Life and Death Decisionmaking

Which way do I go?
Which way shall I go? Which road shall I travel?

[This past week I had a contact from a man who served a number of years ago as a police officer in Kansas City, Mo. He shared with me a story about a decision point that could have unalterably changed his entire life. We decided that his story was worth putting on this blog. Hope you enjoy and learn from it.]

I am a former Police Officer with the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department, serving from 1995 to 2003.   I had turned 21 years old near the end of June 1995 while I was still in the police academy. I graduated and hit the streets on July 9th, 1995. I looked like I was 16 years old and I was wearing my father’s uniform. Number one comment I heard for my first four years was, “You don’t look old enough to be a cop.”   Some snickering or laughter usually followed this comment.

I don’t remember the exact date or even the exact year, but from my recollection of my patrol assignment on dayshift, it must have been somewhere around 1998. I was dispatched on a “Recovered Property Call.” Upon arrival I spoke with the reporting party, a family who had just arrived home and found a duffle bag on the edge of their property at the end of a cul-de-sac. They indicated there were a few “purse snatchings” in their neighborhood and thought this duffle bag may be related.   This neighborhood was not my patrol district, so I didn’t know about the “purse snatchings.” I took their information for the report and recovered the duffle bag. Upon examining the contents, I noticed an envelope with a name and address. I had dispatch check to see if there had been any recent burglaries at this address and they indicated there were no reported burglaries. I then headed toward the address, several blocks away, to conduct a residence check.

Upon arrival, I noticed this was a typical split-level home with what appeared to be bedrooms above a double car garage. A few steps led up from the driveway to a small porch at the front door. Everything appeared in place, and the home appeared vacant with no cars in the driveway. I approached the front door and discovered, after opening the screen door, the front door to the residence had been kicked in. The deadbolt was still in the locked position, and the inside of the door frame was splintered inward. I immediately called for backup and took position on the northeast corner of the residence.

Once my backup arrived we approached the front door and performed a loud knock and announce. Upon entering the residence, we began a left-hand search. We immediately entered the dining room on the front side of the residence and followed that around to the kitchen. Upon exiting the kitchen, we were in the hallway straight in front of the front door. We continued to announce our presence as we entered different sections of the home. We went straight across the hall to the living room, which was situated behind the garages. The television was on and was quite loud. I don’t recall whom, but one of us turned it down so we could hear. At this point, we hadn’t observed anything out of place. The home was spotless and in perfect order. This was very confusing for me, because this was not a typical burglary.

At this point, everything was clear except for the bedroom above the garage. Making our way up a small flight of steps, I observed three bedrooms down a short hallway. I was leading the search as we approached the first door on our right. I peaked in and observed a man lying on the bed. The first signs of a burglary… directly behind this guy, the dresser drawers and their contents were uncharacteristically hanging out of the dresser.

I took a position on the left side of the door and my partner on the right. With our firearm at the ready I ask, “Sir, do you live here?”

Startled, the guy awakens and looks at us like a deer caught in the headlights. After a brief but awkward pause he nervously replies as if he guessing the answer, “Yes.”

I wasn’t quite satisfied with that answer so I needed to confirm, so I repeated the question, “Do you live here?”

At this point, the guy answered with a “No.”

I then ordered him off the bed and told him to get on the ground.   He slid off the backside of the bed and kept repeating, “I need to go outside…I need to go outside.”

He moved to the foot end of the queen size bed and was standing about 6 to 8 feet from the door. I repeated my order, “Get on the ground, now.”

He repeated, “I need to go outside.”

Then, without warning, he charged us. My partner and I both managed to holster our weapons as he made contact with us. He forcefully hit the wall on the other side of the hallway and went to the ground. I radioed, “Assist, Assist, Assist.”

The suspect then began to push his way toward the top of the stairs as he continued to repeat, “I need to go outside…I need to go outside.”

We all fell down the flight of stairs. I was on top of the suspect, and he was on top of my partner. We landed, ironically in the landing, to the sounds of breaking glass as we hit a hall table near the bottom of the stairs. During our downward flight, I feared additional suspects were going to emerge from the unsearched rooms.

