Survival lessons from a firefight.
How fast can a “routine” traffic stop go bad? Really bad? For a corporal in Idaho, it took just 12 seconds.
That’s the elapsed time between the moment he cleared the front left bumper of his patrol car in approaching a reckless driver and the moment he was shot center mass.
Fortunately, he survived – but not before he experienced a common malfunction with his semi-auto that could have left him vulnerable to being finished off by his desperate attacker.
In an earlier interview with Calibre Press that Corporal, Ismael Gonzalez, who is no longer with the State Police, shared the details of his incident and the valuable lessons he learned that are just as crucial now as they were at the point of the original interview.
Patrolling a stretch of rural highway one Monday evening, Gonzales initiated a stop on a blue Jeep Cherokee with Florida plates at about 8 o’clock. The stop came after another motorist reported that the driver was tailgating, weaving and driving erratically.
When Gonzalez flipped on his emergency lights, the Jeep slowed down but continued creeping forward for about 100 – 200 yards before pulling to the shoulder. He noticed that the young male driver and female passenger were moving around in the front seat, but he figured they were simply looking for their vehicle paperwork. “It looked like a really nice car,” Gonzalez told Calibre Press. “They both looked clean-cut, like normal tourists.”
Although there was still daylight, Gonzalez had difficulty seeing into the vehicle because camping gear partially blocked the rear window. Establishing a good sightline would have been difficult without stepping out of his safety lane onto the highway.
He did notice a couple of things that struck him as unusual, though. First, the driver rested his left arm on the windowsill and flopped his hand around outside as if trying to distract Gonzales’s attention. Also, the female turned completely sideways in her seat, facing the front passenger window and hid her face with her hands, something he had never experienced before.
At the time, the corporal thought the driver might just be nervous and that perhaps the woman had been hit during a domestic spat inside the vehicle. He continued walking up on the driver’s side, slowing his pace a bit and stepping slightly to his left to get a better view. He told Calibre he never considered aborting the approach at this point or making a passenger-side approach.
As he got to the driver’s window, the violator’s left hand relaxed and hung down at the side of the Jeep. Gonzalez couldn’t see the man’s right hand which was concealed in the vehicle. Looking for it, he stepped in to make contact.
Suddenly, the driver thrust his right hand through the open window, gripping a .380-cal. semi-auto. Before Gonzalez could react, the driver fired two rounds that hit the corporal in the chest. They were stopped by his body armor.
In role-playing survival scenarios in his mind, Gonzalez had reinforced that he would turn counterclockwise away from the car if he was ever attacked on a vehicle approach. He’d known a trooper who turned clockwise – toward the vehicle – and thereby aligned himself so that a gunman’s round penetrated him, armpit to armpit, leaving him severely injured.
As Gonzalez turned away as he had rehearsed, he drew his S&W .45. Luckily the highway was clear at the moment, so he wasn’t struck by passing traffic. During earlier training, instructors stressed the importance of returning fire if assaulted. Alone at the range, Gonzalez had practiced turning, drawing and shooting on the run.
Heading toward his patrol car, his nearest cover, he fired back two rounds. One nearly struck the driver and the other shattered the Jeep’s rear window. The driver kept firing. One round hit the ground near Gonzalez’s feet. “I know he would have hit me if he hadn’t been so rattled by my return fire,” said Gonzalez.
Then, the corporal thought his gun jammed. Actually, he discovered later, he had short stroked it. That is, after pulling the trigger on his double-action semi-auto, he had not released it fully and allowed it to go all the way forward before pulling it to fire the next round. Consequently, the gun wouldn’t cycle properly.
“I thought I had a bad gun,” Gonzalez told Calibre Press. “Actually, trying to squeeze the trigger fast under stress, I just wasn’t releasing it properly. I looked at my gun and I just hoped to God that the suspect wouldn’t jump out and keep shooting at me. If he had, by the time I’d been able to figure out what was wrong with my gun and chamber another round, he could have shot me three or four more times. His intent definitely was to kill me.”
By firing back, Gonzalez believes he shortened the attack. “I think the driver thought, ‘Wow! I just shot this cop point blank and he’s still shooting back! Let’s get out of here!’ It was a big shock to him.”
The Jeep took off. Behind his patrol car, Gonzalez discovered that when he fully released the trigger his gun was functional again. He took off in pursuit, radioing dispatch, “I need some backup here! I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot point-blank! Now!!”
Before Gonzalez could catch up. The suspects turned off the highway, concealed their vehicle and then abandoned it. Officers from multiple agencies searched through the night unsuccessfully. The next morning, a police aerial unit spotted the female fugitive standing at the entrance to an old barn about five miles from the shooting scene.
As officers closed in and grabbed the woman, the male suspect opened fire on them and then barricaded himself inside the barn. Tear gas was lobbed in, then surrounding officers heard a shot. The suspect, an escapee from a Florida prison, had fatally shot himself in the head.
For about a month, he and his 19-year-old girlfriend had been driving cross country stealing cash, ATM cards, and guns from parked cars in resort areas. They stole the Jeep by hot-wiring it in a mall parking lot. Ironically, it belonged to a retired state trooper.
The escapee, in his early 20s, was determined not to be sent back to prison. When Gonzalez pulled him over, murdering a cop seemed the only way out.
In looking back, Gonzalez saw several critical lessons that other officers can benefit from:
1. Impress upon your dispatchers how vital their job is to officer survival. It turns out it was known that the Jeep was stolen, but Gonzalez wasn’t told. Had he known that he wouldn’t have approached and instead used high-risk stop procedures.
2. Make your survival your first concern. After this incident, Gonzalez began making it a practice to stop at the rear of each vehicle he approaches and instruct the driver to put his or her hands on the steering wheel where they’re clearly visible and not to move them until they’re told to do so. He doesn’t advance until they comply. If they don’t, he backs off.
3. Use mental visualization – “when/then” thinking – to explore and reinforce ahead of time options for responding to threats. “You won’t be able to anything effective under stress unless you’ve got a plan,” Gonzalez said. He read reports of officers killed that come to his agency and studied what happened, then tried to figure out what might have been done differently.
4. Practice with your equipment more than just for qualification. In a range experiment after this incident, troopers fired their pistols as fast as they could. 50% of them experienced short stroking, just like Gonzalez had during the firefight. At the time, this potentially fatal phenomenon had never been covered in training.
5. Fight back vigorously if attacked. Let your adversary know you’re not going down easily. “I was thinking the whole time, ‘I can’t die. I have a family that’s more important than anything out here. No one has said I’m dead yet, so I’d better keep fighting.’ That survival instinct – you’ve got to have it.”
6. Always wear your vest. [Read: Are You Making the Worst Decision of Your Life?] If your uniform goes on, your vest goes on. Doctors told Gonzalez that if he wasn’t wearing his, he would have died at the scene within minutes.
7. Carry a back-up gun. If your primary weapon fails, that can keep you in the fight.