Complacency almost cost Mark Black his life and it presents a huge threat to officer safety. Domestic violence and restraining order calls can go from dull to disaster in an instant—so be ready. Note: This car doesn’t represent Deputy Black’s agency and is intended to stimulate your thoughts about complacency. Photo Mark C. Ide
Black is wounded; then wounds Dolan with his return fire. Illustration Brian McKenna
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Ann Dolan loved Eddie, but she couldn’t take it anymore. Like other abused women she lived in constant dread of the man she loved, and now the fear had become so extreme that it took precedence over any affection she felt for her husband. Worn down by Eddie’s increasingly erratic behavior, unpredictable violence and threats of suicide, she had obtained an order of protection earlier in the day, and then changed the locks on all her doors. But now Eddie had started leaving messages on her phone saying he planned to kill himself. Worse, it was well after midnight and the dogs were barking outside, adding an ever-deepening sense of gloom to the warm April night. All her instincts told her Eddie was lurking somewhere out in the darkness.
Ann’s friend Lisa Schmidt had come to the house earlier, and then stayed around to lend her support. But Lisa’s presence would be of little help if Eddie came crashing through the door. With growing fear, the women decided to leave the house and were heading for Ann’s van when Eddie suddenly emerged from the shadows. He was carrying a rifle, coming fast, and shouting curses and threats. As Eddie came closer, Lisa—her instinct for survival suddenly overshadowed by deep concern for her friend—courageously stepped between him and Ann. The enraged man crashed the butt of the rifle into the side of her head, knocking her unconscious. But she had been lucky. She would awaken several minutes later with no serious head injuries and no bullet wounds.
To Eddie, Lisa was nothing more than a passing nuisance. After commenting that he should have shot her, he turned his attention back to the true focus of his attention—Ann. Grabbing her by the hair, he dragged her around to the other side of the van and pushed the muzzle of the rifle into her face. With a fear now bordering on panic, Ann begged for her life. It worked. Eddie’s murderous rage seemed to soften somewhat, and he lowered the rifle.
But then his demeanor changed again, and he jammed the barrel of the gun up under his chin. “I’m gonna blow my brains out, Ann,” he growled, “and it’s somethin’ you’re gonna remember for the rest of your life!”
Ann knew she had to calm down and focus on diffusing Eddie’s anger. Mustering all her willpower, she began to speak in a calm, soft voice as she reasoned with him, using care to avoid any comments that might set him off again. It wasn’t easy, but she kept talking and Eddie eventually started to settle down. More than three hours later, she finally managed to talk him into releasing her by promising to return to the house to meet him again at 2 p.m.
Now satisfied, Eddie kept his side of the bargain and let both women leave. Exhausted and emotionally drained, they drove to the relative safety of Lisa’s house, where they slept for several hours. This short nap helped clear Ann’s mind, and she was now even more convinced that her safety depended upon getting away from her husband. Reluctantly, she decided to report the incident to the sheriff’s department.
Deputy Mark Black, a 49-year-old, 23-year veteran of police work, was one of three deputies assigned to the case. After discussing the case Black and the other two deputies, Chief Deputy Eric Novack and Deputy Jennifer Owen, agreed that it would be best to approach Eddie Dolan in a low-key manner. Concerned that Dolan might refuse to cooperate if they arrested him right away, they believed they could strengthen their case by initially contacting him under the guise of serving the order of protection. After establishing a rapport with him by showing sympathy for his situation, they would try to get a statement from him by asking if he’d like to tell his side of the story.
The deputies arrived at the Dolan residence at about 3 p.m. It was a modular home resting on top of a basement built into the slope of a hill. Two driveways led onto the property from the roadway, the upper drive leading to the front yard and the lower to one side of the basement. Black and Owen parked their units in the upper drive, while Novack pulled into the lower one behind a parked Ford F-150, which matched the description of Dolan’s truck. Evidently, Dolan was inside the house waiting for his wife. But there was no way to know what he planned to do when she arrived. Considering his actions the night before, the only safe assumption to make was that he posed a grave threat to her safety.
