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A couple of years ago, in Roanoke, Virginia, deputy U.S. marshal Mike Thompson and his female partner were escorting a 43-year-old convicted bank robber from jail to a local clinic. As the deputies walked their charge back to their car in the clinic parking lot, they were ambushed. A man holding a long-barreled .357 yelled, “Freeze! Put your hands up!” Thompson raised his hands and deliberately stared into the eyes of the man, who was only a few yards away.
As he did, “something in pink” came toward him. A woman in jeans and a pink top (who later turned out to be the prisoner’s girlfriend) ran around behind Thompson. (Tunnel vision, like “tachypsychia,” the sensation that everything is happening in slow motion, is common in gunfights.) She stuck a tear-gas canister into the small of Thompson’s back and with her free hand started to frisk him for his sidearm. The prisoner was trying to do the same, but was hampered by manacles and a waist chain.
In the seconds that followed the deputy and the gunman stayed locked “eyeball-to-eyeball,” Thompson recalls. Suddenly, the girlfriend, behind Thompson and to his left, shouted, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” The gunman’s eyes strayed to Thompson’s partner, and he demanded her sidearm. Thompson had his opening.
Pushing the girlfriend away with his left hand, Thompson drew and fired, hitting the gunman in the chest and head. He spun to his left, toward the girlfriend, and fired one blind “desperation shot” over his left arm. As that bullet struck the pavement just behind him, Thompson says, “at the end of the barrel, I saw the color pink, and I pulled the trigger.” His fourth and final shot fatally wounded the girlfriend.
When the shots burst out, the prisoner had started a dash for freedom. Thompson grabbed him by the back of his prison uniform, threw him to the ground, and put his foot on the man’s neck. Revolver in both hands, the deputy swiveled in a wide arc, scanning the deserted parking lot for another accomplice, possibly a driver for a getaway car. There was no one else.
Mike Thompson owes his and his partner’s lives to several things: his cool in an emergency, many hours on the pistol range, his training at the U.S. Marshals Service Training Academy. Oh yes, and to one more thing. “Part of the reason I survived,” he says, “was Calibre Press.”
A small private company based in Northbrook, Calibre Press has over the past ten years taught more than 80,000 cops tactics that help them make it to the end of the shift, and to retirement, intact. The three-day survival seminars it runs cover subjects like the best way to kick in a door, tips on handling a bar fight, and how to use a small mirror to make searching a building safer. The seminars, along with the two books it’s published and the videos it’s produced, have made Calibre a big player in the police officer survival movement.
Almost unknown to civilians but widely familiar to cops, the officer survival movement began haltingly, spurred partly by two notorious cop killings in California: the 1963 onion-field murder, the subject of Joseph Wambaugh’s book The Onion Field and the movie of the same title, and the 1970 Newhall Massacre, in which four California Highway Patrol officers were killed in a gunfight at a rural truck stop. It evolved as cops like Mike Thompson, realizing that their tactical skills were incomplete or outdated–and that these shortcomings were getting some of them killed–sought more intensive self-protection instruction than they’d had in training. These days it’s a healthy business, and there are several organizations across the country teaching cops everything from gunfight tactics and speed handcuffing to stress-reduction techniques.
The idea is that people don’t get good at what they don’t practice. Most cops don’t get into life-threatening situations very often; in a typical career of 20 years or so, the average cop doesn’t even fire a gun in the line of duty, much less get into a TV-style gunfight. Yet a cop needs to remember that the next routine traffic stop or call about the same raucous, drunken neighbors could be the one that turns his or her family into mourners.
Police departments often used to feel that risk simply goes with the turf, and that if recruits can’t handle it they’re perfectly free to do something safer for a living. The survival movement holds that though risk is unavoidable, it can almost always be minimized. With the right training and the right attitude, a cop can help search an abandoned tenement for a suspect or be the first one at a convenience-store holdup and still go home unscathed at shift’s end. More recently, the movement’s mentors have started to push tactics for avoiding alcoholism, divorce, and suicide, which have ruined more cops than gunfights have.
