EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another article in BlueSheepDog’s commitment to share videos of officers involved in critical incidents, and to debrief those situations for the benefit of our readers. These posts are intended to highlight the officer’s good performances and choices, while also taking time to consider “lessons learned” from these events. These posts are not intended to disparage officers in any manner, but we do want to pass on points of consideration that may make your job safer and more tactically sound. BlueSheepDog is staffed by current and former police officers, and we understand that every shift requires officers to make split-second decisions that rarely allow for perfection.
Trinity, Texas Police Stop Armed Suspect
On August 29, 2015 Trinity, Texas Police Officer Wheeler performed a traffic stop on a driver operating a Chevy S-10 pick-up truck without using the vehicle’s headlights at night. It is clear that any reasonable driver would have known Officer Wheeler was attempting a traffic stop due to the officer turning his emergency lights on as the truck passed the officer’s marked patrol car. Instead of immediately stopping, the driver continues down the highway, pulling into a convenience store and awkwardly parking past one of the gas pumps.
When Officer Wheeler approached the truck he confronts the driver for the traffic violation. The driver provides a reason that makes no sense, and cannot provide a reason for continuing to drive down the highway and then circle around in the convenient store parking lot.
What happens next, and only a minute and a half into this stop, is a heart-stopping event that could have easily ended in a shooting. The patrol car’s video captures many of the key points, but it is the officer’s body camera that solidifies his actions as not only lawful, but clearly reasonable.
Signs of Trouble
When Officer Wheeler attempted to make the traffic stop he began to move his patrol vehicle into the middle turn lane, and immediately turned on his emergency lights as the S-10 passed. There was almost no other traffic on the highway, and any reasonable driver would have quickly realized that the officer was operating in an emergency function. At a minimum, a reasonable driver would have pulled over and yielded to the right.
- The suspect is driving without headlights on a dark highway
- Offender does not immediately pull over for police car emergency lights
- Suspect continues to drive a significant distance with officer behind him
- The suspect pulls into a convenient store but circles around away from officer
- The driver stops past the gas pump, but very close to the safety barrier
- Suspect makes several movements to the center of his truck as Wheeler approaches.
Officer Wheeler’s Contact with Suspect
Officer Wheeler assumes a solid position at the B-pillar of the truck, uses his flashlight well, and has his shooting hand ready at his holster. However, the use of a passenger-side approach would have prevented him from walking through a tight space, and given him a unique perspective. After just a few seconds Officer Wheeler appeared to recognize the driver’s particular attention to his right, adjusts his position, and is able to see the handgun laying on the passenger’s seat.
- It is unclear if Officer Wheeler observed all the movements of the driver
- Officer Wheeler approaches the driver side – the most common method
- Officer Wheeler has his flashlight in his support hand
- Upon arriving at the truck Officer Wheeler rests his shooting hand on his holster
- Officer Wheeler appears to be appropriately placed at the B-pillar
- He appropriately moves to investigate the interior of the truck better.
Officer Wheeler’s Arrest of the Suspect
Upon recognizing the firearm, Officer Wheeler places his shooting hand on his sidearm in a position to draw. He asks the driver “is that a real gun” and quickly draws his firearm to confront the armed threat. What is perhaps the most amazing action of Officer Wheeler is that he very quickly regains control of his emotions, takes charge of the situation, and provides very clear commands to the driver. Once the driver is removed he takes control and properly handcuffs the suspect.
- Recognizes handgun on passenger’s seat
- Questions driver about the firearm, while reaching for his own sidearm
- Quickly draws his sidearm and points it at the driver
- Gives the suspect clear and calm commands
- Orders the driver out, and takes physical control of the driver as he exits
- Holsters his sidearm while maintaining physical contact with suspect
- Secures suspect in handcuffs while still giving clear commands.
Trinity, Texas has a population of only 2670, and the police department consists of only six officers, including the Chief of Police. The closest “big” city is Huntsville, Texas (about 40,000) just 22 miles to the southwest. These types of situations can happen to any officer, any time. The ability to stay focused on the job at hand, maintain proper officer safety procedures, and take control of an incident is important whether you are running 25 calls per shift in a major city, or 1 in a small town.
- Choose the best approach method – not the easiest
- Stay vigilant and observant – watch the suspect’s hands, but be aware of other dangers
- Provide clear and direct commands
- Control your emotions – fear is a performance killer
- Practice your draw to perfection
- Master your physical control and handcuffing skills.
Areas of Consideration
Without a doubt Officer Wheeler performed very well under very tense circumstances. What could have easily turned into a justifiable shooting, was controlled by Officer Wheeler early and appropriately during the contact. There are just a few points of discussion that I feel should be presented to help officers facing a similar situation to provide themselves the highest potential for success.
When suspicious behavior is observed during a police contact, get back-up started sooner rather than later – even if the back-up has to come from another agency. When the suspect stopped he placed his truck very close to the yellow safety barrier. This provided a dangerous alley for Officer Wheeler to navigate when he approached on the driver’s side. Officer Wheeler could have performed a passenger-side approach, or walked around the gas pumps to avoid being “trapped” in close confines. Had Officer Wheeler performed this approach, he may have surprised the driver and observed the handgun even earlier.
When Officer Wheeler recognized the handgun in the suspect’s truck he drew and extended his sidearm through the open driver’s door window. Though very intimidating (usually), it also provides the suspect several means to disarm the officer. Officers can avoid this by simply taking a step back. This doesn’t surrender too much observation, and provides the officer a safe distance to aim their sidearm. In addition, the step backwards provides a better angle of withdrawal should that become necessary.
Finally, when taking a suspect into custody (especially one that is known to be armed) use the best positioning available to you. Ordering the driver to an immediate prone position, or at least kneeling looking away, could provide a much safer handcuffing position for the officer. Officer Wheeler started handcuffing from a strong position, with one leg behind for stability. However, at the moment of completing handcuffing, he squared himself up to the suspect, providing a flat-footed stance that could easily be knocked off-balance. Though Officer Wheeler did a good job handcuffing in this situation, had the suspect decided to resist, he was in a much stronger position to do so.
- Recognize the signs of trouble and take appropriate counter measures
- Call for back-up early (even from another agency) when confronting suspicious activity
- Back-up en route is much faster than calling for help in after the fight begins
- Position your patrol car to your best advantage
- Consider the advantages of the passenger-side approach
- Avoid approaching the suspect vehicle through tight spaces
- Avoid placing your hand, or sidearm into the suspect vehicle
- When confronted with a threat, and able to, create distance
- Distance = Time (time to retreat, time to process information, time to make aimed shots)
- Handcuff from a position of superior advantage.
Never think it won’t happen to you. Stay vigilant, and always be ready to respond to a threat. Once a threat is recognized take quick and decisive action to control any suspects. Be confident in your skills (only achieved through practice, practice, practice), and have immediate action plans already in mind. One of our BlueSheepDog Challenges was to perform 10 perfect handgun draws in a row before every shift. If you make a mistake, start over and get 10 in a row. Muscle memory is critical in events that occur in fractions of a second.
When possible, create distance, or place suspects in a position of disadvantage (advantage for the officer). Remember, that many assaults on officers come at the very moment handcuffs are applied. Consider the availability of back-up and call for those officers earlier rather than later. Place suspects in a position that provides you the most secure opportunity to control and handcuff them.
Overall Officer Wheeler did a very good job with a situation that presented a near deadly force threat in just seconds from the decision to stop the suspect.