Ep. 4 Should I Shoot? Probable Cause

Editor’s Note: The following is a post from Sammy Reese, a former Marine Corps Artillery Officer and retired police officer from California. He is a part-time range master for the police department he retired from as well as a life-long martial artist and combatives coach.

After I finished up “Should I Shoot?” No. 3, I started thinking about all the times on duty and off where I could have legally used deadly force and didn’t. I have asked myself thousands of times, “Should I have shot?” and I’ve broken each incident down to figure out why I didn’t. I would have to say the No. 1 reason why I didn’t press the trigger was my general level of training and my specific training in other ways of defending myself.

Working as a patrol cop, no two days are the same and no two radio calls are exactly alike. I prided myself on being good at everything a patrol cop has to do. Everyone likes arresting bad guys, but I made sure I was just as proficient at investigating a traffic collision as I was at investigating an assault with a deadly weapon. I watched too many patrol cops “specialize” and end up being incomplete cops. When I was new — say, the first few years — I liked the hot calls the best because I was an adrenalin junkie and I enjoyed the rush. As time goes on, you start to appreciate the saying “only cats have nine lives” and you start to see things differently.

Probable Cause

Probable cause exists when a law enforcement officer has specific and articulable information that a person has committed a crime and the officer is placing that person under arrest for the crime. It’s also used when it’s time to employ deadly force to stop a threat that you believe, if not stopped, will cause you or another person great bodily injury or death. We shoot to stop the threat from completing his or her intended act. Oftentimes, the use of deadly force does, in fact, result in the bad guy dying from the wounds inflicted. No surprise it’s called deadly force, right?

The seriousness of choosing to become a cop was made a reality during my very first night of Phase 1 training. Not an hour into the shift, I had my weapon pointed at a car full of gangbangers in a stolen car. It was the first of many adrenalin rushes.

The Rock

What would you do if someone was about to throw a cinder block at your head? (Photo: USCCA)

What would you do if someone was about to throw a cinderblock at your head? (Photo: USCCA)

I was working overtime on day shift when I learned a valuable lesson. As a yard dog, I was much more comfortable working under the cover of darkness, but whenever the sergeant called and said, “How about working some OT?,” I always jumped at the chance. I figured he was calling for the coming night shift. Nope, he needed me ASAP since the day shift was down a few officers from guys calling in sick.

The shift was 99 percent mellow. I took a few cold burglaries and wrote a bunch of tickets — it was like shooting fish in a barrel, as I wasn’t used to so many cars being on the road. With about an hour left in the shift, I topped off my gas tank and was writing up my paper when I heard one of the fire units on the radio say a guy was throwing rocks at them as they drove by. I happened to be about three blocks away.

When I turned the corner, I thought the guy would be gone, but nope, he was getting ready to throw another rock at passing cars. I whooped my siren and he turned away from traffic but didn’t put the rock down. When I say rock, I’m talking ¾ of a cinderblock. I positioned my car between the suspect and traffic and told him to drop the rock. He was approximately 20 yards from my car holding the rock over his head like a soccer player getting ready to do a throw in, and he was walking toward me at a slow pace.

I drew my handgun and told him to drop the rock. He looked right at me and kept walking like Frankenstein, pumping his arms in preparation to throw the rock. I probably gave him two or three more warnings — the last one filled with some colorful adjectives and complete with the fact that I was going to shoot him if he didn’t comply. I had made up my mind that if he made it to a certain line I had drawn on the ground, I would shoot.

He made it to the line. Just as I moved my finger to the trigger, he dropped the rock behind him and almost immediately afterward, one of my beat partners blindsided him and knocked him out of his socks. The total time from when I arrived on scene to when the suspect was in custody was approximately 45 seconds. Yes, less than a minute — with about 15 seconds to decide whether or not to use deadly force.

The fire truck had a big dent, which I know drove the fire boys crazy. The suspect was a transient who was way off his meds and ended up being put under a 5150 (mental illness) hold. Me, I finished my paper and headed home, only to run the incident through my head 1,000 times over the next few days. Why didn’t I just shoot the guy? I had the PC. Was I going soft?

I brought the subject up with a buddy of mine who was the senior dog handler on the department. He told me I did the right thing. Sure, I could have legally shot the guy, and others might have. But my reason for not shooting was, at the further distance, I could dodge the rock and use another force option. His crooked Copenhagen smile was followed by words I’ll never forget: “It only takes a few pounds of pressure to shoot someone. It takes confidence, training and experience to not shoot when you legally can.”

I’ve had PC more times than I can count to legally use deadly force. Continued (force-on-force) training, keeping a high level of skill with firearms, training in realistic martial arts where you actually fight and keeping in great physical shape have kept me from having to when I could have. Should I have shot?

For more critical information on the use of deadly force and other firearms and self-defense topics, visit www.uscca.com/GunsAmerica.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • jim March 16, 2017, 11:26 am

    Norm: please check your spelling and your bible stories.

