This article first appeared on policeone.com
Matthew Hoskins is eager to reboot his promising career in law enforcement, but it's tough to land a cop job when you've been on trial for attempted murder.
A little more than two years ago, Hoskins was a lieutenant in a sheriff's office and a part-time police chief in rural Wisconsin. Today he fixes dishwashers.
"Officers are so na ve when they think nothing can happen to them," says Attorney John Matousek, who defended Hoskins in his trial last summer. "Given the right scenario, any cop could end up in Matt's shoes."
In an exclusive interview recently with PoliceOne, Hoskins recounted how his off-duty response to what sounded like a woman-in-distress in the middle of the night ultimately brought him face-to-face with the threat of 85 years in prison.
About midnight on the last Saturday of September 2003, Hoskins, divorced and 33 years old, was getting his 3-year-old son ready for bed at his girlfriend's house five miles outside a small county seat in western Wisconsin. Hoskins had been a sheriff's jail lieutenant in a neighboring county for about six months, a "perfect job" for what he hoped would be a steady climb up the administrative ladder.
Hoskins was blowing up an air mattress when he heard screaming outside, echoing up to the house from a road about 50 feet away. Peeking through a window, he saw a pickup truck take off, leaving two cars stopped on the road. "Shadowy people" were moving around them. A female "began screaming bloody murder." Then a sharp report that Hoskins perceived as a gunshot resounded from the same vicinity.
"Everything was quiet for a few seconds," he recalls. "Then the female starts screaming hysterically. A guy yells, 'Shut up! Shut the #@%* up!' Another guy yells, 'Let's get outta here!'"
At best, Hoskins thought a domestic was in progress; at worst "it sounded like gang warfare."
Hoskins didn't carry a gun when he was off-duty, but he grabbed his girlfriend's Glock model 23, his cell phone and the closest thing at hand that resembled a flashlight, a swivel-handled lantern. "I did not run down the hill to intervene," he insists. "My sole intent was to get a license plate number. But I did think for sure that someone was going to be lying dead in the ditch."
By the time he got to the road, he says, the two cars were speeding away. The second car went down the road a few hundred feet, then spun out, stopping sideways across the roadway. The vehicle doors popped open and he could hear a woman screaming again.
He speed-dialed his girlfriend (who was also in charge of the dispatch center) and told her, "Get the cops out here now!" As the car began to speed off, Hoskins jogged down the road just in time to get the plate number.
Hoskins says he was standing in the dark "rehearsing in my head" the tag number he'd glimpsed when he heard a female voice on his left and turned to see, in the feeble glow of the lantern, a figure dressed in black military jacket and black pants "coming up out of the ditch, yelling at me." He says he drew the Glock from his pocket and shouted at her, "Police! Stop!" But she kept coming.
At that moment, he heard "something coming full bore down the shoulder of the road" from the direction toward which the cars had taken off. The weak lantern revealed "a huge man, 5 inches taller than me and a good 70 lbs. heavier, dressed in a full camouflage jump suit."
Earlier in his career, Hoskins had chased a bank robber who was "wearing almost exactly the same outfit," he says, "and my mind flashed back to that."
Without saying a word, the man rushed up on Hoskins and punched him hard in the face, Hoskins says. He found himself dazed and looking down at the roadway as the man continued to pummel him. Hoskins managed to push him off and regain his footing, jumping back about five feet. But the subject ran back into Hoskins, grabbing his wrist and shoulder in a vise grip. Hoskins says his assailant didn't let go until Hoskins fired three "warning shots" into the air to scare him into submission before they both ended up on the ground. Hoskins says today that he could not justify by his personal code shooting the man during the attack.
"I said, 'I'm a police officer! Don't move!' I pointed the gun at him. He said, 'I'm a police officer too.' I said, 'You're full of shit!' Snake venom was coming out of my mouth."
Soon after two deputy sheriffs arrived, the ludicrousness of the situation became apparent. The male and female who had accosted Hoskins were father and teenage daughter. He was the county surveyor who 15 years ago had served as a town reserve officer. She was a popular high-school cheerleader, and their property just down the road from Hoskins' girlfriend's place had been the site of frequent weekend toilet papering by mischievous classmates.
In an effort to discourage the pranksters, the father had rigged up booby traps around their yard, consisting of pieces of pipe and shotgun shells filled with gunpowder that would detonate when tripwires were disturbed. They then laid in wait.
The ruckus was triggered by the arrival of a convoy of would-be TPers, a surprise confrontation with the father and daughter, and her teenage friends tripping one or more booby traps, which Hoskins had interpreted as gunfire. Alone in the dark road, Hoskins, who is short and looks much younger than his age, says he was apparently mistaken for a lingering high-school kid.
Everyone seemed to accept the incident as an unfortunate misunderstanding. "I felt stupid," Hoskins says. "I could have taken a life." He says the father walked up to him and shook his hand, twice. The father apologized, he says, and remarked that Hoskins "showed great restraint." No complaint was filed, no report was written. One of the deputies dismissed the incident as simply "a goat #@%*."
This story, told from an off-duty officer's perspective, illustrates the risks inherent in any off-duty encounter. Off-duty incidents remain incredibly risky for several reasons, including:
1. Incidents are seldom as they first appear.
2. Off-duty officers are not in uniform and usually carry minimal equipment. Do you carry handcuffs or a flex-tie off-duty? If not, what will you do with that guy whom you decided you just had to confront? By the way, since you're in plainclothes, you can bet the other party will claim they never knew you were a cop.
3. Backup probably won't exist, you may have no way to call for help and you may be outside of your jurisdiction.
Important: You must make every possible effort to identify yourself as an off-duty officer to approaching officers and witnesses who may call the police. Too many off-duty officers have been killed or seriously injured by miscommunication and friendly fire.
