Walking backwards almost got a North Carolina deputy killed.
At about 4:15 am on August 29, 2009, Guilford County (NC) Sheriff’s Corporal J. Mecham made a pedestrian stop on a suspicious person later identified as Daniel Roy Smith. Unknown to Corporal Mecham, Smith was an escapee from a halfway house where he was serving time for a federal bank robbery conviction. Also unknown to Corporal Mecham, Smith was armed with a handgun.
Here’s what happened:
Radio Traffic – First of all, let me compliment Corporal Mecham. He was amazingly rational when talking on the radio, and when dealing with Smith. Even though he was under extreme stress, Mecham was clear and understandable on the radio.
Mecham relayed enough information to the dispatcher, so that everyone knew (generally) what was going on. Mecham did not run on at the mouth: he said what was needed and then shut up. Also note that Mecham was aware enough of radio traffic to give an updated location when a responding deputy asked where Mecham was.
Shooting – Mecham was able to deliver accurate fire on a moving target from a supine position under a high degree of stress. I don’t know if Guilford County trains from that position, or if Mecham made any habit of practicing from his back. However, it is something we should all practice.
The Fight’s Not Over… – Something happened that could have had lethal consequences for Mecham. After Mecham shot Smith, Mecham retreated to his car to call for help. Immediately afterwards, Smith is able to get up on his knees and fire three more shots at Mecham (around 5:25 into the video).
When the subject starts to point the gun at Mecham, Mecham shouts “Get on the ground!” Smith fires three times before collapsing. It does not appear that Mecham shoots any more at Smith.
It is my opinion that Mecham did not see Smith pointing the gun, and I am unsure if Mecham realized that Smith was firing again.
Regardless, just because you shoot an attacker, and they go down, doesn’t mean they are no longer a threat. In this case, Mecham shot Smith and Smith collapsed, allowing the corporal to retreat to his vehicle. But, the fight wasn’t over.
Frankly, I believe Mecham would have been justified in shooting Smith after he collapsed a second time. Smith still appeared to have the gun and was not cooperating. Smith had just tried, twice, to kill Mecham. It would appear reasonable to resume shooting Smith.
Backing Up – I started this article by saying that Corporal Mecham was almost killed because he was walking backwards. Let me explain.
At about 5:00 into the video, Mecham sees Smith pulling out a gun and backs out of the frame. What you don’t see is Mecham falls backwards into the street. “When I saw the gun, my first reaction was to back up and try and get my gun. That didn’t work so well. I tripped and fell backwards in the middle of the road,” Mecham said.
Mecham’s fall is not unusual. Police trainer Dave Spaulding has noted it in another publicized officer involved shooting, in which one of his students was involved. Same thing – officer backing up quickly and under stress falls down.
Creating distance is a good thing, but winding up on your back in a gunfight is a bad place to be. Moving laterally can sometimes create additional distance, but it can also slow down the assailant’s ability to bring his gun to bear. That time can be critical time in which you can get your pistol out and on target.
Moving laterally is not necessarily an instinctive reaction though, and you must train using this technique. Burn the movements into your neural pathways so they become instinctive.
Back Up – Corporal Mecham was working without backup during this incident. Everything went down in a few seconds, and it was all on him to provide for his own survival. I don’t know if another deputy was already enroute to assist him when the violence erupted.
Look at how long it took for the first back up unit to arrive: four minutes. Four minutes is a lifetime when you are involved in a shooting. The deputies responding to assist were running code at speeds they likely reserve for those “officer needs assistance” calls. Even at Warp 9, it took the first deputy four minutes to get there.
If this was a hands on fight for your duty gun, do you have the conditioning needed to prevail in that fight until your partner can get there? If you were in Mecham’s place, but one of those rounds had clipped your femoral artery, do you have the skills and tools to stay alive long enough for help to get to you?
Corporal Mecham did an excellent job in surviving and winning this encounter. Combat is messy and ugly, and nothing goes completely right. Even with the problems that came up, Mecham continued fighting, and was able to control his body alarm response well enough to think, move and communicate.
Smith survived the encounter, and was convicted of attempted murder on June 15, 2011. Smith will be required to serve the remainder of his federal sentence for bank robbery, which will make him 85. At that time, he will be transferred to state custody and begin serving a 26-32 year sentence. I sincerely hope this means that Smith will never again breathe air outside of prison walls.