Lessons from a Fatal Shootout in a Crowded McDonald’s

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

An off-duty law-enforcement officer shares his lessons learned from a fatal shootout in a crowded McDonald’s:

I had taken my family to a McDonald’s Restaurant on our way to a pool party. I was off-duty, in civilian clothes, and armed.

I was standing in line and oblivious (like all the other patrons) to the fact that an armed suspect had taken the manager hostage and was forcing her to open the safe in the restaurant’s office. One of the cashiers had seen this and I overheard her telling another employee that the business was being robbed.

At that time, I had approximately 15 years of experience and was a SWAT team member and use-of-force/firearms instructor. I had talked to my wife about such an occurrence and we had a preplanned response. When I told her to take the children and leave the building, she did not hesitate. I began quietly telling employees and patrons to leave. My thinking was to remove as many innocent bystanders as possible and then leave myself.

I thought that because I did not see the suspect enter he must have come in from a side door or employee entrance and I assumed (wrongly) that he would go out the same way. As I was standing near the front counter trying to get some of the kitchen help to get out, the suspect came from the office area and began running in my direction.

I immediately noted the large semi-automatic pistol in his hand. The distance was about 15 to 20 yards. I drew my weapon, announced myself and took a kneeling position behind the counter. Unfortunately, the suspect raised his weapon at me and the gunfight erupted. The suspect fired a total of 2 rounds in my direction. I fired 11, striking him 10 times.

At this point, two things come to mind: (1) The distance was 15 to 20 yards? Inside a McDonald’s? (2) He’s probably carrying a Baby Glock with one in the chamber (10+1 capacity).

My weapon was now empty and I ran from the line of fire to reload my spare magazine. I then approached the downed suspect and could tell that he was seriously wounded. It was right then that I considered that there might be more than one “bad guy” (the thought had not crossed my mind before this) and I began to scan the 360 to check.

I immediately noticed a small child lying behind me. I saw blood pooling under her head and knew at a glance she was dead. One of the bullets fired at me had struck this child. Unbeknownst to me, my family had tried to exit out the fire door, which was locked. My wife was still trying to get out when the shooting started and she pushed my kids under a table where they all witnessed the gunfight.

The end result was that the suspect died, I survived, but a 9-year-old girl did not.

I tell you this story because I think that this topic is of utmost importance. It is largely ignored in mainstream police training. I want to tell you some of the lessons I learned from this incident.

1. If you are going to carry a firearm off-duty, you should carry extra ammo. Security camera video of this incident revealed that I fired all 11 rounds from my Glock 26 in about 2 seconds. My extra mag held 17 rounds. Words cannot describe the emotion I felt when I slammed that mag into my weapon and was able to still be in the fight.

Mostly because of circumstances (distance) and my training, my rounds were on target. It could have happened differently and the reality is that most of us miss more than we hit when involved in a gun battle.

2. You cannot have the typical police mind-set in an off-duty situation. I ended up in this incident without a radio, without backup, without body armor, handcuffs, other force options and without taking the time to think it through. I was truly most frightened when the gunfight was over and I was standing there covering the suspect with my weapon in my T-shirt and shorts. I was really worried that one of my own guys might not recognize me. I was worried too that there might be some other off-duty copper around who would think I was the bad guy.

The smartest, most responsible thing I could have done would have been to take care of my family first. I should have seen personally to their safety. If I had grabbed them and gone outside, I would have spared them this entire experience and that little girl would probably still be alive today.

Again, words cannot describe the emotions that we all went through after this incident. I recognized afterward that it could have been one of my children lying dead because of my actions. When you are off-duty your first responsibility is to your family. You should never forget this.

3. I survived this incident. Partly due to my training and tactics. Partly due to God’s grace and blind luck. But the other side of the coin is that I got into this incident because of my training. I switched immediately into “cop” mode without stopping to consider that I was at a great tactical disadvantage. Most of us are driven and dedicated to the point of self destruction and I think good cops die because we are taught to place our personal safety second when others are in danger.

Because I had never trained realistically for a situation like this, I was unprepared. Most of the guys I worked with then and now carry off-duty weapons. But few of them, if any, have really taken the time to engage in realistic training and preparation for how to handle an off-duty incident.

Training can be as simple as discussing these types of situations with your coworkers. Since this shooting, I have devoted at least one quarterly range session with my students to off-duty encounters and the associated considerations.

