When I turned my ignition, a wall of noise blasted through my patrol car from the police radio, shocking my senses. The full-blast volume signaled the high stress level I carried home the night before: A long encounter on a dark and muddy Pacific Northwest evening that would test my abilities not to shoot a distraught and armed teen.
I was a patrol sergeant in the early 2000s when I responded to a call to assist a new deputy alone with a person in crisis. The location, in unincorporated King County, was mismarked and couldn’t be found on our maps, a fact that may ultimately have had a positive influence on the outcome.
By the time I arrived, the deputy at the scene stood in the woods with a teen threatening him with a large knife. I slipped on a muddy hill as I approached, causing the teen to back away into a ravine.
For the next two hours, we attempted to calm the young man. He was emotional, angry, crying, intoxicated and saying goodbye to his girlfriend on his phone. He periodically charged us with his knife, shortening the distance between us each time. Fortunately, we had a tactical advantage, with some distance, cover from the trees, and standing on higher ground than the teen. Today, police recruits are taught that distance plus cover equals time, and time can save lives.
Most officers take the threat of a knife as seriously as a gun. Knives can pierce bulletproof vests and kill just as effectively as guns. Few officers allow a knife-wielding subject to get within 20 feet of them. In fact, some have been trained on the controversial “21-Foot Rule” asserting that someone who runs toward police with a knife can cover 21 feet before officers can draw their gun and fire. Many officer-involved shootings involve response to individuals wielding knives, real or perceived.
As the teen grew closer, I drew my weapon. At moments I squeezed the trigger, just a hair from shooting. I could sense the deputy next to me stiffen. But I lowered my gun to the low ready position while we continued efforts to negotiate with him. At some point I could see he was exhausted, cold and wet, and I doubted if he could launch a successful knife attack on us. Nevertheless, I did not holster my weapon.
I struggled to maintain focus while engaging the teen, trying to speak in normal and calm tones, with no hint of condescension or frustration. While this went on, backup officers urgently tried to locate us. A Washington State Patrol trooper arrived first and approached us. He saw the scene for what it was by that time and gently asked me, “Hey, do you want to put your gun down now?” His invitation came as a profound relief; someone else can take over now. We had been there for hours by then and it can be hard to dial back, to release your grip after holding tight for so long.
The trooper suggested that when the teen ran up from the ravine again, we could knock him over with a branch. That’s exactly what happened. We knocked him over, tackled him, grabbed the knife and handcuffed him.
I drove home amped-up and tried to explain the intensity of the experience to my wife. For the next couple of weeks, I remained in a hypervigilant mindset. I had to avoid bright lights and loud music. While “self-care” wasn’t as much a part of our dialogue at the time, it’s clear that the day-to-day undertakings of police have profound physiological and psychological implications for officers and those they serve.
In my role leading police training in Washington, I draw many lessons from this incident. Today, the tactics engaged that night fall under the heading “de-escalation.” Key elements to de-escalation training include establishing distance and cover, calm verbal engagement, and observing a subject’s condition, actions and motives. Another factor here was the difficulty backup officers had locating us. If the address had been easier to find, an influx of officers could have escalated the situation, bringing a sense of urgency, multiple voices barking orders, radios blaring in the background, and other factors that contribute to chaos and panic.
I think about that distressed young man often, hoping he and his family overcame that difficult time. I have witnessed an officer-involved shooting and reviewed many others. Each is its own tragedy with its own circumstances. It’s important to study tragedies after they happen, but let’s also see what we can learn from close calls, and the long nights.
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