Deadly Force: A Cop’s Perspective by Mark Johnson

After 22 years as a United Way executive raising a career total exceeding $100 million to help the disadvantaged, I chucked the life of a CEO and civic leader to join the Mobile, Alabama police department. I was 50.

I grew up a suburban kid, far from the outdoorsy, card-carrying NRA lifestyle. Never went hunting with dad (who rarely did himself, and then only at fancy duck hunting clubs, for business purposes). Nor did I know anybody whose dad took them hunting. Despite (or because of) Dad’s WWII Navy service, he strongly discouraged me from enlisting in the military before completing college. By the time I’d earned my bachelor’s degree, Vietnam was over.

Having been adopted as an infant into a rising middle-class home with a stay-at-home mom and a hard-working dad, I believed from an early age that fate had been especially kind to me. This unearned good fortune produced a passion to give others a second chance like I’d been given. So as a young man filled with grandiose dreams of righting racial wrongs and eradicating economic inequities, I built a successful career in the nonprofit world.

But by mid-life, I had become restless and disillusioned with the abstract satisfactions of charitable fundraising. I needed something more tangible, more hands-on. More sacrificial. Privately, I was certain I’d bring enlightenment and reform to law enforcement as a new kind of cop: thinking out of the box, enlightened, motivated as much by mercy as by justice.

As a rookie cop responding to scenes of violence and mayhem, I made helpful referrals to anger management programs, rehab clinics, counseling agencies. Victims, criminals, and cops alike stared at me in bewilderment and scorn. Giving the wrong people the benefit of the doubt, I accepted improbable exculpatory claims. Blithely disregarding Academy training, I would try to read a man by looking him in the eyes rather than watching his hands—a far more reliable indicator of intent—and I endangered myself and fellow officers, who were usually younger than my own kids.

My cocky arrogance met its match my second year on the job, shortly before dawn on a frigid Christmas morning. I rolled up on a young white male in the deserted parking lot of a run-down strip mall, attempting to break into a car. I got out to detain and question him, and he sucker-punched me. On my back, seeing stars, bleeding, trying to key my radio for backup, I wondered why this kid didn’t just jackrabbit away, figuring he could easily outsprint an old duffer like me. As I struggled to fend off blows, the Academy’s “Use of Force Continuum” came to mind. Which tool on my belt should I deploy for this circumstance: pepper spray? baton? Taser? My assailant gave me the answer when I felt him tugging at my gun.

It was a jolting epiphany: this guy doesn’t just want to avoid arrest, he wants to shoot me! Cop 101: we can’t lose fights. Because whenever we’re in a fight, there’s always at least one gun at the scene: the Department-issued .40 caliber Glock. By the time backup arrived, the subject was face-down on the pavement, Tased, bleeding, and cuffed.

Despite this hard lesson, private worries about deadly force gnawed at me. This was a full decade before the media’s relentless second-guessing and political grandstanding about police use of force. My wife took every opportunity to remind me of research indicating that officers motivated by “service” are way more likely to be injured or killed on the job than those motivated by “enforcement.”

Though I drew my firearm hundreds of times in the line of duty over the years, it never became routine. The lethality of a firearm in-hand, a finger on the trigger—even at the shooting range—is fearsome to behold. And I worried: if the time comes to pull the trigger, could I? Would it be the right choice? How would I know for sure, in a split second? Could I live with the consequences? These concerns became most intense whenever there was an officer-involved shooting in my department, and at the funerals of slain colleagues. Though far from routine, both occur unpredictably and with unsettling frequency; their impact on officers cannot be overstated.

In 2012 I found myself in a vehicle pursuit of a black male cop-killer who had just slashed the throat of a black male officer, stolen the slain officer’s gun and squad car, crashed it through the jail’s overhead door, and was last seen headed toward my part of town. In seconds we spotted each other; he abruptly cut across two lanes of traffic to duck into a residential neighborhood, and I lost visual contact.

