Reptilian Brain Stem

In my last post, I stressed the importance of always being aware of your surroundings.  While citizens benefit from paying attention to what’s going on around them as they go about their daily business, police officers also benefit from having an alert mind.   Being aware, and listening to your gut when something seems a bit off, can be the difference between making it home at the end of shift or ending up in the hospital, or worse – the morgue.  One of our Use of Force Instructors, Brad, calls it listening to ‘your little reptilian brain stem’.  Following is a call where I’m sure listening to my gut helped me see the end of that shift.

A few years ago, while assigned to the Warrant Squad, my partner and I attended a residence with the intention of arresting a young man wanted for several property related offences.  We had done our workup on this fellow – I’ll call him John (not his real name), and found he was strictly a small time property crime offender who did not have a history of violence.  When we got to the residence, we were greeted by his mother and we explained John had outstanding warrants, but that the warrants were not serious and could be dealt with quickly.   Mom was very cooperative, telling us her son was home, and she left to get him.  A short time later, we heard mom talking to John, and heard John yelling at her.  Mom came back to us, obviously frustrated, and told us we had better go talk to John because he wasn’t listening to her. So that’s what my partner and I did.

As we approached, I saw the door to John’s room was partway open, with his outstretched legs visible through the opening.  Looking back, this is where my ‘little reptilian brainstem’ started to clamour – retreating wasn’t an option at that point, as we hadn’t even seen John yet, but I was already on hyper-alert.  We closed the last few steps to the doorway, and one of us pushed the door open.

John was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.  He gaze was fixed on a point somewhere midway across the room, and his upper body was rocking back and forth.  I introduced my partner and I, telling John who we were and why we were there, but John just sat there continuing to rock.  The only indication he heard us was the muttering he was doing under his breath, “I’m not going back there, I’m not going back there.”

You don’t have to be a police officer with more than a decade of street experience to recognize this situation was not a good one.  My ‘little reptilian brain stem’ was screaming “NOT GOOD!”, and I remember my partner and I shared a glance – he was feeling the same bad vibe as I was.

We held our ground in the doorway, trying to assess what John was going to do.  We tried talking to him, telling him the warrants were not serious, but that he did have to come with us to have them dealt with.  We told him to uncross his arms and to show us his hands.  Keep in mind all of this happened in under a minute, and it’s only now I’m able to look back on this call with 20/20 vision, and perhaps we should have called for another unit, but at the time, things were moving fast.  Including John.

Without warning, John leapt forward onto his knees and one hand; the other hand was still tucked up against his body, clearly concealing something.  John was incredibly quick, and he raced across the floor like a human-sized crab towards an open lunch cooler on the other side of the room.  A quick look at the cooler told me there were plenty of weapons over there – a pair of scissors, a corkscrew, a pen and who knows what else hidden in the cooler.  Both my partner and I went after John to prevent him from arming himself with whatever it was he was going for.  We got to him at the same time, just as John sat back on his haunches and reached into the cooler with his left hand.  I happened to be on John’s left; I slapped my hand down over his hand inside the cooler, and my partner had a hold of John’s right shoulder.  That’s when all hell broke loose.

John gave a tremendous lunge backwards, snapping his upper body back in an arch, his right hand rising up. Clenched in John’s fist was a knife, plunging for the base of my partner’s neck. My partner brought his hands up and crossed his wrists, palms out, and there was an audible WACK as skin met skin.  The tip of the knife was only an inch or two from the hollow of my partner’s throat, held in a perfect plateau between the three of us.

Both of us maintained our hold on John, and the three of us toppled to the floor.  John was on his back, his right arm bent, the knife still clenched in his fist as he repeatedly tried to force it into my partner’s neck.  My partner was on top of him, his hands around John’s wrist, his entire body weight bearing down on John’s arm.  I had a hold of John’s right arm, and seeing that my strikes to John’s face were ineffective, and fearing he was going to kill my partner right in front of me, I reached for my pistol.  Time had slowed to a crawl; in the background and sounding like a record played at half speed, John’s mother was screaming.  I glanced up at her to make sure she wasn’t going to jump into the fray, but her feet were firmly planted.  As I drew my pistol, I looked back at John and froze.  The knife was gone. 

A quick check showed the knife had somehow ended up by my foot.  Another quick showed neither of us was bleeding, and that John was still very much a threat as he thrashed and flailed on the ground.  With both of using all of our strength, we were able to finally overpower him.  It was like sitting on a live wire.  Exhausted, we called for cover, and in the end it took five officers to fully restrain John.

Ultimately, John was arrested and charged with assault with a weapon and assaulting a police officer, and he eventually pled guilty.

** I’ll add a bit here, now that it’s a few hours since I’ve posted this.  Going through this call again caused a rise in my blood pressure, and I still get the residual adrenalin effects when I think of how close we came to having one of us getting critically injured.   I’m very glad no one was injured, including John.  To take a life, even in defense of another, is serious business.  And yes, I do think having my instinct alert me to the fact something was horribly wrong helped end this confrontation with no loss of life.

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