  • jim March 16, 2017, 11:18 am

    My biggest question is this: Many times I read of a perpetrator being riddled with dozens of bullets by a force of many policeman. While I seldom doubt that the perpetrator deserved to be shot, I always wonder what happens if I must shoot someone and use the same philosophy that law enforcement does. That is, emptying my magazine into the assailant? Near my hometown, a policeman did this outside a bar and ended up killing a woman inside the bar (an innocent bystander). He was absolved of all blame. I don’t think an armed citizen would have received the same treatment, if he had emptied a 17 round magazine into someone, even though that someone was obviously an imminent threat to his life.

  • Guido June 3, 2016, 8:35 am

    Hello, Mr. Reese
    First off, my family and I thank you for your service.
    Secondly, I thank you for a very rational and well-written article on the subtleties of carrying a deadly weapon.
    You’ve put together a number of important points that all of us need to think about, not just “whose is biggest” (we’ve gone through an open-carry thing down here in TX lately)
    -Guido in Houston

  • Dave Brown May 27, 2016, 9:02 pm

    Thank You, you have restored some hope and faith in this older dog. I am only 64 and I have never been a cop so what do I know, but here goes. Over the years it appears we have gone soft. I remember when the Double Tap was the next Big Thing. Today it seems like a few bad cops or poorly trained cops think about 15 rounds into the guy and then they stop and look to see if they need to shot him some more. I have been on a roll about those that train our peace officers. To me it is simple they train for the very worst case and forget to end with training for the everyday grind. I have shot firearms for 50 years, carried concealed for 40, and I know myself and what restraint I have.
    It appears most of the trainers are only interested in the next big thing, and thus they should be fired, and it appears that is what is happening now. Thank God. My restraint tells me the last thing I want to do is shot. Dare I say it goes as far as I will only shot when I see the gun and not then, but only when I see the swing of the muzzle in my direction. I know that is how cops were trained when I was just a boy. Today ain’t that much different and if you cannot handle the job don’t become a Law Enforcement Peace Officer. That simple.
    Again, Thanks, and I hope your brother and sister officers read and take your action to heart. One last thing it should become common practice to our Police to Police themselves. If they think a fellow officer is going over a line that dose not need to be touched they should stop them. And, if trained properly they would both understand what just happened. It may have saved a life and saved a cop a whole lot of hear and heart aches. Thank Dave

  • DRAINO May 27, 2016, 1:19 pm

    While operating a convoy refuel point along a stretch of Iraqi highway, a young boy I estimated to be about 15-16 somehow got past our south checkpoint. The guards at the check point radio’d me and told me a vehicle had ran the checkpoint and was in route to my location. Just as the info came over the radio, I looked up to see the vehicle approaching rapidly. I immediately drew down on the vehicle with my rifle while yelling at a nearby Dutch gun truck that I needed back up. Incidentally, I had become friends with some of the Dutch military guys that were operating convoy escort gun trucks at the time. The driver of the vehicle(a small utility stake bed) finally realized all the weaponry pointing at him and he finally stopped. By this time he was close enough that I could see another boy about 6 years old in the cab of the vehicle standing/bouncing on the seat. My finger is on the trigger this whole time and even applying a slight amount of pressure. Apparently I scream enough profanities and gave enough arm signals while pointing my rifle at them, they got the idea that they needed to turn around. As the vehicle turned around, I could see 2 females(?) in black burqa’s laying in the bed of the vehicle. The gun truck took over and escorted them back to the south checkpoint where they were detained and interrogated. It was a young kid about 15 driving the vehicle and he had gotten lost and was not following the any roads when he somehow slipped in behind the checkpoint. At least that was their story. After the fact I realized that this young boy came only a few pounds of finger pressure from dying in a hellstorm of bullets and taking a younger sibling and perhaps a mother and sister with him, due to the fact that I have no doubt that if I had fired, the gun truck would have opened up as well….the result would have complete destruction. But for some reason, I didn’t finish that trigger pull. Not because I was scared to pull it (God knows my adrenaline and fear was saying SHOOT!!)…but some small voice was telling me not to. Mind you, I was WELL within my rights to shoot…..from the very second that I heard the info and saw the vehicle, I had clear PC.

    I guess my point is, every scenario is different and there are multiple possibilities of responses. You alone make your decision. Just be ready to live with your actions whether it goes good or bad. I pray we will one day live in a perfect world where no one ever has to make these type of decisions. But I’m certain it won’t be in my lifetime.

    • DRAINO May 28, 2016, 7:32 am

      I want to add that I would never, without either witnessing myself or without a full investigation, judge someone’s actions in this type of scenario(and many investigations nowadays are somewhat subjective IMHO). There are times that the trigger DOES need to be pulled, without question. And I am a BIG believer in “If it’s you or me…then I chose ME” But there are SO many factors that are involved in these situations. People can armchair quarterback it all they want with IF’s and BUT’s….but unless you were actually there…you likely don’t know. This is a reason that I think media should refrain from reporting on many things….they are conjecturing or filling in blanks without having a clue. Give the basics of a story and admit that all the facts aren’t known at this point but will be released after a complete investigation. What’s wrong with that?? Yes, I get their agenda crap. Sorry if I’m preaching to the choir. Stay safe out there….getting off my soap box.

