Friday, November 9, 2012

Life and death

This is going to be a long-winded story.  If you're short on time or get bored, you can skip the tedious part and just go to the heart of the matter: the last sentence.  I was reading reports in my living room early yesterday morning, when a case file brought back the memory of a winter night almost three decades ago.

I was a 31 year old sergeant with the big squad of officers working the second shift for the Northwest-Center Team.  It was a busy Friday night, and the city was hopping.  Everyone on our squad was tied up on calls, so dispatch sent Officer Bob Citta off his beat from Southwest Lincoln to an incident downtown.  He was a long ways off, but this couldn't wait for a downtown officer to clear.  The dispatcher detailed him to the McDonald's restaurant on the southeast corner of 14th and O Streets, where Sandy's bar is now located, on a report that a man had come into the business carrying a large knife.

I was just clearing from HQ a few blocks away, so I offered to back and cruised up 14th Street.  There was an unobstructed view into the restaurant. It looked like business as usual inside, so I didn't wait for Officer Citta's arrival. I told dispatch that everything appeared normal, and went in to see what had happened.  The manager was at the counter, and gave me the details: a man had come into the store and approached the counter as if he was going to place an order.  He was holding a very large knife in his right hand, with a wrap-around handle like brass knuckles.  He kept the knife at his side, and never said anything. After a few seconds, he simply turned and walked away, leaving out the O Street door a few minutes before I arrived.

"Can you describe him for me?" I asked.  "Well, he was shorter, and had bushy red hair.  He was wearing an OD field jacket and blue jeans...." Suddenly, the manager pointed over my right shoulder and said, "That's him!"  I turned.  The man he described had entered through the same O Street door and was making a beeline towards the restroom, now with me in hot pursuit.   As he pushed the restroom door open, I heard a loud metallic clank. He had tossed his trench knife in the sink, although I couldn't see it.  I grabbed a handful of jacket and the fight was on. We spilled into the dining room, customers scattering, tables, milkshakes, and french fries flying.

Now many young men have been in a fight at some point in time: maybe some fisticuffs for honor behind the schoolhouse, or a scuffle on the basketball court when tempers have flared.  Few, however, have been in a real fight, one in which someone is likely to be hurt, and hurt badly.  I had been in plenty of scrums during my 11 years as a police officer, but this one was entirely different.  This man wasn't trying to posture for his girlfriend, save face in front of his buddies, or merely get away from a police officer attempting to make an arrest. He had plenty of opportunity to just bolt for the door. This guy came back for a fight, he wanted to fight, and was amped up to the nth degree.

Time is compressed in such situations. Two or three minutes seems like an eternity.  You are exhausted within moments.  I needed both hands from the outset, and couldn't reach for my radio to call Code 61.  The customers and crew were looking on, and I was hoping someone was on the phone.  I later learned that the manager had called 911 three times during the battle, as dispatchers frantically tried to find someone closer to respond. At one point, I managed to get my nightstick out, and deliver a blow to his legs, without much effect.  The subject grabbed my nightstick, and we struggled for control. I was bigger, but couldn't quite get the upper hand.

And then it happened.  We were wrestling with both hands over my baton, when he head butted me, square in the face and hard. Really hard.  I was dazed, seeing stars, about to puke.  I knew that if I lost consciousness or lost control of my nightstick, I was a goner. There was a S&W Model 66 .357 on my hip and a Model 36 .38 in my ankle holster. I couldn't let go of the stick to reach for either, but if I passed out, my assailant would have all my weapons, and he had that look in his eyes.  As this life and death moment was about to tip one way or the other, a rookie University of Nebraska police officer, Carl Oestmann, arrived and entered the fray just as my knees buckled.  He was followed shortly by Officer Don Naughton, and then the cavalry.

Officer Oestmann, probably ignoring some rule about leaving campus to chase City calls, had saved my life.  I was apparently talking nonsense, which concerned Officer Naughton sufficiently that he piled me into his patrol car and trundled me off to the hospital. I was treated and released, sent on my way with a prescription for Darvon suffering nothing more serious than a slightly bruised ego, a bad headache, split lip, and a couple loosened teeth.  I took a pass on the prescription, and went home to my loving wife, my little boy, and my baby girl, all sleeping soundly.

