Five rounds. Five pulls of the trigger on my SIG Sauer, the pistol given to me the previous Christmas. That, the firing of those five rounds, was all it took to forever change my life.
The SIG was gifted to me by my wife, Denene, who, by the way, has never been a real fan of guns. However, she gave me the weapon because the 9mm issued to me by my department was in such a state of disrepair that we weren’t sure if I could depend on it to save my life if called upon to do so. Something inside rattled and the barrel was sort of loose. I managed to qualify with it each year, still …
The day I killed the guy started out like all the others back then. Sure, I was in a rut. I suppose most people are when they become comfortable with their lives. Wake up the same time each morning, feet on the floor, the usual bathroom rituals—toothbrushing, showering, shave, a minute or two with the blow dryer, dress, etc.
My routine also included tying a tie, slipping the SIG and its pancake holster through my belt loops, clipping a gold badge to my belt, and looping a pair of handcuffs over the rear waistband and belt. Next came my jacket, grab a Pop Tart (brown sugar and cinnamon) and a bottle of juice, pull my portable radio from the charger on the kitchen counter, and head out to my unmarked police car that I’d parked in the same spot, day-in and day-out. And so it went, every single day of my life.
No vest. I was a detective who rarely found myself in dangerous situations with bullets zipping by my head. So no vest.
An hour later, however, I was involved in a deadly shootout (remember, no vest) where glass was exploding from the windows of police cars, bullets ricocheted from nearby concrete pavement, sending hot bits of lead and copper into tires, fenders, and doors of parked vehicles.
The man crouching behind his car was hellbent on killing cops and simply would not stop shooting. POW! POW! BANG! BANG! POW! POP! BANG! RAT-a-TAT-TAT, and BANG, POP, POW! Over and over again, and again.
So the moment I had a clear shot I took it, hitting the bad guy in the side of the head just below his left cheek bone.
The SIG did its job. I don’t know if it rattled or if its barrel was tight. My best guess is that the pistol, the SIG that fit my hand like a glove, did exactly as it was supposed to. It sent a round directly to the spot where I’d aimed it. Just like at the range. Not a fraction of an inch off in either direction.
But the shooter continued to shoot, sending even more bullets zinging and zipping by, plucking leaves from trees, plowing tiny trenches in the dirt near my feet, and sending looky-loos running for deeper cover. I had nowhere better to hide than my current spot, behind a tree that was barely larger than one of my legs. The bad guy was grinning like, as some country folk have been known to say, a mule eating briars.
My 9mm round punctured the man’s head sending a thin trail of blood down the side of his face like a red raindrop sliding down a pane of glass. But he continued his effort to kill me by turning to face me to fire even more rounds.
POW! BANG! POP! BANG!
More dirt and grass and leaves and ricochets. More sounds of bullets hitting metal and glass.
I fired again. This time placing a bullet nearly dead center of his chest. Center mass. Center mass. Center mass. Stop the threat. Stop the threat.
He went down.
There were no sounds. No pops or bangs or pows.
No birds chirping. No car sounds.
Then he popped up and …
POP! POW! RAT-a-TAT-TAT! BANG!
I shot him again. In the chest. Near the spot of the other wound.
A red, wet flower bloomed on his t-shirt, spreading outward away from the center of his chest. The blood on his face had already dried. The rusty-red line stretched from that wound and dipped under his jaw to his neck where it disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt.
Quiet. Pure and crystal clear silence, much like one would expect to found in deep space, or in a vacuum chamber at the south pole. My heart, apparently, didn’t know about the “silent” rule because it was attempting to thrash and pound its way out of my chest. I could hear it franticly beating and throbbing against the inside of my ribs.
Up he came once again, like the eerie clown popping up from the inside of a child’s Jack-in-the-Box. Was there a chorus of Pop Goes the Weasel playing but my stress-induced hearing loss simply wouldn’t allow me to hear it?
I shot him again.
Finally, somewhere around me, a bird chirped. A dog barked. The sounds of people talking began to worm through my ears and into my brain.