Black and Owen split up with Black approaching the front door while Owen went around back to help Novack watch the basement exits. Although aware of the risks and scanning for danger as he moved cautiously toward the door, Black wasn’t especially concerned for his safety. Like most long-time cops, he’d grown accustomed to handling dangerous situations without suffering dire consequences. These countless “successes” had taken some of the edge off his safety consciousness.
Black stood to one side of the door, knocked and announced his office. There was no response from inside—dead silence. He waited, tried again and still got no response. After several more attempts with the same results, he turned the doorknob and pushed on the door, but nothing budged. He backed away from the door, and checked the windows to see if he could get a good look inside. Most of the shades were draw, the interior was dark, and the sunlight reflecting off the windows made it even harder to see anything worthwhile. Still, there could be little doubt that Dolan was holed up inside.
Black had no intention of giving up. He radioed the dispatcher, and asked her to telephone Mrs. Dolan to get permission to enter the residence. After a wait of several minutes, the dispatcher called back to say that Ann had consented.
After asking Novack and Owen to check the basement for possible entry points, Black tried all the windows in front while listening for any signs of Dolan’s presence. All the windows were locked tight, and still no sound came from the home’s murky interior. Black was about to check to see if the other deputies had found a way inside when he heard Novack ask Owen to meet him at the east basement window. Novak had found a way to open the window, and wanted her to assist him in searching the house. After telling Black to watch the front in case Dolan tried to escape, Novack and Owen entered.
With his attention now focused on ensuring Dolan’s capture, Black was no longer thinking much about safety. He backed away to a spot near the center of the front yard so he could get a wider view of the house and scanned for any signs of Dolan. Within moments, the window at the far end of the house shattered and his quarry appeared in the opening. Dolan was talking on a cell phone as he scooted through the window feet first and dropped to the ground. Black was standing in the open less than 10 yards away, yet Dolan was so engrossed in conversation that he never saw the deputy. Acting quickly, Black reached for the Glock at his side and shouted, “Sheriff’s department, stop right there!”
Dolan glanced over at Black with a look of desperate astonishment, and then turned back to the broken window. Crying “I love you Ann!” into the phone, Dolan tossed the device through the window, reached inside and grabbed the barrel of a rifle leaning against the window sill.
“Drop the gun!” Black commanded as his Glock zoomed up into his line of sight.
Ignoring the command, Dolan spun toward Black as he swung the rifle into firing position. He fired. Black saw no muzzle flash and heard no report, but the fiery impact to his right forearm and wisp of smoke drifting up from the muzzle told him he’d been shot. No time to worry about that now, he thought. He was already pulling the trigger on the Glock, and he kept at it.
Down & Fighting
Getting rounds on target was his first priority, but he also knew he was in a dangerously exposed position and wanted to do something about it. The corner of the house offered good, solid cover, and it was only about 15 feet behind him and to his left. He headed that way while continuing to return fire.
Dolan was now slumping toward the ground, but he still held the rifle and appeared to be conscious and alert. But something was wrong with Black’s trigger finger. It was growing sluggish and weak, and getting worse with each pull. Apparently, the bullet that struck his forearm was causing paralysis of his all-important gun hand. He’d have to switch the gun to his left hand soon.
With this realization came even bigger problems. Black’s heels suddenly hit something on the ground and he stumbled. Caught off guard and unable to regain his balance, he fell backward, landing on his back with his feet facing his adversary. At the same time, the slide on the Glock locked back. Dolan, although on his elbows and knees, was pointing the rifle at him. With his mobility severely restricted and his feet pointing toward Dolan, Black’s lower stomach was directly in Dolan’s line of fire, leaving his crotch dangerously exposed. Now for the first time he felt fear.
Remarkably, Dolan was no longer firing the weapon, but it looked menacing in his hands and Black was out of ammo. The vulnerable deputy considered drawing the snubnosed .38 he carried on his ankle, but its meager six rounds seemed too few to get the job done.
The fifteen .40s in each of his spare magazines felt like the better option, so he decided to reload instead. But it wouldn’t be easy with his gun hand rapidly deteriorating. Fortunately, although Dolan was still pointing the rifle at Black, he no longer seemed interested in continuing the attack. Black scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, ran to the corner of the house, took cover there and started to reload.