My partner was attempting to get a frontal Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR), and I was attempting to control the suspect’s arms from behind. He was too strong for me, and I released his left arm and got a cuff on his right arm. I yelled, “Relax!”

Magically, the suspect relaxed and I was able to effortlessly secure his left arm behind his back.

I radioed, “One suspect in custody but keep ’em coming. The house is still hot.”  My partner stayed with the suspect, and I began to clear the rest of the house. Upon entering the master bedroom, I found the main crime scene of a burglary. No additional suspects were found.

I returned to the bottom of the stairs and cleared the assist. I noticed the suspect had a small laceration on his head as a result of our fall, so I immediately called an ambulance.

The suspect, sitting upright on the floor told me, “Put your socks on.”

To which I replied, “Thanks, my socks are on.”

He kept repeating, “Put your sock on…put your socks on.”

I asked him, “Are you on drugs?”

He replied, “Yes.”

For some unknown reason, I ask again, “Are you on drugs?”

He answers back this time, “No.”

I come to the non-scientific conclusion this guy is clearly on drugs.

I was attempting to get some positive identification on this individual but, in between his requests for me to put my socks on, he was only giving me his first name. I wish I could remember the exact line of questions, but one thing led to another, and I asked the suspect, “What’s your mom’s name.”

He responded with his mother’s first and last name.

It was at that moment I nearly fell down. I must have looked like I’d seen a ghost. I looked at my partner and said, “Dude, his mom’s name was the name on the envelope that brought me here. This guy lives here.” I look at the family photo on the wall and there he was with a big smile on his face.

I tell my partner, “I don’t know about you, but I almost shot this guy.”

My partner states, “If you would have shot…I would have shot.”

I then determine this guy isn’t on drugs and it’s clear he has some special needs. The ambulance arrives, and he is quickly taken care of. I figured out, “Put your socks on” was his way of asking for socks (he wasn’t wearing socks or shoes). I find a pair of socks and get them on his feet. He appears to appreciate it.

I then scrambled to find a phone number for this guy’s parents. I contact his father and explain the situation.

His father arrives shortly and explains to me,

My son is 30 years old, and he has Autism.   Everyday, he takes a cab home and enters the home using a garage door opener inside his backpack. He then goes to the kitchen for a snack, turns the TV on and then lays down in one of the bedrooms until we get home. Whenever you ask him a “Yes/No” question, he will always give you a “Yes.” If you ask him the same question again, he assumes he must have answered the first time incorrectly, and will respond with a “No.”

We believe, due to the limited amount of the actual area within the house that was disturbed, the son interrupted the burglary in progress when he arrived home.

If I would have shot that day, (It was the second closest I’ve ever come to shooting someone.) I would not have been able to live with myself. It would have been complete and total tragedy. To shoot an unarmed autistic man in his own home…no amount of therapy could ever fix that type of mistake. I would have been done, and my life would not exist as it does today.

Unfortunately, the headlines in the paper the next day would have read, “Two white officers shoot an unarmed black autistic man in his home.” It would have turned into a racial issue, despite never being an issue.

I can only imagine the trauma their son must have experienced when two guys show up with guns, in his room, as he was sleeping. Trust that I have nothing but love and empathy for that amazing and truly beautiful family who I think about often.

I am so glad I was one of the two officers there that day and we made the correct decision in the amount of time it takes a speedy individual to move slightly farther than the width of a queen size bed. The opposite decision was a short finger twitch away.

I wanted to share this story, because I believe stories like this happen more often than not. This was a situation where two officers made the correct split-second decision to “Not Shoot” and avoided tragedy.

I also felt compelled to tell this story after a friend of mine from the Kansas City area shared an August 23, 2014 National Public Radio (NPR) story titled, “Parents of Young Black Men with Autism, Extra Fear about Police.”

In all my years in law enforcement, corrections, and public safety my number one most important skill has been my ability to communicate with those I serve. I believe the two most important aspects of communication are the ability to empathize and the ability to listen.   Master those two skills and use them on every call and you’ll be surprised how much more you’ll be able to help those amazing people you serve.