Shooting in Self-Defense: Pulling the Trigger

As a very young police officer I was faced with defending myself against a knife-wielding attacker who was determined to avoid arrest for his criminal acts. Legally, the arrest was mandatory, and any level of force I needed to employ to overcome the suspect's resistance was authorized. So long as my force wasn't excessive when compared to the suspect's level of resistance, I knew that I would be legally justified.

Initially, the resistance and behavior of the suspect led me to believe that the force I would be using on that particular evening included chemical means (pepper spray), and possibly ground fighting. I was nervous because I had only used pepper spray a few times, and my conclusion at this stage in my career was that it seemed to only have the desired impact on the officers deploying it. Additionally, I never considered myself much of a scrapper, and the guy I was facing looked much more skilled in that arena.

That all changed when the suspect pulled a knife on my partner and me.

Drawing the Gun

I knew that, legally, I did not have to fight someone armed with a knife. Instead I could use any and all means of force available to stop his behavior. I threw my pepper spray away and drew my .40 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 4046 pistol. Actually I was relieved that the suspect had elevated the level of force, because I’d much rather deal with a threat from afar rather than close up. Once I successfully drew my firearm I felt much more in control of the situation… at least momentarily.

As I faced my armed attacker I realized that I could no longer back away from him. He had ignored multiple commands to drop the knife, yet something in me still questioned his murderous intents. As he came at me I could see that his eyes were distant and dark, but what I couldn’t see was hate. I had suspected that if I ever had to shoot someone in self-defense, it would be easy, because I would see determination in his or her eyes—and I also assumed I would see hatred. Instead I saw a desperate man trying to avoid incarceration and I was his obstacle to freedom.

I did not want to kill this man. I only wanted to stop his behavior and do the job I was sworn to do.

This entire incident lasted only about three minutes, but afterward it felt more like three hours. In retrospect I think the perception of time is the result of the myriad of thoughts that raced through my mind. I had thoughts ranging from training, to family, to mortality, and even thoughts I never expected…about God.

I hadn’t been especially religious as an adult, but I grew up with Catholic values. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind were the lessons I learned from Sister Cecil. Is this self-defense if letting him go would prevent a shooting? Will I go to hell if he dies and God doesn’t believe it was really self-defense? I wrestled with these thoughts that I never suspected would surface. Ultimately, I decided that I was not capable of knowing the suspect’s true intents at this point in my career, and letting him go was not an option. I prayed to God that the suspect wouldn’t die because I am not a murderer, and then I warned the suspect that if he took another step I would shoot him. Unfortunately for both of us I kept my word.

Aftereffects

I experienced stress responses during this incident, and went to the hospital later that night because I felt faint and nauseated. There was nothing gruesome about the incident, and had the suspect not fallen to the ground, I might not have even known I’d shot him. The symptoms I experienced were the result of the event themselves, but those symptoms didn’t end when the incident did.

A couple months after my officer-involved shooting, I was seated in my squad car writing a police report when suddenly my heart started pounding out of my chest and I could feel a dump of adrenaline. I honestly thought I was having a heart attack and drove myself to the Emergency Room. I was diagnosed with palpitations. These plagued me periodically for years. It wasn’t until a decade after that incident that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, and was told these were panic attacks.

Additionally, six months after my shooting, I started experiencing dizzy spells. Those spells became increasingly prominent after responding to critical incidents. This was the beginning of years of periodic and occasionally, prolonged anxiety-related health issues. These symptoms compounded over time, with each critical incident causing strong physical, emotional and mental reactions, making it impossible for me to remain a police officer. Seventeen years of prolonged exposure to violence, coupled with unbalanced media coverage of police shootings, exasperated my recurring symptoms to the point that after being shot at in my squad car in 2012, I nearly fainted on-scene once I realized I was going to live.

Feelings for the Aggressor

So, can you pull the trigger? I pose this question because there are so many things that affect your reaction. Most people don’t know what it feels like to point your gun at another human being, let alone to shoot. I explained how it felt for me, but every situation is different.

We all believe that the bad guy we may face will be the grey figure on the targets we shoot at the range…but that’s unlikely. Shooting someone is harder to do if you can relate to the person. If you see yourself or a loved one in the perpetrator, it becomes harder to potentially kill them. It’s natural to relate to people, but you need to make sure your judgment and safety isn’t compromised.

Additionally, there are certain types of people— children, women, pregnant women, the elderly, the mentally ill, or the disabled—that can generate extremely unpleasant feelings if you need to defend yourself against them. I have not had to shoot anyone in these groups, but I know people who have, and they were changed by the experience.

Thinking you can pull the trigger for self-defense is quite different than being able to do it. My advice is that if you are confronted with an aggressor in a category that you find difficult to defend yourself against, remind yourself that he or she is threatening your life. When you look at them for what they are—a threat—you will be more likely to take appropriate action.