  • michael e collett May 27, 2016, 9:59 am

    It’s always a good idea not to shoot if you can.not only does the assailant pay,but you do to.

  • Populist May 27, 2016, 8:41 am

    It’s always nice to sit back and armchair quarterback shoot or not shoot. Or bump with a truck or not. Here is my concrete block story:
    I was on my way to pick up supplies with my truck, a 15 passenger van, and trailer attached. I drove by one of the tough neighborhoods near where I was living, and witnessed in a parking lot a 6′ 4″ tall man swinging a chunk of concrete (about 1/2 a cinder block) at his pregnant girlfriend’s head. She was doing her best to fend him off, and he was too uncoordinated to connect, but there was real chance of death there. I called 911 as I turned into the parking lot, the dispatcher going through the stupid protocol questions as I was yelling at her to get a cop here RIGHT NOW because I was going to have to stop this mess from going on. I drove right up to his back, with him holding the chunk of concrete over his shoulder ready to take another swing. He swung again and missed, but in turning himself around in the swing (he was swinging hard to hit her) saw me. It startled him and he dropped the chunk. My plan was to hit him with the truck, then get out and subdue him with what I had on hand. He started yelling at me, and it honestly looked like he did not know what to do at this point. The weapon was down on the ground, and I was trying to figure out what to do next, when the patrol car arrived. All this took approximately 3-4 minutes. I think I had probable cause as long as he had the weapon in his hand, or if he came after me in the truck, or if he went after the girlfriend again. If that happened, I would have done something more than I did. I had considered hitting him with the truck first, but thought that if he connected with the girl, I might not be able to just take him out, or might have helped him connect with her head.

    Epilogue- I went as a witness, it was prosecuted as a misdemeanor simple assault (domestic violence) and he got put in diversion. It should have been AWDW. The officers on scene refused to take the concrete piece in as evidence. I was so mad that I just had to talk to the judge after the sentencing, and asked her how she could let this guy go, and got Baltimore city platitudes. I am so glad I don’t live in Baltimore any more.

  • RTM May 27, 2016, 8:09 am

    Glad you don’t have to work here in Baltimore. You’d probably be on trial for threatening to shoot the guy. The thugs run this cess pool of a city. Cops here are considered the bad guys. Go figure. 50 years of liberal rule and it’s only getting worse. Not to mention we here in the People’s Republik of Maryland can’t even get a license to carry to defend ourselves so who needs training. We’re all just victims in waiting.

  • Veritas May 27, 2016, 6:51 am

    Caine believes rocks will not kill you. He’d have used a power saw on the attacker.

  • Benzo Caine May 27, 2016, 5:35 am

    You were going to kill a guy because he was going to throw a rock at you?

    • Jake Z May 27, 2016, 7:03 am

      I don’t know about you but 3/4 of a cinder block would knock you out, if a guy is out of his proper headspace what do you think he would do after you were down?? Probably keep throwing rocks at you. Plus he said he didn’t shoot because he knew he could dodge the rock at that distance. And let’s be 100% real I’ve had somebody pick up a rock in a fight, it’s just like picking up a knife in my book, and I always treated it as such.

    • Infidel7.62 May 27, 2016, 7:58 am

      If you don’t think being hit with 3/4 of a cement block will cause serious bodily injury or death you are sadly mistaken. It’s a good thing you never wore blue becase with that attitude you probably would have been seriously injured or killed before your probation was up.

    • RTM May 27, 2016, 8:10 am

      Caine, you’re an idiot.

    • SNuss May 27, 2016, 11:10 am

      Blunt objects of all kinds are used to kill far more people than so-called “assault weapons”. As a weapon, how is a chunk of cinder block any less lethal than a baseball bat, or a piece of pipe? Even bare hands account for more homicides than assault weapons.

    • Bob May 27, 2016, 11:24 am

      Did you actually read the story and more important, did you comprehend what you read?? Let me help you Caine. Yes indeed 1/2 or 3/4 of a cinder block would be considered a deadly weapon in both of these cases. Therefore, the Police Officer would have been justified in using deadly force to shoot the thug the same as Populist would have been justified in using deadly force by hitting the thug with his truck. Thanks to both the Officer and citizen for responding as they did to prevent serious injuries to others and great examples of thinking and reacting appropriately under stress!!! Perhaps you can learn something from this Caine???

    • robert fugate May 27, 2016, 1:49 pm

      It’s not really the size of the stone, but where exactly will it land on your body! Ever heard of David and Goliath. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a police officer in today’s environment.

    • DeeTee May 27, 2016, 3:55 pm

      Didn’t Caine kill Abel with a rock? 🙂

      • Norm June 20, 2016, 10:05 am

        Caine slew Able by hitting him with the jawbone of an ass. Or so the story goes.

        David vs. Goliath? That was a rock, thrown with a sling.

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