Meanwhile, Novack and Owen had heard the gunshots, exited the basement through the same window they had entered, and came to his aid. Novack got there first and immediately spotted Dolan on his hands and knees in the yard. Since the man was facing away from him with his body blocking his view of the rifle, Novack couldn’t tell if he was armed. But it didn’t look like Dolan had spotted him yet, so he ran forward, knocked him to the ground with a kick to the side and cuffed him.
With the threat now neutralized, Black checked his forearm. The bullet hole was small—inflicted by a .22 long rifle round—but the paralysis worried him. But he also knew that there was nothing he could do about it now, so he focused on checking to see if he’d been hit anywhere else. Finding no other wounds, he asked Owen to bandage his wounded forearm and waited for the ambulance.
Black recovered from his wound, and returned to work after six months of therapy. Although he still has no feeling below the elbow of his right arm, his gun hand now functions normally with no adverse effect on his shooting ability. He has since left the sheriff’s department, and currently works for a municipal police department nearby.
Dolan had been incredibly lucky. Black had hit him with four rounds—once in the left arm, once in the left side and twice in the back—but none had penetrated any vital organs, and he was released from the hospital just five days later. He was later convicted of first degree assault on a law enforcement officer and armed criminal action, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He still faces a probation violation charge in an adjoining state.
Discussion & Analysis
Although Black knew Dolan could be dangerous and was aware of the risks involved, he wasn’t particularly concerned about his safety during his initial approach to the residence, and he was even less so by the time Dolan finally appeared. This complacency adversely affected his tactics and was largely responsible for his vulnerable position when Dolan opened fire on him. Although such lapses in safety awareness are very common in police work, they can be effectively combated with proper focus and mindset, as will be fully explained in the analysis section of this article.
There is a great deal more to be learned from this incident—lessons that can save lives—and we owe it to Deputy Black to learn as much as we can from them. An in-depth analysis of this case reveals a number of these crucial learning points, including lessons related to use of cover, verbal challenges, use of backup guns, suicide by cop, training and winning mindset.
Space limitations prevent us from printing a full discussion of these hard-won lessons in our magazine, but a thorough analysis of this critical incident is posted it on our website, LawOfficer.com. You can find it at www.lawofficer.com/officerdown. Before you read it, however, review the discussion questions below and work through your own answers.
1. The deputies in this case knew they were dealing with a high-risk situation, but like many officers in similar situations, they were lax in their approach to the house. Why does this kind of complacency occur, and what can we do to combat it? Are you aware that a large number of police shootings occur long after the officer makes first contact with his assailant? How can we remain vigilant during prolonged contacts with suspects on the street?
2. Why was Deputy Black unable to use the cover available to him? What can we do to help ensure that we use cover when needed? How important is it to practice cover awareness? What should we be looking for when assessing the effectiveness of the cover available to us?
3. Like most officers, Deputy Black issued a verbal command when he saw that Dolan was armed. Is this legally required? Do you agree that it can be very dangerous to issue a verbal command prior to using deadly force? When is it appropriate and safe to do so? What can we do to better prepare ourselves to make the right choice when deciding whether to issue a verbal command on the street?
4. Are officers legally required to wait until someone points a gun at them before applying deadly force? Under what circumstances is the use of deadly force legally justified? What can we do to better prepare ourselves to make the right choice when deciding at what point to use deadly force?
5. Should Deputy Black have used his backup gun after he fell? Why? Under what circumstances might you need a backup gun? Do you carry one? If not, why?
6. After the shooting Dolan admitted that he shot at Deputy Black in order to force him to shoot him. Does this incident fit your perception of the way suicides by cop typically occur? Why or why not? How dangerous are suicide by cop incidents? How should we approach them?
7. In what ways did Deputy Black’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset? Discuss other attributes that are essential to a winning mindset.
The deputies in this case knew they were dealing with a high-risk situation. Dolan had a history of arrests for violent crimes, had committed several armed felonies the night before, and had often displayed suicidal intentions. This is a highly dangerous combination that would have given any law enforcement officer cause for concern, and the deputies were no exception.
Nevertheless, they were lax in their approach to the house and had no real tactical plan. While it may be tempting to attribute these lapses in safety procedures to carelessness, doing so would miss the important lessons to be learned here. In order to take full advantage to these lessons it is necessary to thoroughly examine why they were not more cautious.
