Making custodial arrests is one of the most dangerous job requirements in law enforcement. The proper control, handling, and searching of suspects has been shown to be a critical factor when officers are assaulted or killed. Statistics show as officers get more experienced, more “seasoned”, they actually drop in their officer safety skills. When enforcement activities, even arrests, become a near daily event, officers tend to drop their guard as the majority of their experiences tend to reflect a repetitive activity rather than the dangerous and potentially life-threatening event they are. It’s just human nature.
And that’s what happened to me one sunny afternoon, when I confronted a 6’4″ wanted felon in a car load of mopes. My bad guy radar was on, which led me to stop the car the felon was traveling in, but as I recount my story in this new installment of Tales From the Street (TFS) you’ll see where just a little bit of complacency could have become a major catastrophe.
As the saying goes, “So there I was, minding my own business …”
At the time of this event I was a Patrol Sergeant on our Power Shift, 1500-0300 hours. My officers were all pretty self-sufficient and smart. This allowed me more time to be a “real cop”, and less time baby-sitting or answering constant questions or doing administrative duties. Throughout my time in uniform I had garnered a reputation as a “dirt magnet”, and occasionally I like to rekindle that to prove to myself I still have some skill. This day would be one of those days, though I would find my skills were definitely rusty.
On that particular day I was able to get out of the office early and join my officers to work the streets. No sooner had I pulled out of the station waiting for a red light to change, than I looked across the intersection and observed one of our city’s frequent flyers sitting behind the wheel of a car looking at me. A quick scan of the car revealed a skin-headed, tattooed “stop me” magnet in the front passenger seat and two females in the rear seat. Unfortunately I am not gifted with the Rolodex memory of names so I could not remember the driver for a name test through the criminal records system. Instead I waited for them to complete their left turn in front of me, and then pulled in behind them.
Immediately the driver changed lanes. I changed lanes as well. This unnerved the driver so he changed back to his original traffic lane. And I changed back as well. As I waited for Dispatch to return the license plate check I noted the driver was only going 25 MPH in a 45 MPH area. As they approached the next intersection in the left turn lane the driver made the fatal error of changing lanes across two lanes (marked with a solid white line) to make a right turn at the intersection.
(SIDE NOTE: I’ve always trained officers to know their local laws well, even the little stuff. This provides the legal means to contact the very cautious criminals, and open doors to ruining their day with a trip to jail).
Trouble Calling in the Stop
Radio traffic was swamped with activity, and I was awaiting my chance to call in a stop in advance. I would not get that chance. At the very next street the suspect turned left and then immediately pulled into a church parking lot and stopped. Now I was committed to this stop before I wanted to be, but I lit him up and quickly got out of my patrol SUV. At least I would be ready if one of the four jumped out quickly. Thankfully they did not.
When the air was free I called in the stop while standing at my open door, and requested a second officer. I ordered the occupants to place their hands where I could see them, and when they complied I cautiously approached to make contact (a driver side approach in this case). As I got closer I realized one of the females in back was a frequent flyer as well (though I couldn’t remember her name either – great with faces, horrible with names). One of my best officers heard my call and knew if I was calling for a second right off the bat it was going to be something good. He responded, in addition to the dispatched backing officer.
The driver was so nervous he was about to shake out of his own skin. Everyone produced some form of identification, except for the tattooed freak in the front passenger seat. To better gauge his answers I responded behind the stopped vehicle to obtain his pedigree information. He verbally provided a name, DOB, and SSN rather quickly when asked. As I looked at him I began to identify prison tats on his neck and face so I asked him about any incarcerations. He admitted he had done time in a neighboring State for “possession of marijuana”. I was thinking, “must have been big to do real-time for marijuana.” By now I had two backing officers with me, and I was feeling much more safe and in control.
A records check confirmed my driver had a revoked driver’s license and several warrants for his arrest. The female I had recognized also had a few warrants for her arrest. Surprisingly the other female was clean, but Mr. Tattoo – he came back “not on file” through the records system. Even when checking the neighboring State he said he had been incarcerated in we found no record. No way in hell this guy was not on file when he had done prison time. My red flags were being confirmed!
I decided to separate the group of thugs I had stopped, and the warrants gave me plenty of justification to do so. We got the driver out first and had him secured in cuffs and placed inside a patrol car in no time. He had rolling papers and a glass smoking pipe on his person. I began to believe this stop was going to produce much more than warrant arrests. (I would not be disappointed). A quick call to our K-9 officer and he was en route as well.
The female with warrants was next. She too was quickly cuffed and secured in a patrol car. Now it was just two in the car, and the female was stuck awkwardly in the back seat of a 2-door vehicle. I re-engaged Mr. Tattoo to verify the pedigree information. He gave the same, with as much confidence as the first time. He must have practiced this information for some time. As I conducted another scan of his person I noticed he was wearing a very baggy white T-shirt, and even baggier jean shorts. The shorts appeared to be below his ass, even though being caucasian and his tattoos would have indicated a much different philosophy on life.
Setting the Stage
When the K-9 officer arrived, he took up a position on the driver’s side B-pillar. I was talking to Mr. Tattoo on the passenger B-pillar. One backing officer was about 4-5 feet behind me, and the other was standing near the patrol cars ensuring the prisoners were being observed. With four officers on scene I felt the mystery of Mr. Tattoo would be quickly resolved. I ordered him to exit the car and he politely complied. I closed the door (a big mistake) in a belief the action would block the rear seat passenger from interfering in any way.
