Off Duty Denver Cop Intervenes in Robbery — Results Are Mixed

This story has been reported extensively, in The Denver Post and Channel4 News and elsewhere.  Here’s what happened:

A female Denver Police Sergeant went into a Walgreens store to pick up a prescription.  Two masked men run into the pharmacy shouting “this is a stick up.”  Three women behind the counter are scared out of their wits and begin crying.  Although she never saw a weapon, and no news story I have found indicates these robbers brandished any weapon, the female off-duty cop in street clothes drew her gun from her purse, jumped between the bad guys and the store clerks and, in her own words, “I tried to use verbal judo, I wanted them to think this crazy woman might shoot their —.”

She identified herself as a police officer and ordered the men to go to their knees and put their hands in the air.  They complied.  She asked the three women behind her to call the police.  Then she noticed one of the bad guys “sizing her up.”  He suddenly lunged at her; she fired but missed. He began beating her, using a milk crate for a weapon.  She tried to fire a second shot but her gun had jammed.   The bad guys wrestled it away from her and…[it’s not clear whether they tried to shoot her with her own gun] they ran out of the store, taking the cop’s gun with them.

Outside the store one of the robbers carjacked a vehicle and the other sped away in another car, possibly the same one the two of them had previously arrived in.  Two suspects, one 56 and the other 25, were later arrested and charged with aggravated robbery and assaulting a police officer. Disarming a police officer is a felony everywhere, and I’d expect them to be charged with that also.

In the Denver Post story the officer sums up her experience this way:  “There might be people who question what I did. I did the best that I could do. The tactics I used were sound. The outcome to me was ideal. The women are OK.”  Yeah.  But if the bad guys had known how to clear the malfunction, the outcome might have been horribly different.

None of the stories I read indicated whether the bad guys tried to shoot the officer with her own gun, but her own words suggest that might be the case:  “He was able to wrestle the gun from me, but like I stated, the gun had malfunctioned, it was inoperable. There was an angel on my shoulder.”

The reference to an angel on her shoulder could mean that one of the robbers did try to shoot her. However, they were not charged with attempted murder, at least not yet, as they might have been if they had tried to fire her gun at her and failed.  Perhaps a later news story will answer that question.

Lessons to be Learned

It’s always easy to criticize and Monday-morning quarterback someone’s performance under stress and so it should only be done with care, recognizing that none of us will likely perform at peak level in the same situation.  Nevertheless, there are some glaring mistakes made by the officer in this incident that deserve comment.

The first thing anyone whether police officer or lawfully armed citizen should do in this situation is decide whether to get involved or to simply be a good witness.  This is a critical decision point that should be made with intelligence guided by experience.  The experience part need not necessarily be one’s own experience.  We can learn from the experience of others, if we know what that experience happens to be.  One thing that can be known by anyone who pays attention, and should be known to every police officer, is that in most robberies it’s just about the money or the drugs or whatever they are trying to get.  Most of the time they don’t want to get into a fight with anyone, they don’t want to hurt anyone, they just want to get the money and run.  These are the “resource” criminals, they want to turn your resources into theirs, and get away fast and clean.

These are cases where a legally armed citizen or even a police officer, especially an off-duty police officer without back up, will wisely decide to be a good witness instead of a hero.  That appears to be  the case here.  Had this officer simply kept her distance, remained ready to draw her weapon if necessary to save a life or prevent injury, these bad guys would likely have been quickly apprehended without placing her’s or the other women’s lives in danger.  As it was, she needed that angel on her shoulder.  If her gun had not malfunctioned she might have been shot.

The resource criminals are the majority.  But there is another kind, the “process” criminal.  These are the truly twisted sisters who are not satisfied with the loot alone.  They do want to hurt people.  For them, it’s part of the process.  Learning to recognize them is how an armed citizen or an off-duty police officer can know when getting involved is no longer an option but a necessity to your own or someone else’s survival.

If you are facing a criminal that has gone over the threshold of robbery to aggravated assault or attempted murder, there is still another hurdle that must be jumped before deciding to engage with your weapon.  This is called “know thyself.”  Know whether you have the proper training and experience to handle what can happen next.  In this case, the officer’s gun malfunctioned.  There are three basic types of handgun malfunctions, and three types of ammunition malfunctions.  The ammo malfunctions can be ignored for most purposes because modern factory ammo of the type used by most police departments is simply so good as to make ammo malfunctions a thing of the past, except perhaps for those using their own reloaded ammunition.  The handgun malfunctions are reduced to only two because the third one, a broken firing pin spring, is rare in any gun kept in good repair.  So it comes down to the failure to eject a spent case, called a stove pipe malfunction, or a failure to feed a new cartridge, called a type III malfunction.

A police officer or an armed citizen with proper training and practice should know how to clear either of these malfunctions in about 2 seconds in order to put the gun back into battery.  This is a skill that must be learned and perfected on the firing range so that it can be done automatically, without thinking, at the critical moment. [Cops who merely stand in the shooters’ box at an indoor range and punch holes in paper to meet their periodic qualifications never get this sort of training]

I’d be hesitant to fault this officer for missing the first shot at close range since this seems to be fairly common under stress.  But if she had been able to get her gun running again she might have made her attacker have a very bad day.

The worst part of this incident is that she took a risk that was unwarranted by the circumstances.  These guys didn’t appear to have a weapon.  Unless the news stories I have read are sorely lacking, nobody ever saw a weapon.  She should have kept her distance from these guys, hit the speed dial for 911 on her cell phone, been a good witness, and waited to see what else would develop.  Beyond that, she might think about getting to the range for some practice in clearing malfunctions and getting back into the fight.

Finally, this officer should think hard about the bad guy who was sizing her up.  Was he crazy, charging into a gun pointed in his face?   Or did he see something in her that made him think his chances would be good?  Always think about that before you draw a weapon on a dangerous criminal.  By all means draw your weapon when your life is threatened, but only as a last resort when all else has failed.  From that moment on, anything can happen.  You can’t always count on having an angel on your shoulder.

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