I squirmed out from under the three hundred pounds of dead weight, climbed over the bed, and stepped into the hallway, where I sucked in deep breaths of fresh air. I guided my partner out of the room, his eyes still shut tightly from the effects of the tear gas. Sirens grew louder and officers arrived and rushed inside the house with guns drawn because they couldn’t know what they would encounter.
An hour later, I sat in a chair in the hallway outside x-ray. My elbow had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. My sergeant sat beside me and helped me with my report. He told me that when the EMTs arrived and crushed an ammonia capsule under the suspect’s nose, he came to. His head was bleeding profusely, as head wounds do, and the EMTs estimated it would take twenty to thirty stitches to close his wound. Two officers were guarding him at the county hospital. Once released, he’d be taken to jail and booked on an assortment of felony charges.
I continued working for Oakland for more than twenty years after that day. My elbow healed. The only documentation of the incident was the police report and some medical records. There was no mention of any emotional or psychological impact—cops didn’t discuss that stuff back then. No one but me knew how close I was to dying that day. “He went for my gun and I beaned him with my short wood,” was the extent of my explanation in the locker room and over beers at the bar. “Just another day at the office for an Oakland police officer,” was the response from other street cops.
It wasn’t the last time I fought for my life on the streets of that city or visited the E.R. as a patient, and I wasn’t the only cop with such experiences. I doubt there are many police officers who haven’t had to fight for their lives during their careers.
In coming years, as a homicide sergeant I would investigate many officer-involved-shootings and speak at length with officers who fought for their lives. As a patrol sergeant, I would sit alongside other officers while they awaited treatment in the E.R., and as an officer, sergeant, and lieutenant, I would attend far too many funerals: nine Oakland officers were killed in the line of duty during my twenty-five-year career, and another four in one tragic day a few years later.
Even today, some thirty years later, I remember how fast that incident and other similar ones happened. What seemed like minutes when fighting for my life actually only lasted seconds. No thoroughly analyzed thought process guided my actions during that struggle. It would be great if I could’ve acted like a programmed machine and instantly analyzed all data to come up with the perfect, minimal amount of force to subdue the offender. But in those critical seconds when I was close to losing control of my gun, I knew I had only one strike and I had to make it good. If that blow didn’t put him down, I might lose the fight, and if I lost the fight, I might die.
I’ve spoken with thousands of criminal offenders over the years. Some were pure evil, but most were just people who committed an act or a series of acts without much thought or regard to the consequences. I don’t know what the man’s intentions were that day, what was going through his head, what kind of man he was, what great or terrible things he had done in his past. The truth is, none of that would have mattered,—it can’t matter. I needed to base my actions on his actions alone, and in the heat of that battle, I didn’t think, I reacted.
I made it a practice to review critical incidents I was involved in throughout my career. During objective critiques, I often learned how I could do things better, how to not make the same mistakes, and where I needed additional training. Sometimes, my subconscious also reviewed the incidents and I would awaken at night drenched in sweat, the muscles in my forearm in spasm from gripping an imaginary gun in my sleep and pulling the trigger a hundred times.
I’m grateful I survived that encounter and grateful I didn’t kill that man. If I had died, I doubt there would have been any community outrage or national media attention. However, had I used my gun or had the baton blow killed the man, I’m not sure the public and media response would have been much different from Ferguson. That, quite possibly, is the most frightening part of being a cop today.