I quickly turned Mr. Tattoo around to face the car, and explained to him I was going to pat him down before getting the female out, because the other two had been arrested. I was hoping my ruse was going to be sufficient to keep his guard down. What I didn’t say, was after the frisk he was going to go into handcuffs. Mr. Tattoo responded, “oh that’s cool” and turned around. He put his hands on his head like I asked, but just when my left hand reached to secure those hands Mr. Tattoo realized the gig was up and it was time to bail.
He bolted to the right (available to him due to my closing the passenger door), and headed for a 6-foot chain link fence at the property line about 30 feet away. Though I like to think my reflexes are still pretty good, I watched my patrol SUV video and I was easily a good step behind his movement. I had immediately reached to grab him, and when he bolted even briefly grasped his T-shirt, but my legs were clearly a step or more behind his movement. Think OODA Loop!
As I gave chase I saw the K-9 officer running parallel to us to the left, and hitting his rear door release on his belt. Just before Mr. Tattoo reached the fence I observed a black object fall to the ground from his body in my lower peripheral vision. I continued the pursuit and when I reached to grab him as he scaled the fence I heard one of the backing officers yell “GUN”. There are a few things in law enforcement that cause even veteran officers to have that pucker-moment, and this was one of them for me. More on this later.
Mr. Tattoo showed an amazing athletic ability as he nearly appeared to hurdle the 6-foot fence. He was on top of the fence as I reached him so my only option was to forcibly hit the top pole. This worked somewhat, as he fell to the ground – but on the other side. Though the end of the fence was only about 25 feet to my left, near the K-9 officer, I decided to follow the suspect over the top. That ended in my first step, when I heard the K-9 officer yelling out to his furry, teeth monster to come to his location. I quickly decided that being between the suspect and the jaws of death was not a tactically sound position.
Entre the Magnificent K-9!
I came down from the fence and observed the K-9 running right at me. In my video you can see me making very quick movement to stand straight up, and then I instinctively covered my nuts. Thankfully, a second loud command from the K-9 officer sent the angry 4-legged pursuer towards his handler. Those two then pursued directly after the suspect, as one of the backing officers and I paralleled them on an opposite side of a perpendicular chain link fence. The foot pursuit had been broadcast by the remaining backing officer who remained to secure the final vehicle occupant and keep an eye on the two already arrested, and the Calvary was en route.
Though our K-9 officer did his due diligence announcing to Mr. Tattoo that he was going to get bit, the prison resident just didn’t take the clue. Sure enough the 160-pound German Shepard caught up to the runner and proceeded to commence in the uniquely identifiable action and sound of gnawing on this idiot’s arm bone. The tough guy began to scream like the German architect whose face melted after opening the Ark of the Covenant on Indiana Jones. Even still he wouldn’t obey commands so the K-9 got to taste a few more parts. When the K-9 officer got up to him he began screaming, “I don’t have a gun, don’t shoot, I don’t have a gun”.
Felon in Custody – Methamphetamine Seized
When the dust settled we found out the only thing Mr. Tattoo had said that was true was he had been a long-time resident of a penitentiary. His real name was determined, and come to find out he had outstanding felony warrants for parole violation, felony drug charges, and a burglary. Oh, and his “possession of marijuana” was actually a “trafficking” in marijuana conviction. Hey, possession … trafficking, I guess it’s all a matter of words you prefer.
Oh, and the K-9 absolutely went wild inside the vehicle, alerting all over the place. A search revealed several grams of methamphetamine and assorted paraphernalia in Mr. Tattoo’s suitcase. There were also small amounts of marijuana, controlled substance pills, and items suggesting an orgy had been planned. Bad guy party ruined!
During this incident I was readily observant of the driver whom I knew was trouble. I recognized Mr. Tattoo had no good written all over him, and I clearly articulated the driving behaviors to justify a stop. When I couldn’t get out over the radio, I quickly exited my patrol SUV to be ready for trouble, and stood by the open driver’s door for better observation and greater choices of action should the occupants have decided to attack or run.
When the radio cleared I provided my stop location before contacting the occupants, and immediately had a backing officer respond. Thankfully another officer responded as well. I was able to recognize the suspicious behavior of the driver and Mr. Tattoo, and was able to corner Mr. Tattoo into an admission of incarceration. When it came time to arrest I removed one occupant at a time, and properly secured them in handcuffs and searched before securing them in the prisoner compartment of a patrol car.
However, with the arrival of the K-9 officer (making 4 officers on scene) I inadvertently let my guard down, and believed our numbers would be enough to control Mr. Tattoo. I also accepted his initial compliance as an indicator that he would go into handcuffs and his true identity would be found shortly. This came from my errant belief that I had “calmed” him into believing nothing was going to happen to him, and I was just frisking him for “officer safety” while we dealt with the others.
Like every defensive tactics instructor advises, and terrifying videos and statistics confirm, the moment of attack (or fleeing thankfully in my case) often comes with the very first touch. Had Mr. Tattoo had a real gun he may have been able to get the jump on me and at least one backing officer as soon as he exited. This was because I felt my visual scan of his baggy clothing was sufficient to verify no weapons (I had seen no shadowing or outlines).
Thankfully Mr. Tattoo just wanted to escape detection and arrest.
Never let yourself believe that things are going to play out the way you believe they will. Remember that bad guys have a say as well. Expect and prepare for the worst. It is easier to dial the hard-core officer down, than it is to spin the relaxed officer up for the challenge. Though I did a lot of good during this stop, and made several good arrests (the trifecta!), I was lucky in how the outcome played out.
Luck favors the prepared! So stay alert, and control your suspects, the life you save might just be your own!