First, they had fallen into the trap that is probably responsible for more police deaths and injuries than anything else—complacency. In a sense, police officers can be said to be victims of their own success. After successfully handling one potentially dangerous situation after another, they—like anyone else who is repeatedly exposed to danger without any serious consequences—grow used to success, which can lead to overconfidence and complacency.
Compounding this problem was the fact that the incident dragged on for so long. Like any officer approaching danger, Deputy Black and the others were reasonably cautious during their initial approach to the house, but their danger awareness soon waned. This is a very common hazard among police officers because it is very difficult to maintain a high level of safety awareness over an extended period of time. When nothing happens to confirm that danger actually exists we start letting our guard down, and it gets worse as time goes by. To make matters worse, police officers tend to expect lethal attacks to occur within the first few moments of contact with the offender. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous fallacy. In fact, at least one in-depth study of police shootings showed that the average amount of time between the officer’s arrival and the subsequent attack was from 8 to 10 minutes.2 Although this study involved a relatively small number of incidents and didn’t represent a truly random sample, the time frame noted is well worth serious consideration.
The last component influencing the deputies’ mindset was their focus on the investigation. Instead of focusing on arresting Dolan as quickly and safely as possible, they had chosen to avoid making the arrest right away in order to encourage him to make a statement. While it is true that some suspects are more willing to talk when not in custody, safety should take precedence over such concerns. Keep in mind that most violent offenders will assume that the police are going to arrest them when they see them coming, and most are also very good at assessing their opponents’ vulnerabilities. They are likely to view a low-profile approach as sign of weakness, and thus a good opportunity to attack. In this case, for example, from the comments Dolan made after the shooting it appears that he crawled out of the window because he mistakenly believed that all three deputies had congregated on the opposite side of the house, thereby giving him an opportunity to ambush them from the rear.
This can present a very serious safety problem for many officers, especially when they are focused on making an important case. Since the human mind tends to shut out other concerns when focused on something it considers important, safety can be unintentionally pushed into the background when the focus is on gathering evidence, obtaining a confession, etc. Such mental tunnel vision is a natural human phenomenon, and it can creep up on an officer without him knowing it.
Complacency can never be eliminated entirely, but there are ways to significantly reduce its effect on mindset. The first step is awareness. Awareness of the fact that attacks against police officers often occur long after their arrival on the scene should lead to a commitment to work hard at staying alert for the entire duration of any street encounter. It is also helpful to recognize that predatory individuals can be very patient when waiting for their opponent to make a mistake, and that even otherwise non-violent individuals may react violently if, after dealing with an officer for some time, they begin to feel like they are being backed into a corner. With this in mind, it is easy to see why many attacks happen long after the officer makes first contact with his assailant.
The next step in alleviating complacency is to get into the habit of always scanning for danger while asking: “What is there about this situation that could be dangerous and what can I do about it?” The key here is to make safety awareness a habit. By making a conscious effort to make safety your top priority on every call, even those that appear to entail little or no risk, it will get progressively easier until it eventually becomes something you do almost without thinking. It takes commitment and a little effort, but safety awareness can eventually become an integral part of everything you do.
When dealing with a known high-risk situation like the one in this case, planning can play a significant role in reducing complacency. This is because it puts you in a tactical frame of mind. By forcing you to think about the best tactics to use and how to handle potential hazards, it puts those concerns foremost in your mind. With these concerns now taking center stage, other less important concerns will be pushed to the back of your mind, where they will no longer interfere with safety as your primary concern.
Good planning also has the advantage of showing the suspect that you are tactically prepared and ready for danger. Since streetwise criminals are very good at reading their opponents, this may convince the suspect to give up without a fight. Not always, of course, because some suspects don’t care and others, like Dolan, may be suicidal. Nevertheless, even if good planning and tactics don’t discourage resistance, they will greatly improve your chances of overcoming it safely.
