By Gerry Goldshine
Very early in my police career, one of my training officers hammered home a crucial aspect of officer safety. When an encounter devolves into a physical altercation and fists are flying, it is essential to remember there is always at least one gun available to the attacker and that’s my own gun. This is one of the primary reasons that when an officer becomes embroiled in a fight, as Hal so eloquently stated it in one of his recent stories, “we don’t fight fair—we fight to win as fast as possible.” There is no greater mortal fear than having a suspect gain control of your weapon. When that happens, the outcome is usually fatal to one or both parties involved and perhaps others as well. This is why an officer treats every fight as being for all the marbles.
One fall evening, dispatch sent me to check a report of a man down in front of Petaluma Valley Hospital. When I got there, I found a young man, who appeared to be in his early twenties, lying on the grass right by the hospital’s sign. He had no obvious injuries that I could see and though he seemed conscious, he was unresponsive to any external stimulus. I didn’t smell any odor that would indicate he was drunk, so that left some type of medical, mental or pharmaceutical issue. As the saying goes, “The lights were on but nobody was home.” I requested an ambulance to have the paramedics evaluate him.
Once they got there and checked the young man, they radioed the Emergency Room to consult with the on-duty physician. Since it was unclear what was causing his condition, we loaded him into the ambulance. All these years later, I can’t recall precisely why, but I locked up my patrol car and rode in back of the ambulance while it covered the short distance to the back of the hospital, where the ER entrance was located. As safety protocol dictated, the paramedics restrained him to the gurney with its safety belts. No sooner had the back doors to the ambulance closed and we got underway than the kid began trashing about and let loose a series of inhuman shrieks. I had seen this sort of reaction in people with severe head trauma but there wasn’t a mark on him.
Suddenly, he did a great impression of King Kong, ripping free one of the gurney straps from its anchor point. I immediately suspected he might be on PCP, a very nasty drug that hyper stimulates you, often instilling unbridled aggression and super-natural strength. In seconds, he freed his other arm and began swinging wild punches at us while trying to free his legs from the other straps. Much of what happened in those next few moments is still a bit of a blur. I vaguely recall hearing the driver call for more police units. I remember being alarmed at the number of things in the ambulance he could use as weapons. I was about to find that was the least of my worries.
My adrenaline spiked after when a well-placed kick connected, bouncing me off one of the equipment cabinets. An instant later, he was tugging on my Beretta, trying to pull it out from the holster. Words cannot convey to you what I felt at that moment. In a flash, everything appeared to be moving in slow motion. I was experiencing time compression, a phenomenon that frequently occurs in such critical incidents. I realized that not only was my life in danger but so were those of both paramedics; I was responsible for their safety. As my mind raced to formulate a strategy, instinct and training took over. I yelled a warning that he was trying to pull my gun from my holster. The driver slammed on the brakes thinking that would be helpful. All it did was add to the chaos. The ensuing tangle of bodies eliminated any chance of reaching my back-up gun in my ankle holster.
Thankfully, I was wearing a state of the art safety holster, designed to prevent someone from pulling my pistol out, particularly from the front, which was exactly what he was trying to do. That bought me time. I don’t recall making the conscious decision to do so but I put all of my 140 pounds of brawn behind a punch that I delivered to the left side of his jaw. It was the first time I had ever punched someone in the face and it stunned him just enough that he released his grip on my gun. All three of us piled on top of him and held him down on the gurney. About then, the back doors opened and two more officers jumped inside. The five of us quickly trussed him up better than any Thanksgiving turkey, using every strap we could find.
He was still shrieking and violently thrashing about when we delivered him to the ER a few minutes later. The doctor put him in a darkened, quiet room, still strapped to the gurney. Reducing all external stimuli was the recommended way to treat someone reacting violently to PCP. I honestly don’t recall what happened to him after that.
Fortunately, I had a hell of a good Sergeant that night. He had me park my car at the hospital and then drove us to Denny’s. I had a very bad case of motor mouth – I couldn’t stop talking and my hands shook seeming to move about of their own volition. It took a while for all that adrenaline to bleed off. I was also lucky in that I was about to go on my days off. With that in mind, my Sergeant told me to write up my report of the incident and then go home; he would take care of everything else. Three days later, I was back on the job.
So yes, when cops fight, the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window. Absent a Taser, the most effective and safest tactic to neutralize a physically combative suspect is pretty much along the lines of General Schwarzkopf’s strategy in the first Gulf War; use overwhelming numerical superiority to make the opponent realize his position is untenable and more importantly, unwinnable.