If you opt to engage, proceed with caution and expect the worst-case scenario. At the same time, you have to be ready to go into instant shutdown mode if it turns out your initial read was unfounded.
Matthew Hoskins thought he was doing the right thing when he intervened. As you read his story, think about what you would have done. ed.
By Monday, though, the episode was the talk of the county seat (pop. 3,500), and rumors were flying. It was claimed Hoskins "pistol-whipped" the father. He was described as a "cowboy" who was "out of control" on the dark road. He was said to have been drinking heavily before the incident, as evidenced by "bloodshot and watery eyes," which one of the deputies said he noticed.
The father added details Hoskins says weren't mentioned the night of the dust-up. He claimed he rushed Hoskins because he thought he was "a sexual predator" who was trying to capture his daughter. And most damaging, he claimed that following a fistfight and struggle over the gun with Hoskins, Hoskins backed up, pointed the Glock at the father's chest and pulled the trigger. The father heard the gun "click," he told investigators, and "I thought I was a dead man" until he realized the pistol had miraculously "dry fired."
As he has from the beginning, Hoskins still firmly denies that he had consumed any alcohol before the confrontation. "Of course my eyes were bloodshot and watery," he says. "I'd just been punched in the face repeatedly and gotten the shit knocked out of me!" He also insists he did not pull the trigger except to fire the warning shots, which were not aimed at his assailant.
What happened next is the stuff nightmares are made of.
On Monday after the incident, Hoskins was called into his sheriff's office at the end of his shift. "They shoved a letter at me across the desk," he says. This was notification that he was being suspended with pay pending investigation of an accusation of "improper conduct," specifically that he "may have committed a crime" during the off-duty confrontation. He was asked to surrender his badge and gun.
Later that week he was told he would be fired if he didn't resign. He refused on grounds that he hadn't done anything wrong. A formal notification that arrived subsequently by certified mail pointed out that Hoskins had "discharged several warning shots" during the midnight encounter. "Warning shots are contrary to the [department's] policy and . . . are a highly inappropriate use of deadly force," the county said.
The firing left only his part-time chief's job for a hamlet in another county. He managed to add a similar appointment seven months later in a neighboring village, but the towns together have scarcely 1,500 people and paid miserly wages. His annual income plunged from $46,000 to $13,000.
The sheriff's office tried to prevent him from drawing unemployment compensation, arguing that he had been fired for "misconduct." It was almost winter before a state labor appeals tribunal ruled against the agency. "The fact that [Hoskins] prevented additional bodily injury by using warning shots should be commended not penalized," the ruling stated. "[T]here are exceptions when warning shots are appropriate."
More than a year went by. Then, on Friday, Oct. 8, 2004, Hoskins was summoned to the sheriff's office in the county where he lives, which is different from the jurisdiction in which he had worked. A warrant had been issued for his arrest for one charge of attempted first-degree intentional homicide and two charges of second-degree reckless endangerment, all felonies.
"They put me in handcuffs," Hoskins says. "It was right at shift change. I'd worked in that county for 10 years before I took the jail lieutenant's job in the neighboring county. Everybody there knew me, and everybody saw it."
Matousek argued successfully for Hoskins' release on a $25,000 signature bond. The judge said he could still carry a gun when he worked his chiefs' jobs, but he couldn't leave the state.
Within 20 minutes of his release, Hoskins learned the county had just sent out a major press release. "They released my picture to the press, holding my numbers up." The next morning his booking photo was on the front page of the newspapers, and a local TV news crew traveled to one of his small towns to interview people off the street about their police chief's arrest. Soon after, he suspended himself under pressure from one of his chief's jobs and thought it prudent to voluntarily suspend himself from the other.
Meanwhile, the county in which the incident had occurred turned the matter over to the state's attorney general (AG) to bring criminal charges against him. The assistant AG assigned to prosecute him said his case would serve as an appropriate warning to other officers.
When the trial began late last June, the prosecutor said at the outset she didn't know anything about guns. But she insisted that had the Glock in Hoskins' hand not "dry fired" it was "almost certain" that the property owner whom the off-duty officer encountered in the dark that night "would not be with us today."
The defining moment of the trial, however, came when Matousek called as an expert witness Robert Willis, a well-known Wisconsin firearms instructor, former presenter with the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar and a training consultant with PoliceOne.
Standing in front of the jury box, Willis closely demonstrated the mechanical operations of the .40-caliber Glock model 23, and patiently explained the few ways in which it can malfunction. In short, the casings recovered from Hoskins' three warning shots plus the unblemished live bullets left in the gun constituted a full load. Matousek asserted the father had simply fabricated the alleged shooting attempt for dramatic effect. But if the father had indeed heard an ominous "click" that night, it was not the hammer falling on an empty chamber or on a dud round, Willis said, but more likely the sound of the trigger resetting itself after Hoskins released it following his last warning shot.
After a four-day trail the jury deliberated for less than two hours before acquitting Hoskins on all counts.
Since then, Hoskins says he has applied for jobs with 42 law enforcement agencies. No bites. "If there are two candidates, they're going to go with the least controversial one," he says. He's broke now. Matousek defended him for free, but the bills still pile up. To try to dig out, he got a job repairing dishwashers.
We met Hoskins a few days before Christmas. "I worked to be the best cop I could be," he said. "I always dreamed I'd have my own department after 20 years, with guys working for me I could trust. I didn't care if I went to a cat-in-a-tree call, I loved my job.
"I tell my cop friends, 'Don't get involved if you're off-duty.' It hurts me to say that. And if I had that night to live over again, I don't really know what I'd do now. But I'll tell you this: It would kill me just to sit in that house."
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