Supervisors have the responsibility to initiate and guide planning. They not only have the authority to do so, but their position as leaders can set the tone for how the incident will be handled. When leaders show concern for the safety of their officers and the public, it reminds everyone of the dangers involved and the need to be prepared to deal with them. In addition, a safety conscious, tactically oriented supervisor will, by example, encourage his officers to adopt a similar mindset and sustain it for the duration of the incident.
On the other hand, if the supervisor doesn’t take the lead, a subordinate officer may be able to direct everyone else’s focus on safety and tactics. Many officers are reluctant to show concern for their safety, because they are afraid of being labeled as overly cautious. However, peer pressure can quickly shift to a focus on officer safety once someone in the group has the courage to step up and take the lead, especially if the officer is well respected.
Use of Cover
This case offers a clear example of the danger in failing to use available cover. Deputy Black was out in the open, with good cover nearby but still out of reach (i.e., a tree to his right and the corner of the house to his left), when Dolan opened fire. Although he immediately headed for the corner of the house, he was wounded before he could get very far. Worse, with his attention riveted on returning fire, he failed to notice the plywood and tripped over it, leaving him dangerously immobile and exposed to Dolan’s continuing gunfire. Had it not been for the fact that Dolan had stopped shooting by then, this might have proven to be a fatal mishap, but it could have been avoided if Black had taken cover before issuing his verbal challenge.
Granted, since Deputy Black was wounded his right forearm, it is unlikely that cover would have protected him from that particular injury. However, it is important to note that cover offers other advantages besides protection from incoming rounds. In this case for example, it would have allowed him to stay put instead of moving, which would have prevented him from falling. In addition, the proper use of cover can improve accuracy. This is because the protection it affords tends to increase our self-confidence and sense of control, which in turn reduces stress and improves accuracy. Furthermore, reduced stress also improves decision making, thereby lessening the chances of a bad shooting. Finally, in many cases the use of cover will discourage resistance by making it clear to the suspect that he will probably lose if he resists. This would probably not have been a factor in this case, because it appears that Dolan was attempting to commit Suicide by Cop (more on this later). However, in other cases the use of cover may allow an otherwise lethal confrontation to be resolved without gunfire.
As important as it is to use cover, since most gunfights start with little warning there is seldom time to reach it before the first shot is fired. Therefore, the only way to ensure that you will have cover when you need it is to get behind it before the shooting starts.
In cases like this one in which you have time to choose cover during your approach, choose it carefully while keeping in mind that you may have to stay there a while. Things to consider include the cover’s ability to stop the kinds of rounds you reasonably expect to encounter, how well you can conform your body to its size and shape, and its position relative to the threat.
It is important to be able to effectively conform your body to the cover for two reasons. The most obvious of the two is that you want to keep as much of your body safely behind the barricade as possible. But it is also important to choose cover that can remain behind for a long time without experiencing undue fatigue or discomfort. This is because fatigue and discomfort can lead to complacency and/or cause you to unintentionally allow parts of your body to slip out from behind the cover. Moreover, fatigue and discomfort can have an adverse affect on your accuracy if you have to return fire.
It is also better to choose vertical rather than horizontal cover, because it is safer to look around the corner of a barricade than to look over it. When looking over the top, you must expose, at minimum, your forehead, both eyes and the bridge of your nose, whereas looking around a corner allows you to expose just one eye and half your face. As dangerous as gunshot wounds to the face may be, they are not a likely to be fatal as those to the forehead or eyes.
The position of the cover relative to the threat is also an important consideration. Ideally, you want to be able to visually take in as much of your area of responsibility as possible, including any exit points in case the suspect tries to slip away, advance on your position or flank you. In most cases, this requires that you be in a position adjacent to a corner of the structure, but still far enough away to cover your area of responsibility. When you can, it’s also a good idea to choose a spot with other cover nearby in case your position is compromised and you have to move.
On the other hand, there isn’t much time for any of these considerations when a seemingly low-risk situation suddenly turns deadly, as often happens in police shootings. In that case, often your best option is to get to cover as quickly as possible, but that requires cover awareness. Like focusing on safety, cover awareness becomes a habit through constant repetition. By making a conscious effort to locate, assess, and preplan how to reach all the available cover on every call, no matter how “routine” the call appears to be, it will eventually become second nature. Then, if you ever need cover, you won’t have to waste valuable seconds looking for it.