Then the shooter leapt to his feet and ran.
I and another officer tackled him.
During our struggle with the man he continue to pull the trigger on his gun.
Click. Click. Click.
Over and over again, he pulled the trigger, until we wrestled the gun away from him.
It was empty.
No more rounds to fire.
I handcuffed his wrists, behind his back and immediately EMS workers began their efforts to save him.
I walked away, back to my car where I leaned against the driver’s door to take a breath and to get away from everyone. I needed moment to myself.
I didn’t know how to feel.
I still don’t how to feel.
I do, however, know what it feels like to have pulled a trigger on a pistol when that split second of action took the life of another human.
It was a hot August day. The grass was extremely dry and brittle, like brown slivers of glass reaching up from the soil. A couple of clouds mottled an otherwise perfectly-painted sea of blue. No wind. Not even a slight breeze. The humidity was high. Sirens yelped and wailed in the distance.
And I killed a man. I sure did. And I later read the headlines and heard the whispers. “The cops murdered another one.” “Why didn’t they use a TASER?” “Why didn’t they just run over and tackle him?” “Why not shoot him in the leg?” WHY? WHY? WHY?
Well, why was he shooting at ME?
And YOU, the armchair critics, were not there. You did not feel the fear that comes with someone shooting at you.
This was not an easy thing to do, especially for me. I’m the guy who’ll move a bug off the sidewalk to prevent someone from stepping on it. I catch flies and set them free. I feed birds. I give to the homeless. I don’t like to see people hurt or suffer.
But the man I shot, well, he lay bleeding on the ground, in the dirt and the tall weeds, seeing the blue sky, and seeing all of us, the officers and other first responders standing over him. I saw his eyes focus on the man who was working frantically to stop blood from leaking from his wounds. He looked over to me and then over to another officer who’d just arrived. Then his gaze slowly fixed on a something far above us. A couple of seconds later I saw life drain from those same eyes that had looked at me so intently just a few minutes earlier when he was trying so hard to kill me.
It was as if that specific place in the sky above him was the designated destination for his soul to travel. As the focus left his eyes it seemed as if a peace and a great calm filled the void in his body left behind by the soul that once occupied it. And with that departing soul went a part of me. A part that has never returned to this day.
So yeah. I killed a man. It was part of my job to do so, and he forced me to do it.
I didn’t leave home that morning, with Pop Tart and juice in hand, thinking I would kill someone. I really don’t remember what I was on my mind, but I’m sure my thoughts were most likely on the softball game my daughter was scheduled to play, or maybe a case I was working, or perhaps about my wife who was soon to receive her PhD in pathology. Whatever I was thinking, though, was certainly not about killing a man before my first appointment of the day.
But he wouldn’t drop the gun and he just would not stop shooting at me. I yelled and begged him to stop, but he wouldn’t.
He wouldn’t stop and to this day—today—he’s still trying to kill me.
Every single day of my life.
So yeah, that’s what it’s like to kill someone in the line of duty.
Those who think cops enjoy that part of the job, well, I feel sorry for them.
But I’m glad they don’t have to live my life.
Sure, sometimes I think about the “what if’s”
But there was no other way.
I did eventually learn where the dead guy’s soul went to live.
He’s inside my head …
Clawing and scratching and banging and digging.
I wish he’d find his way out.
I know other officers in the same situation.
It’s a horrible thing to live with, a dead guy inside your head.
But I understand that others don’t understand. Those who don’t know.
But they don’t, and they seem to only feel for the dead, not the person who survived the encounter.
The person who was almost dead.
The person who no longer lives a normal life.
Because of the person who started it all by trying to kill someone.
So yeah, I killed a guy who was trying to kill me.
And a piece of me died that day too.
And I still move bugs off the sidewalk.
And I still worry about other people.
Even though they don’t care and they don’t know what it’s like.
They simply don’t know.
Click. Click. Click.
Horrible sounds, those clicks.
Click. Click. Click.