As I was reading the police reports on this case yesterday morning, I thought back to my encounter with Mark Rittenhouse on that cold February night in 1985.  Officer Tu Tran was in a similar situation--probably even more dangerous--in the wee hours yesterday morning. Alone, he had lost his radio during the pursuit and struggle, deployed his TASER without sufficient effect, was engaged in a protracted episode of hand-to-hand combat, and was rapidly running out of options.  As is often the case, this was a much more intense encounter than the short news story conveys.

Thank God Officer Tran was able to prevail, and that his fellow officers found him with the help of a citizen who heard the fight, called 911, and vectored them in to his aid.  Thank God there are men and women who are willing to risk their lives in the dark of night to protect their community and their fellow citizens.


Anonymous said...

the headbutt reminded me of Vin Diesel in the knockaround guys "500 fights, that’s the number I figured when I was a kid. 500 street fights and you could consider yourself a legitimate tough guy. You need them for experience. To develop leather skin. So I got started. Of course along the way you stop thinking about being tough and all that. It stops being the point. You get past the silliness of it all. But then, after, you realize that’s what you are. I tell you, you learn a lot of things on your way to 500" then he headbutts the guy

Herb said...

And before this incident, some officers and their superiors would tell you that the Taser is the most effective weapon we could provide an officer on the street. More valuable than an equivalent amount of money spent on training hands on, close quarter techniques. The Taser is a much more politically effective device, but certainly does not provide the protection it's legion of admirers would profess.

I agree that it's a good tool, but it obviously has limitations. By adding it to the arsenal but taking away training on other methods, the department has introduced an immeasurable cost vs. effect ratio that is a huge gamble.

Hopefully when the day comes that it wasn't enough, an officer is still able to go home. I'm glad I won't have to convince myself I wasn't liable for what happened to that officer.

Anonymous said...

One of the few things burned into my memory from the Grand Island police academy - If you lose your weapon, 9 out of 10 times - it will be used against you. Period.

The average person doesn't appreciate what is at stake when an office has to lay hands on another person - either in a simple scuffle or an all out brawl. This isn't a fight until someone calls "uncle" it's a fight for freedom for the perp - and a fight for your life if you are in uniform. And it's a fight you cannot lose - period.

Unknown said...

One never forgets those battles, that look or intensity and yes there are many comparisons from three decades to the present. In a job where tranquility can change in an instant law enforcement is a full-contact occupation physically and psychologically. Tough guys don't care, cops do and sometimes one has to simply get darn right mean to survive. Good Story brings back memories for me as well. Tom Duden

Anonymous said...

I spent thousands of hours on wrestling mats and in the boxing ring as a kid. Plus I worked physically demanding jobs up until I was in my late twenties. Now I am in my sixties and can no longer depend on being able to use physical prowess to protect myself. Waiting a few minutes for help to arrive after calling 911 is not my ONLY option.

However I do want to thank those of you that wear the uniform and are willing to answer my call for help and put yourself at risk if it is needed.

Gun Nut

ARRRRG!!!! said...

Now that I'm older, the fights I have aren't nearly as life or death.

Anonymous said...


Out of curiosity, in a situation like this what would the typical officer's response be if one of the customers had entered the fight in an attempt to help?

I can see where it isn't a black and white situation since the LEO has no idea what the intention of the other person is... at the same time there are many out there who would jump in a heart beat to help the good guys out.

Steve said...

I agree with Gun Nut, and I can only hope that I never get into a life-or-death situation. As much as I'm determined to protect myself, I would not enjoy ending someone else's life (or losing mine). Thanks for all you do, LPD and the entire law enforcment community.

Tom Casady said...


How do you say ... eternal gratitude? Actually citizens have done just that on several occasions in the past few years, as evidenced by awards we have bestowed in recognition. I can recall a few incidents where bystanders lent me a hand. It is a dicey situation, especially in a crowd where it can be difficult in the fog of battle to know who is a good guy, and who isn't. I can only tell you that on the night of my closest call, I would have welcomed a few diners joining the festivities on my side.

Steve said...