In addition, if there is more than one item of cover to choose from, the fact that you have already assessed their relative values will increase the likelihood that you will choose the best one. In Deputy Black’s case, for example, the corner of the house wasn’t the only cover available, nor was it the best. There was a decent sized tree off to his right. Although it wasn’t any closer to him than the corner of the house, it was much easier to reach because it was slightly ahead of him, whereas the corner was well behind him. The tree’s position would have allowed him to reach it very quickly by simply making a quick right turn followed by a short sprint, while his route to the corner forced him to move backwards as well as to the left. Since moving forward is faster, less awkward and considerably less hazardous than trying to move backwards, the tree would have been a better choice for cover than the corner of the house. As it turned out, Black’s choice of cover didn’t change the outcome, but the point remains that he didn’t even consider the tree, despite the fact that it a distinct advantage over the corner of the house. If he had made cover awareness a habit, it is likely that this would not have happened.
Although Deputy Black doesn’t specifically recall issuing any verbal challenges before the shooting, he is reasonably certain that he did so. Despite the fact that he had been told in training that verbal commands are not required before applying to deadly force, it appears that he, like most officers, did it anyway. In the meantime, Dolan turned and shot him before he could react with gunfire of his own. The problem here was that action is faster than reaction, and Black had to wait until Dolan acted before he could react. In addition, since it is difficult to talk and pull the trigger at the same time and verbal commands take time—valuable time that can be better spent squeezing off shots—it’s likely that his verbal command caused a short yet critical delay in his response time. When coupled with the fact that he was already at a time disadvantage, this additional lag time probably cost him the opportunity to shoot first.
This is a very common problem among police officers. Like everyone else, they are influenced by what they see on television and in the movies, and Hollywood cops almost always issue verbal commands before they shoot. Moreover, normal human beings are naturally reluctant to kill other human beings, and that—coupled with fear of legal repercussions—provides a powerful incentive for officers to give suspects every opportunity to surrender before they resort to gunfire. While this is understandable—and even the right thing to do in some cases—it is not legally required except in cases of fleeing felons, and even then it is only required when “practicable” (Tennessee v. Gardner).
Considering the blinding speed at which most gunfights occur, it is essential for officers to understand that the law doesn’t require them to waste precious seconds issuing unnecessary verbal commands. However, simply understanding this concept at the academic level may not be enough. Officers must understand it thoroughly enough to apply it decisively on the street, and that requires quality training. Computer simulations and reality based training should include scenarios in which issuing a verbal command would be detrimental to an officer’s safety, followed by a debriefing that emphasizes when verbal commands are appropriate and when they are not. In the absence of such realistic training, mental imagery can be used instead to create and respond to similar scenarios. The important thing is to make these tough decisions in training instead of waiting until it happens on the street.
Similarly, officers must understand that the law doesn’t require them to wait until someone points a gun at them before they shoot. Most police shootings happen so quickly that the assailant has already pointed his gun at the officer, or is just milliseconds away from doing so, before the officer has the chance to fire, but not always. Sometimes, as happened in this case, the assailant takes longer than normal to reach for his weapon and then bring it to bear on the officer. In others, the suspect may be holding a weapon at his side, loading it, advancing with an edged weapon, etc. In such cases, the use of deadly force is justified as long as it is reasonable to believe under the totality of the circumstances that the individual will use deadly force against the officer or someone else if not stopped.
This is not to imply that officers should be any less judicious about the use of deadly force. To the contrary, we have a moral and legal obligation to use lethal force only when necessary to protect ourselves or others. But we also have the solemn duty to put a stop to unlawful violence before it can cause harm to us or others. As with verbal commands, officers need to understand that the law doesn’t require them to wait until the very last instant to pull the trigger, and they need to be trained to properly apply this vital principle it on the street. Again, such training shouldn’t stop with the classroom, but should be reinforced with realistic training and/or mental imagery.
This case provides a vivid reminder of how quickly a magazine can be run dry in a gunfight. Deputy Black was just seconds into the gunfight when his slide locked back, and an instant later he was flat on his back with an empty gun and nearly useless gun hand. Fortunately Dolan had stopped firing by then, which gave Black the opportunity to get to cover in relative safety, but the outcome would probably have been much worse if Dolan had kept shooting.
