Recalling the story to tell it here has raised the hair on the back of my neck: I was one of about ten cops serving a search warrant on a “rock house,” a place where crack cocaine was sold. The door to the apartment was on a small, upstairs landing, so the cops working the entry tools were especially vulnerable. Crouching on the top step, I covered the windows as the hook-and-ram team peeled back the exterior metal door and slammed open the interior wooden one. I was the first man through the door, passing from bright sunlight into the gloom and fetid odor so typical of such places. There was movement all around, with the rest of my squad pushing through the doorway behind me and the dope dealers diving for the floor at our command. But there was one guy–there’s always one guy–who stood up and ran toward the back of the apartment. Experience told me he was most likely heading to the bathroom to flush the dope down the toilet. I was right on his heels down the hallway, and when he made a left turn I could see from the tiled wall he had indeed entered a bathroom. All I had to do was keep him away from the toilet, or, as was sometimes the case, fish out the pieces of cocaine before they–and our case–went down the drain.
Things quickly got more complicated. As I turned into the bathroom the guy I had chased was facing the toilet, but his right hand was on the counter near the sink, and only an inch or so away from that hand was a Smith & Wesson .45 caliber pistol. I had the merest fraction of a second to decide if this guy was going for the gun or merely trying to flush the dope. I was moving so quickly that my momentum carried me into the bathroom, and while holding my gun back and out of the dealer’s reach I clocked him with my free hand and sent him flying backwards into the bathtub. Things turned out as well as could be expected for both of us that day: He went off to jail and I went home, but to this day I don’t know if he would have picked up that gun if I had given him the chance. How different both our lives might have been if either of us had made a different decision.
I was reminded of this story and the many other close calls of my career while reading a new book, Into the Kill Zone, a Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force, by David Klinger. Klinger teaches criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, but one should resist the urge to dismiss him as an academic. The shelves are full of books on police work written by criminology professors and other scholarly types, most of whose knowledge on the subject is derived from reading books written by others just as unschooled in the realities of “The Job.” But Klinger knows of what he writes. He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1980, and four months after graduating from the police academy he shot and killed a man who was assaulting his partner with a butcher’s knife. (Coincidentally, I once worked with the same partner.) He left the LAPD a year and half later and joined the police department in Redmond, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. In 1984 he gave up police work, got married, and moved to Washington, D.C. to attend graduate school. After years as a teacher and researcher, he obtained a grant from the Justice Department for a study of police shootings. He interviewed eighty officers from nineteen different police departments, and this book is the product of those interviews.
Most of the book is presented in the officers’ own words with little editorial comment from the author. The cops talk about their lives before they came on the job, their experiences during training, and their time on the streets. And of course they talk about their brushes with death, those horrifying moments when they were suddenly faced with an armed suspect, when it came down to kill or be killed. But Klinger also spoke with cops who, like me that day in the bathroom, held their fire in situations where both the law and department policy would have allowed the use of deadly force. Yes, sometimes cops have bad shootings, and when these occur they’re covered exhaustively in the media, often on a national scale. But seldom do you hear about the many, many more occasions when officers could have shot people but didn’t. Klinger’s book would be valuable for these stories alone.
Presented here are stories from officers in a variety of assignments, from patrol to SWAT, and included are accounts from officers who themselves were wounded in gun battles. Klinger takes care to omit details that identify the officers or their departments, but some of the incidents are recognizable as having occurred in Los Angeles. These shootings, like Klinger’s own from 1981, are still talked about and debated in roll call rooms and squad cars to this day. Also found here is the account of a San Diego police officer who found himself somewhat overmatched when he took on a crazed suspect who had stolen an Army tank from a National Guard armory. The suspect rampaged through the streets of San Diego and crushed dozens of cars before the tank became stuck on the center divider of a major freeway. An officer was able to open the tank’s hatch, and when the suspect attempted to drive the tank into the oncoming freeway traffic the officer shot and killed him.
Most people’s knowledge of police work comes from television and the movies, and the demands of drama rarely allow for an accurate portrayal of the life-and-death decisions so often made by the typical cop on the street. Klinger’s book puts the reader in the cop’s shoes, and indeed behind the trigger. For anyone interested in how things really happen, Into the Kill Zone is an excellent place to begin.