But moments later, I came upon the slain officer’s ghostly, abandoned cruiser, skidded to a stop in somebody’s front yard, driver’s door wide open, lights and siren still activated. A terrified, speechless civilian pointed me in the direction the fugitive had fled on foot. I ran through a backyard and over a fence into a backyard on the next block. I had learned in numerous foot-chases that fugitives usually lay down and hide when they’ve eluded police; the dark crawl space beneath the house I now faced was a likely hidey-hole. Laying on my belly, I drew my weapon and swept the darkness with my flashlight. He let loose a volley of gunfire from no more than a dozen feet away. At least one of his rounds blew off the base-plate of my pistol’s grip and ricocheted into my upper left arm, though (thanks to adrenalin) I had no idea I’d been hit.

What really alarmed me was the sight of all my ammunition scattered in the grass, directly in the line of fire. The round that struck my pistol had emptied its magazine and gnarled up the grip so badly, ejecting the empty mag to reload was impossible. I did still have the one chambered round, but figured I should save it in case the shooter was now crawling toward me. I withdrew to better cover, ceding the fight to other officers now gathered at the scene, with full magazines. Though I had not returned fire, my damaged Glock had likely saved my life by deflecting a bullet which otherwise would have struck me in the face.

After a two-hour standoff involving tear gas, negotiators on megaphones, and police dogs, the fugitive still refused to surrender. Finally, two heavily-armored SWAT officers crawled into the darkness. When fired on, they eliminated the threat.

A few months later, for training purposes, we had to watch the video from the jail’s security cameras of the fugitive’s savage murder of our fellow officer. With one hand attempting to stop the blood spurting from his neck, he valiantly pursued his prisoner for a few steps before collapsing and bleeding out on the floor of the jail’s sally port. The slain officer had been on the force for little more than a year; he is survived by his wife and three young children.

After this close encounter with deadly force, I had deep doubts about my fitness for the job. I was sickened by the killer’s wanton savagery, and baffled by his determined suicide-by-cop. Searching for clues, I looked into his background. Negligible criminal history. I talked to his family: he had an associate’s degree in jewelry design, had sold some of his work to local retailers, often helped around his dad’s repair shop, was even-tempered, easy-going, and popular with his peers. There was no apparent theory of family dysfunction or mental pathology, no behavioral shift or reversal of fortune that could explain his actions. And I had no respite from the involuntary, endless second-guessing of myself during daylight hours, and the crazy dark nightmares that haunted my slumber, jerking me awake, gasping for air. Variations on helplessness and dread, the dreams always included gunfire, error, surprise, a dysfunctional weapon, and loss of ammo. They return still, years later, though less frequently.

Two years later and nearing retirement, I was on parade duty during Mardi Gras, when suddenly the crowd parted amid screams and pops of gunfire. A black male teenager streaked past me, within arm’s reach, followed by another, just a few strides behind him, rapidly firing a semiautomatic handgun at the first. I drew my weapon and yelled “Stop! Police!” wondering how many innocent parade-goers had already been struck down.

Thank God the kid with the gun heard me after just a few strides in pursuit; he stopped, turned, faced me, and froze. His quarry disappeared into the panicked crowd. The shooter, a smooth-cheeked adolescent, raised his hands above his head, the gun still gripped in one hand, finger on the trigger, pointing up. We stared at each other from a distance of maybe a dozen feet. I ordered him to put the gun down, but he remained motionless, mute and wide-eyed.

Muscle memory had snapped me automatically to a firm two-handed, punched-out grip, sights aligned, target acquired on his center-mass. Leaning forward in “ready-fire” stance, my knees slightly bent, my breathing disciplined, my finger pad on the trigger, it seems like the world goes silent: no more screaming crowd, no marching-band-Mardi Gras-music. I can’t even hear my own commands to the kid. We just stare at each other; he’s neither complying nor resisting, and I wonder if he even comprehends how many ways this can end badly. In the laser-focused, slow-motion nanoseconds that I wait, hoping he’ll comply, my mind races: can’t miss at this range, but will my round exit his back and strike a bystander? God, he’s only a kid! Will internal affairs judge this a righteous shoot? Will the DA? The media? Why won’t this kid comply? Is this what I signed on for? Can I live with what I’m about to do? Is there any other choice?