I recall many years ago, my dad was passing a patrol car that had pulled someone over to the side of the road. The officer appeared to be in some danger as the occupants of the car had gotten out and were acting in a threatening manner toward the officer. Dad pulled over, got out and asked if the officer needed asssistance. That was enough to end the treat. The officer expressed his thanks, finished the traffic stop, and Dad went on his way. He neither expected, nor sought any recognition for his deed. It was simply the right thing to do. I have no doubt I would do likewise if I felt it was necessary.

Anonymous said...

I would have to jump in and help any Law Enforcement Officer who was in a bad way. I wouldn't even think about would be instinct. Maybe I would get myself hurt or worse, but still, I would do it.

Atticus said...

Thanks Director. A very relevant and descriptive story of what cops may face. Thankfully not every day. Unfortunately, we do not know WHICH day.

Anonymous said...

The true heroes are the cops who make split second decisions on their own in the dark of night.

Firefighters have a chance to assess a situation ahead of time before acting.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 5:19 AM: Firefighters do NOT always have time to assess a situation they become involved in. But at any rate, I fail to see the need to compare which job has more dangerous circumstances that warrant a 'hero' title. Anyone who risks their lives to help/save others is a hero in my eyes, regardless of which badge they wear.

Steve said...


Is a firefighter less of a hero because he had time to assess the situation, or more of a hero because he risked his life anyway in an attempt to save someone. How much time do they really have anyway, when every second they waste means that much more destruction or less of a chance of saving anyone?

Steve said...


I posted a comment a day or two ago on this, or at least I thought I did. I don't want to say the same thing twice, but I'd like to make my point that firefighters, even if they do have time to assess a situation before they "go in" are not less heroic because of it. Indeed, having time to think about it and still making the decision to "go in" at the risk of their lives is perhaps more heroic than the split second decisions made by cops on occasion.

Anonymous said...

If someone is going to die in a confrontation and the ONLY option to prevent it is for my involvement, I would help. People forget that police officers have a high risk job and going home each day-night is prayer answered.
Maybe I am a bit prude, but I say a short "protect those who ride" request each time I run my bus. The liability and cost of just one mistake can be huge in some jobs. And those who would rescue anyone of us from a situation deserve to be helped from those french fry munching lard bottoms. Have a coke and a smile is one line I welcome at the golden arches. And a happy meal is far better than a man with large knife. Tom, the toy surprise you had has been discontinued after many complaints. The many reckless drivers on the road are still on the menu. May I suggest a red light detail with a diet coke at 27th and Vine 1530hrs to 1800hrs.

Anonymous said...

Politically incorrect as heck, but when I see tapes or hear stories about scum fighting the officers, I really wish the judicious use of a night stick or maglight were still okay. Have several kin in law enforcement, and I'd like to seee them ritire in one piece some day.

Anonymous said...

Thanksfully both your situation and this most recent situation turned out the way they did and the good guys were able to return home in one piece. Thank you officers for all that you do for the citizens of this town!

Dave Ellis said...

I remember back around 1979, I was working for a local security company and we employed a scanner in our call to monitor calls, as we responded to Wells Fargo alarms at the time. One Friday night on patrol I heard an office put a call for help at the old Nevin Drug on 2th and Holdrege. An office had discovered a shattered front window of the building and had stop to investigate. As he did so, a suspect came flying out the window and attacked the officer with a crowbar, leaving the officer bleeding and dazed and confused. As I was just two or three blocks away I slid into the parking lot in my security car and stayed with the Officer until some official police help got there to assist him.

The officer in question was grateful that I took time out of my work to stay with him and protect him from the suspect returning to the scene. A Sgt pulled up shortly there after and off I went on my patrol duties.

A few weeks later, my boss called me into his office and awarded me a letter of commendation from then Chief Leightner (I think), thanking me for staying with his injured officer until the Cavalry arrived.

I would do that again today and protect any officer who was injured and in need of help or assistance. Citizens and Police, working together, as it should be.

I never got the Officer's name, or his Sargents name, but I know that the Chief was pleased that I stood by with his injured officer. I will never forget that night, and may even still have that letter filed away somewhere around here in my files. To this day, I bet that cop would shake my hand for my help that night. I was pleased do have been there for him that night.

Dave Ellis said...

LOL, I went back and read this letter... Wow, look at the typos. That is what I get for composing it on my Nexus 7 tablet.

Can I get a do over? LOL