Interestingly, when Black considered what to do about his empty gun he decided to reload it rather than draw his backup gun. This was because he felt that, despite the fact that it would be faster to draw the revolver than reload the Glock, the Glock’s greater magazine capacity made it worth it. However, if he had been more pressed for time and/or his weakened gun hand had made it impossible to reload in time, his ankle gun would have been a far better alternative.
Most of us tend to think of a backup gun primarily as a last ditch defense against a disarming, but there are a lot of other good reasons to carry one, including loss of, damage to, or a serious malfunction of the duty weapon. But probably the most common situation calling for their use is a serious wound to the officer’s gun hand or arm. Such wounds are very common in gunfights, and they can make it very difficult or impossible to draw or reload the duty gun. In most cases, it will be quicker and easier to draw the backup gun, especially if it is carried in a position that favors a support-hand draw.
In Deputy Black’s case, for example, it would have been increasingly difficult for him to reload as his gun hand continued to worsen. Even if he had been able to reload it with his support hand instead,
Although backup guns are seldom needed, there are a number of situations in which they are irreplaceable. When needed, they offer a life-saving option that nothing else can provide, often enabling officers to win violent encounters they could not otherwise survive. No officer should work the streets without one.
Suicide by Cop
There is no way to determine exactly how many police shootings are actually Suicide by Cop incidents, but it appears that they are very common. In many if not most of these cases the suicidal individual never fires directly at the police, but there are exceptions. If the person is in an irrational state of mind, or happens to be angry or desperate enough to react recklessly to the officer’s presence, he may decide to shoot the officer in order to fulfill his goal. In this case for example, Dolan later told Deputy Novack that he believed his life was over because he had lost his family, and that he had intentionally shot at Deputy Black in order to force him to shoot back.
Dolan’s reason for attacking Deputy Black highlights an important point regarding Suicide by Cop. Most of us tend to view these tragic events as suicides that are planned out in advance for the specific purpose of using a police officer to bring about the suicidal person’s death. While this is often the case, Suicides by Cop can also occur spontaneously. As happened in this case, a person with suicidal tendencies may become desperate after being cornered by the police. If he then becomes convinced that his situation is hopeless, he may impulsively decide to end it all by forcing an officer to shoot him.
This form of Suicide by Cop is probably more dangerous than the premeditated kind. Since it is a rash act initiated under great stress and emotion, the person is not likely to care if he takes an officer with him, especially if he feels that the police are wholly or even partially to blame for his problems. By contrast, individuals who deliberately plan a Suicide by Cop are more likely to see police officers as a means to an end rather than objects of their wrath, and are thus less likely to want to harm them.
However, this is not to say that premeditated Suicides by Cop should be taken lightly. In fact, they can be especially dangerous if the officers involved allow themselves to lose their focus on safety. When dealing with a suicidal individual it is easy to become so engrossed in trying to prevent the suicide that we forget about safety. Consequently, it is not unusual to see officers leave cover, move in too close, holster their guns, and otherwise abandon common sense safety precautions when dealing with suicidal persons. While it is very important to prevent the suicide, it is seldom necessary to put your own life at risk in order to do so. Work hard to save the person’s life, but remember to use proper tactics and stay focused on safety during the entire incident, no matter how long it takes to resolve it.
Suicides by Cop can be exceptionally traumatic for the officers involved. It is never easy to take a human life, but it is especially hard for many officers to deal with the fact that they have been used as an instrument of suicide. While it is very painful to be used in such a brutally unfair way, it may help to remember that we have no real control over the actions of others. If someone chooses Suicide by Cop, it is solely his responsibility, not ours. Also, keep in mind that police officers have the right to defend themselves, and the duty to defend the innocent. If someone is willing to force an officer to kill him and put the officer’s life at risk in order to make it happen, what else might he do? What if he subsequently kills another officer or an innocent citizen, either intentionally or with a stray bullet? It is our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Unlike many police agencies, Black’s department conducted frequent firearms training, often including shooting while moving and other practical skills. This probably accounted for his ability to shoot as well as he did. Considering the fact that the wound to his right arm severely restricted the functioning of his gun hand, four hits out of 15 at almost 10 yards is good shooting, especially when moving and under fire.