I bark “Drop it or I’ll shoot!” And I start to squeeze the trigger, knowing at that moment with absolute certainty that I am prepared to fire.

But then, slowly, he bends into a squat, and places his weapon on the asphalt.

I remove my finger from the trigger housing and charge him, snatching his .45 off the pavement as I put him on the ground. I stuff his weapon in my belt, point my weapon at his head, order him to roll over, and put a heavy boot on his back. But before I can holster up and pull my cuffs, the crowd starts to close in around me. They are also teenagers, male and female, and they’re angry—with me! They scowl at me, shout at me, threaten me, ignore my orders to stay back, and I see hands all around me reaching into pockets, pulling out…cell phones. But there are too many hands and too many pockets for me to scan, and they keep closing in despite my commands.

I key my radio mike and scream for backup, then draw the shooter’s weapon from my belt with my free hand. Each hand filled, I sweep the crowd in both directions, screaming “Stay back! Stay back!”

And then the cavalry arrives. Literally. Cops on horseback scatter the crowd, and officers on foot scramble in to cuff my shooter and hustle him off to the paddy wagon.

Cops don’t go looking for fights or gunplay, and many share my ambivalence about the use of deadly force, but we don’t talk much about it. A few suggested how I could have handled these scenarios differently, with quicker deployment of deadly force, while remaining in compliance with department policy and the law. And they are correct. In law enforcement, there’s usually more than one way to skin a cat. Some are better than others. But there are always consequences.

I’m retired now, and have moved across Mobile Bay to a more rural county, to a town where I have never fought or jailed anyone, so I generally feel comfortable leaving the house unarmed to run short errands. But whenever I return to Mobile—or travel to any sizeable city–I’m carrying. Even if I’m only going to church in Mobile. MPD just lost another young officer who was responding to a domestic. The shooter had murdered his estranged wife, dumped her by the side of the road, fired randomly at the police gathering around him, and fatally struck one of us before killing himself. It was my fourth police funeral since I joined the department in 2002. They never get any easier.

People who knew me years before I joined the force and people I’ve just met who learn I’m a retired cop, invariably ask what I think about guns and gun laws. It’s almost always their first question. There are no easy answers, I tell them. But if I learned anything in my twelve years as a cop, it is this: evil exists. And it’s far more pervasive than I thought. It comes in many disguises and in unexpected circumstances, and often it’s armed. Badge or no badge, I will not be that guy, the one who’s unprepared, who fails to act, who surrenders or just stands by and lets evil have its way.

I once asked a thirty-year veteran what keeps him coming back. “It’s certainly not the pay, or the public’s regard for us,” he said, pausing to pick the right words. “It’s our unique privilege to meet evil face to face, with the ability to do something about it.”

In today’s world, that requires a gun. “Blessed are the peacemakers…”

Contributors:

Mark Johnson worked for more than two decades directing United Way charitable campaigns in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Alabama. In 2002, he joined the Mobile, Alabama police department. As a sworn officer--six years in uniformed patrol, six as a detective--Johnson was decorated for Excellent Police Duty (three times), Chief's Unit award, Meritorious Service, and Wounded in Service. He retired in 2014. His memoir, "Apprehensions & Convictions, adventures of a 50-year-old rookie cop" was published in 2016 by Quill Driver Books, an imprint of Linden Publishing, Fresno.

2 Comments

  1. Hello Mark, congratulations on your essay. Very real and thought provoking, excellent writing. Hope all is well, hope to see you in September!

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