4. The responsibility of carrying a firearm is huge. I had devoted countless hours to training for the fight, but was not fully prepared for the aftermath. None of the training scenarios, books, films, etc. that I learned from touched upon the fact that when you take that gun out and decide to take action, 9-year-old kids can get killed. Even if you do everything by the book, use good tactics, and are within policy and the law, the outcome can still be negative.

You have to remember that the suspect does not go to the range and he does not practice rules of weapons safety. He does not care about what’s in his line of fire. If it’s you or him, you gotta do what you gotta do, but whether you’re on-duty or off-duty we need to train to look at the totality of the incident. Letting the bad guy go because doing otherwise would place innocent people in grave danger needs to be more “socially acceptable” amongst our ranks. I think we’re starting to see more of this in the pursuit policies of most agencies and I have tried to carry this message over into my training and teaching.

I guess the bottom line here is that it’s good to be on “auto pilot” when it comes to tactics in these situations, but we can’t go on auto pilot in our assessment and examination of the environment and circumstances leading up to and during the event. On-duty mind-set and off-duty mind-set need to be strongly separated and the boundaries clear.

Comments

  1. Todd says:

    If he hadn’t announced himself and just shot the suspect on sight, the suspect may not have shot at all, thus sparing the innocent bystander. I’m sure that the trained policy is announce and fire only if threatened. However, it’s easy to find a string of news articles where the cop outright shoots the perp and nothing comes from his short circuit of policy. Is there any talk anywhere of this kind of real world practice becoming policy? Or are the risks too great (shooting the wrong person, lawsuits)?

  2. Isegoria says:

    That raises an interesting question. When are you justified in shooting a criminal in the act? Obviously if he’s in the act of attacking someone with deadly force, you can shoot, but without overwhelming force you can’t very well announce your underwhelming presence without risking getting yourself and others killed. Letting him go reduces the immediate threat, but that leaves a violent criminal on the loose — with a positive (first) experience. It’s not like the police are going to be on the scene in force next time.

  3. Glenn B says:

    That story has to been at least a few, if not several, years old by now. it has been beaten to death as to “what ifs”. Yep, too bad he never realistically trained for such a situation (my agency covered that at least during one of each years quarterly training sessions but no matter what the officer did, if someone had died, he would probably still be blaming himself because he was helpless to have prevented it and he was not the cause of it, it is a mental trauma thing to believe you caused it in such a situation.

    It is also too bad he made some of the statements he did before going through a complete and successful course of treatment for PTSD. For him to believe that anything he did caused that little girls death is a shame; it happened and he was in no way the cause of it. Remember, I said there have been a lot of “what ifs”, well I just would just ask you to consider what iffing this along these lines: What if he let the guy go and the guy walked into another place and killed three kids, and four adults during the course of another robbery? Or, what if he let the guy go and the guy grabbed one of the cops kids as a shield and later killed the officer’s own child? Who would be at fault in either of those situations – would it have been the officer? You can bet that after the fact the officer would have thought so, just as he thought he was at fault after the death of the little girl. You see, it can be what iffed all the way through the end of this century and we can second guess the officer and he can second guess himself, the thing is he did not kill or cause to be killed that little child. The bad guy was the cause, no one else, and it was at the moment that he decided he was going to go out to rob that McDonald’s that he started to make things go wrong.

    All the best,
    Glenn B

  4. I hope the officer ultimately was able to recover from his feelings of guilt in this situation. Glenn B is right. Who knows how many lives he saved with his actions! That being said, this recount is uncomfortably full of what sounds like “only ones” language. He spends an awful lot of time talking about his “training.” We all grow weary of LEOs acting as though they have magical training that sets them so far apart from us mere mortals. I don’t at all mean to minimize this guy’s experience, but even we who carry no badge seek out training and practice — often more than those with badges ever get. I still hope and pray I never have to put any of this type of training to use.

  5. Dave says:

    Hadn’t seen this before, but it confirms a few things to me. I train non-LEOs for CCW, and add some things if the students agree to the extra time (even the NRA Personal Protection Outside the Home course, good as it is, is “too square range oriented” and lacking in some respects).

    1) Carry your gun. Always, every time.

    2) Carry spare ammo. As much of it as you can. Test every mag you carry. Practice with speed loaders.

    3) Carry a spare gun, if you can.

    4) Your spouse/partner/significant other should (hopefully) be trained and at least minimally skilled with your carry gun and backup.

    5) As a non-LEO you are not a cop or security guard – you carry a gun to protect your life and the lives of your family. Your life and theirs are the first and only priority. Unless facing a direct and immediate threat to life or safety, do not attempt to prove you’re a better shot than the bad guy.