On the other hand, Black’s firearms training was also lacking in some respects. Even though the deputies were occasionally required to shoot support-hand only, it was not done often or emphasized as very important. Consequently, since Deputy Black’s gun hand was rapidly becoming useless, he probably would have had a lot of trouble shooting accurately if the fight had gone on much longer. Considering how often officers are wounded in the gun hand/arm, support-hand only shooting should receive a lot more attention than it currently does in most departments.
The department also didn’t require its deputies to train or even qualify with their backup guns despite the fact that almost everyone carried one. This oversight was probably responsible, at least in part, for Deputy Black’s decision to reload his Glock instead of going for his backup gun. Since he hadn’t shot the gun much, especially under the stress of training, he wasn’t conditioned to use it under stress and didn’t feel comfortable or confident enough with it to use it in actual combat. As a result, when he needed it with his life on the line, he quickly dismissed it as an option.
While it is impossible to train for every possible contingency on the street, especially when training budgets are limited by financial concerns, it is important to do the best we can. Many practical drills can be done primarily with AirSoft or non-functioning training guns, with the introduction of live ammo delayed until the last stage of the training, thereby saving on ammunition costs. Further, with hard work, innovative ideas, and the use of improvised or borrowed equipment ways can be found to make firearms training more affordable and street-relevant.
Despite any mistakes he may have made leading up to Dolan’s attack, Deputy Black displayed courage, persistence, and a fighting spirit that allowed him to stay in the fight. Instead of worrying about the fact that his gun hand was rapidly becoming disabled, he stayed focused on what he had to do to win. He kept shooting, improved his position by moving to cover as soon as he could, and was starting to reload in order to re-enter the fight when Deputy Novack’s intervention ended it. It is this kind of optimism, focus and persistence that allows winners to overcome adversity and get the job done.
It is also important to point out that, like many officers who keep fighting after being wounded, Deputy Black became angry when he realized he was shot, and this worked to his advantage. Although anger can lead to rash or unjustified behavior when not controlled, it can also be used as a powerful force for overcoming adversity. It can motivate, drown out fear, and provide the fuel to persevere. The key is to not let anger control you, but to channel into a driving force that propels you forward to reach your goal of winning no matter what.
· Make safety your top priority on every call, even those that appear to entail little or no risk. If done consistently, this will eventually become a habit that can save your life.
· Like safety awareness, cover awareness can become a habit by making a point of practicing it on every call, no matter how routine it may appear to be. Once developed, this habit will enable you to choose the best available cover beforehand, and then reach it at maximum speed if you need it later.
· Remember, the law does not required officers to issue verbal commands before they apply deadly force. Nor does it require them to wait until an assailant points a gun at them before they pull the trigger. It is imperative to understand the law regarding the use of deadly force well enough to be able to apply it properly in high stress situations on the street.
· A backup gun can save your life. Always carry one, preferably in a carry position that favors a support-hand draw.
· When dealing with an attempt to commit Suicide by Cop, or any other attempted suicide for that matter, it is very important to prevent the suicide from being carried out. However, it is seldom necessary to put your own life at risk in order to do so. Work hard to save the person’s life, but remember to use proper tactics and stay focused on safety during the entire incident, no matter how long it takes to resolve it.
· If attacked, stay focused on what you have to win, and keep fighting no matter.
2. Ross, D. (April 22, 2009). Human Factors and Stress in Lethal Force workshop. 2009 ILEETA Conference.
To view an animated recap of Deputy Mark Black’s encounter—complete with an audio play-by-play by Brian McKenna—click on the video box above. This video is in high-definition resolution. By clicking on the play arrow, three options for viewing appear in the lower right-hand corner of the video box. The first is 360p. By clicking on this area, you can select up to a 1080p resolution. Next to the right is a minimizing button. And finally, by selecting the icon with the four arrows, you can select full screen with HD viewing.
Tell Us About It!
Law Officer publishes 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: Brian McKenna, 7412 Lynn Grove Ct., Hazelwood, MO 63042; via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; by phone 314/921-6977 (call collect); or by cell phone at 314/941-2651.
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