Brian McKenna every few months. In order to obtain incidents that provide clear and relevant case studies, we would like to draw from our largest available resource—you, the reader. If you have, or can obtain, factual information on actual incidents you think we can use, please contact Brian at:
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