The first five days of May 2002 could not have gone any better for me. I was a patrol officer for the Brentwood (Tenn.) Police Department with five years of experience under my belt. I had a wonderful family and great friends, and I'd recently found the love of my life, a detective in a neighboring city. On Cinco de Mayo, some of my closest friends and I gathered and had a great time. Little did we know that within 24 hours, my friends would be crying tears of concern and praying for my wellbeing and that of other officers. Who would have thought police officers in our quiet suburb of Nashville would face what was about to come?
At 0630 hrs on May 6, we had our usual roll call and discussed the events of the previous night. The day started out normally, with a few calls, a few traffic stops and a few market checks. At 1100 hrs, Corporal Jim Campbell and I usually ate lunch together. We chose a Brentwood Police Department favorite, Joey's Pizza. While there, we socialized with Detective Lieutenant Tommy Campsey and his wife. After eating, we went our separate ways, never realizing that in only a few hours our lives would be thrown into the hands of a madman with an AR-15.
Around 1300 hrs, dispatch toned out a bank robbery at the Bank of America on Franklin Road. The dispatcher informed officers they had received a 911 call from a bank employee, reporting the bank had just been robbed. I turned on my lights and siren and headed north on Franklin. I was only seconds from the call. My heart pounded; I hoped to catch the robber in the act.
As I approached the bank, I pulled into a neighboring gas station to avoid direct visibility of the robber who possibly remained inside. I began to open my patrol-car door when a gas-station employee ran toward me, pointing north toward the interstate and giving me the description of the robber s vehicle, a Nissan with California tags (this information turned out to be incorrect). I relayed the information to dispatch and quickly began traveling toward the interstate.
Approximately 150 yards past the bank, I slowed for the upcoming intersection, putting my right hand on my siren box to change the tones. As I leaned forward to look both ways, I felt a gust of power pushing me toward my car door. All at once, my passenger-side window was gone and the sound of fireworks surrounded me, bursting one after another as if in a Hollywood movie. The only thought in my mind was, " Get out!"
The patrol car remained in drive as I jumped from my driver-side door and landed on the pavement in the center lane of traffic. Somehow I managed to remove my Glock 22 from my holster as I exited. I don't remembering unbuckling my seatbelt or unlocking the car. For a brief second, I saw a small trickle of blood on my right forearm, not knowing what had entered that arm. As I looked up, I saw a crazed man standing at my patrol car's taillights firing rounds at me from an AR-15. Despite the injury to my shooting arm, I aimed at the subject and returned fire.
I jumped in front of my patrol car, my heart racing and my legs moving faster than ever before. Thankfully, because the car remained in the drive position, it began to roll. My feet backpedaled as the suspect traveled forward with the car. He held his position at the rear of the car, while I constantly moved back and forth from one side to the other in front of the car.
We both shot round after round. One of my rounds struck the subject in the leg, causing him to fall for a brief moment. Because I shot weak-handed, my weapon jammed. I cleared the jam and did a quick reload, successfully regaining my readiness.
Soon I could hear other officers responding to the scene, and the robber moved away from the car and turned his attention toward them. My car rolled into the curb and stopped. The radio traffic was going crazy. Everyone was talking, trying to gain information, give their location, etc.
I quickly found cover behind an SUV stopped at the red light on Old Hickory Boulevard intersecting Franklin Road. I radioed dispatch the suspect was possibly walking down the sidewalk toward the Walgreens store on Franklin, only a few buildings down from the Bank of America. A man who was crouched nearby asked me, Are you OK? That s when I looked more closely at my forearm. I saw a small hole, and I responded I thought I'd been shot. He told me to get down and identified himself as an off-duty police officer.
The scene remained chaotic, and the adrenaline flowing through my body wanted no part of get down. In response to the continuing gunfire from the AR-15, I darted across the busy intersection toward Walgreens. I jumped over some shrubs and used cover and concealment as much as possible as I worked my way toward the store.
While I was taking cover, Sergeant Tommy Walsh had arrived in the area and pulled in front of Walgreens, unknowingly right into the path of the subject, who was weaving between parked cars and taunting people in the Walgreens parking lot. A round struck Walsh in the thigh, blowing it to shreds. The crazed man approached Walsh s patrol car, where Walsh lay in a pool of blood in his front seat. The subject had the audacity to ask Walsh for his gun, which had fallen to the floorboard of the car.
Lieutenant Steve Walling, Sergeant Richard Hickey, Campsey and Campbell all arrived in time to see the suspect leaning inside of Walsh's car about to end the life of our colleague, whom we knew as a husband, father, friend and dedicated sergeant. All four officers opened fire on the suspect. The suspect's white shirt slowly turned red as he fell to the ground. (He died at the scene.) We all rushed to the patrol car, praying we would find our colleague alive. Walsh's skin tone was ghostly, but he was able to quietly communicate where he felt his pain.
The paramedics soon arrived and transported Walsh to the hospital, and I followed shortly after. We lay side by side in the emergency room. I prayed Walsh would be OK and I would soon wake and realize this was all just a dream. Walsh looked pale and weak. I saw him for only a few minutes before personnel rushed him away to another area.
Hours passed, and I was eventually discharged from the hospital with the bullet remaining in my arm. Walsh underwent several surgeries and was disabled for an extended period. Arriving to assist me, Walsh had put his life on the line when he drove right in front of the subject. When I walked out of the hospital that day, I left behind the officer who saved my life. I don't think you can fully understand those feelings of guilt unless you've been in similar shoes.
A law enforcement officer can never have too much training. I used to be the first one to complain about having to go to the range or attend a training session. Today, I firmly believe training is the most important thing that will keep you alive. Without the constant practice of clearing a jam and quickly reloading a weapon, I probably would not have been able to effectively clear my weapon and perform the speedy reload I did during the gunfight. Those saved seconds may have prevented the suspect from completing his mission.
I've always been one to role-play in my head. I m constantly asking myself, If such-and-such were to happen, what would I do? A scenario similar to this particular incident had gone through my mind on a previous occasion, and I credit my jumping out of a moving car to my mental role-playing. By taking yourself through such potential scenarios, you can prepare yourself should something occur. Even today, I find myself sitting on the couch thinking, If someone kicked in the door right now, what would I do?
There is never a relaxed moment in law enforcement. When the bank-robbery call came in that day, my position was literally seconds from the location, necessitating my immediate and quick response. Letting your guard down should never be accepted. With this in mind, train for real situations. While on the range, if you dry-fire or get a jam, you may find yourself stopping and waiting for a range instructor. In a gunfight, however, stopping is unacceptable. When you train as if it's for real, you develop a survival mentality that is engaged at all times. When you are shot, do not go down. Your life is on the line, and you may not have time for someone to save you get up and do it yourself.
Stephanie Bellis Warner served for two years as a sheriff s deputy with the Rutherford County (Tenn.) Sheriff s Department, where she became the first female to test for and make the department s SWAT team, FAST. From 1999 2005, she worked patrol in the Brentwood Police Department, where she also served as a crime-scene technician and hostage negotiator. After the shooting incident, she and Walsh received their department s Purple Heart and Distinguished Service awards and met with President Bush. In 2003, Warner and five other officers directly involved in the shooting were presented with the National Association of Police Organization s Top Cops award in Washington, D.C. In presenting the award to Warner, the actress Linda Carter referred to her as a real-life Wonder Woman. After the incident, Warner married Franklin (Tenn.) Police Department Sergeant Detective Charlie Warner, and they have two daughters.