By Vail Bello, retired Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy
It’s inevitable. For that last 35 years, whenever a cop in the Bay Area dies, someone asks me “Did you know him?” It’s not out of ignorance; it’s almost always out of care. It’s usually from a friend or family member, and as of late, as my virtual community grows, it can come from a Facebook acquaintance. Usually my answer is no. But that’s not a real answer. The truth is, yes, I did. I may not have ever met the man, but I know him.
I know what he did. I know what it took for him to even be in that patrol car, the selection process, the testing, the academy, the hiring process. I know that part. And I know the sacrifices he made to do that job. I know how people said to him, and say now “Well, you CHOSE that job, you KNOW the risks”.
I know that. I know the countless birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays with family’s he missed, and he will now never have again. I know the drifting apart from friends who will always be friends, but can’t, …don’t understand the job, the shift work, the mandatory overtime. It’s inevitable. I know how the circle becomes smaller, because frankly, good, caring people don’t know how it is, don’t understand.
I know how he did his job for more than a paycheck. I know he did it to protect those who can’t protect themselves, who aren’t big enough or strong enough to help themselves. I know how he would go to countless, unsolvable situations, and solve them. Or at least de-escalate them for a night, just to keep the peace.
I know the times he had to look a grieving mother in the eyes and tell her there was no hope for her daughter, that her child was never coming home. I know how he had to stay strong when everyone else around him was panicking, or fighting, or grieving.
I know how he stood tall. I know what it means to run to the gunfire when everyone else is running away. I know what kind of fortitude that took.
I know the sheepdog. I know what it was like for him to put on armor, a gun, a Taser, and 20 other pounds of defensive tools to prepare for the possibility of a life and death battle EVERY DAY….and I know how his brothers and sisters feel today when they know he lost that last battle.
I know he won’t be forgotten. I know his deeds will live on through his brothers and sisters in Blue, Green, and Tan. I know that his sacrifice wasn’t necessary, that it should never happen, but happen it does.
So did I know him? I believe I did.
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.