    6) There may be more than one bad guy, and he/she may be posing as “just another customer.” Don’t tip your hand.

    7) Never enter a walled or confined structure without establishing an exit plan, which may require being choosy about where you sit. In this case the LEO should have noticed the locked fire exit. If you cannot establish a good exit plan, leave. There are lots of restaurants.

    8) Have a flashlight. If the lights go out you’ll need it to escape. Use it sparingly – a single light in a dark room attracts attention. And sometimes bullets.

    9) If the poop hits the fan, imitate the wallpaper (see #5) and look for a way to execute your escape plan.

    10) Stay alert. In lines, blade away from the counter to monitor entrances/exits, shift position to monitor 360 degrees, use reflections (glass, etc.) to see around you, around corners, etc.

    11) If something doesn’t look right, leave. Leave now. There are lots of restaurants and other stores to shop in.

    12) Spouses, and children, once they become old enough to understand, should be trained to follow parent’s instructions without hesitation. When Mom or Dad says “we’re leaving right now” (use of an “emergency” code word is a useful addition) Johnny or Susie should get up and go with the parent without discussion. This needs to be a family training issue, and the younger the child the harder it will be.

    13) Spouses should have non-verbal signals for emergency situations. This means they have to have implicit trust in each other; if the instruction is to “leave right now” and your partner says “But Johnny hasn’t finished his hamburger” that’s something you need to work on. That trust goes both ways – either one of you may have seen something warranting an immediate exit. If it turns out to be nothing you can always go back in.

    14) Spouses/significant others/friends/children should be trained to not say things like “Dad, you’ve got a gun, why don’t you stop/shoot him?” It may be quite prudent to not let others (non-spouse, friends) know you’re carrying.

  6. Alrenous says:

    You’re justified in shooting a criminal whenever it would prevent an innocent from dying or otherwise being permanently injured. It is a bit fuzzy when exactly that is, but the signs could be cleared up with some grunt science.

    1. If the cop could have prevented the robber from deciding to rob, he would have. Therefore, all effects of the robbery are the responsibility of the perpetrator.

    2. However, a well-trained warrior is aware that they draw fire and tries to stay on top of what they’re drawing fire into.

    A really well-trained warrior will use the enemy’s fire as a weapon. For example, choosing cover or approaches so that the shots are directed to attract the attention of armed allies.

    Consciously trying to use the enemy’s fire to your advantage unavoidably makes the warrior aware of their choices, and therefore of what isn’t their choice and thus isn’t their responsibility.

    In this case, were there several avenues the gunman could have attacked from? Or only one? If several, the time available to direct the gunman’s fire is between announcement and when he finished the kneeling movement.

    Come to think, I hope he got those switched in order. Take cover, then announce, if you must announce.

    According to this account, that alone would likely have improved the outcome. Announcing gave the robber time to react. If instead the cop is in position, gun already trained, the cop can fire the instant the robber starts raising his weapon.

  7. Dave says:

    Alrenous says try to control the axis so armed allies can help. OK, so let’s think some more about this – the cop in McD’s identifies himself as law enforcement and engages the bad guy with a displayed firearm/opens fire; bad guy starts shooting at cop/returns fire. You’re in McD’s eating, see what’s happening, are willing to accept the risks. You draw your Blastomatic 5000 and doubletap Bad Guy’s head. Fight over immediately, no 9-year-old dead, no one injured except Bad Guy, no money lost for McD’s.

    1) Do you wind up drawing fire from the cop because he thinks you’re Bad Guy’s accomplice? If not, why not? (That includes off duty/non-uniformed LEOs).

    2) What will be left of your life after The Only Ones get through interrogating and brutalizing you? They certainly will confiscate your gun, investigate you to the Nth degree and generally disapprove of you invading their turf.

    3) Since one never – and I mean never says word one to cops without one’s lawyer present and leading the way verbally, what will be the dollar hit you suffer for legal fees?

  8. Will says:

    It seems to me the absolutely stupid thing that off duty cops do is to verbally challenge the bad guy. This tends to get the wrong people killed/injured. If things are bad enough to warrant pulling out your gun, you should be letting your gun speak for you. Otherwise, it should stay holstered. It’s not a f’ing talisman!

  9. Jon A. says:

    The only issue with him shooting the guy without warning would be if he didn’t even have a gun or a real gun. Sure he might be in the right technically, but the wrong DA would send him to jail, or he could lose his job.

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