Calibre’s growth is one measure of the roots that officer survival training has put down in the law-enforcement world. The company’s first book, Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters, has sold more than 135,000 copies since 1980. The second, a 540-page treatise called The Tactical Edge: Surviving High-Risk Patrol, has gone through seven printings in five years. Calibre’s 1988 video, Surviving Edged Weapons, received awards from three film festivals and has sold 11,000 copies.
Perhaps most impressive, Calibre has become a trusted mentor in the closed-in world of police despite the fact that its two founders are civilians. Chuck Remsberg began his career as a reporter for the Sun-Times and later spent 20 years as a full-time free-lance writer; Dennis Anderson was an actor and a director of industrial movies. Remsberg, 55, is tall and lanky, like the pewter figurine of an Old West sheriff that stands on his desk. Anderson is a young-looking 45, trim and clean-cut, like an Eagle Scout lightly pushing middle age.
Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, Remsberg got a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1959. After graduation, he started at the Sun-Times as a night-shift reporter and rewrite man.
“I wasn’t real happy working there,” Remsberg says, so he started free-lancing on the side, originally for detective magazines. On his first anniversary at the Sun-Times, he quit to free-lance full-time. The next 20 years included a stint as a principal writer of the final report by the Walker Commission, which investigated the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Anderson, a Minneapolis native, finished a psychology degree at the University of Minnesota in 1967 and promptly headed to Los Angeles to study acting and directing. Over the next couple of years he landed small speaking parts in several movies, including Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came and Hello, Dolly. In 1969 he returned to the Twin Cities and spent several years producing TV commercials and industrial and public-relations films. In the early 70s he ran across a trade-magazine ad placed by Motorola Teleprograms Inc., a producer of police training films then based in Schiller Park, which was looking for a producer.
To give himself a taste of police work, Anderson went on a 12-hour ride with Minneapolis cops in a rough neighborhood one night. “Pretty heavy-duty stuff,” he recalls, “for a nice kid from southern Minneapolis.”
He then called MTI and got copies of some of their movies. “The production values were embarrassing,” he says, and worse, “the content didn’t strike me as being accurate.”
Anderson leveled with MTI about what he thought of their products and pitched them some ideas of his own. MTI bought them and hired him to head up production. He and his wife moved here in 1974.
It was at MTI that Anderson met Pierce Brooks, another practitioner of police survival techniques and a legendary former Los Angeles homicide detective. During a distinguished 21-year career at the LAPD, Brooks had been the chief investigator on the onion-field cop killing and the department’s expert on serial murderers, including the one portrayed in the pilot show of Dragnet. When Anderson met him, Brooks was the police chief in Lakewood, Colorado, and was at MTI working on the movie to accompany his book Officer Down, Code Three, the first book to focus solely on officer survival. He and Anderson “struck it off real well from the start,” Brooks says.
The onion-field murder had reinforced something that had been nagging at Brooks for years: whenever a cop was killed in the line of duty, the gritty details never seemed to come out. “You’d get ten different stories,” he says. “I remember as a young police officer going to a police funeral and wondering why we weren’t being told the whole story.”
At that time, the LAPD didn’t talk about why an officer had been killed, what mistakes he might have made that contributed to his own death, Brooks says. “I don’t think any department did. You went to the funeral and that was it. Period.” He started working within the LAPD to take the veil off cop killings–and to find the tactics that would save other cops’ lives. The lessons from more than ten years of digging and teaching wound up in Officer Down, Code Three, which MTI produced as a book-and-movie set.
Two years later, Brooks took over the top cop’s job in Eugene, Oregon. He left in 1980 (“Don’t say ‘retired'”) to write a long-postponed text on homicide investigation. “That was ten years ago,” he says with a laugh, “and I’ve written 40 pages.” What’s kept Brooks, 69, from his typewriter is incessant lecturing, along with consulting on such serial murders as the 1979 Atlanta child killings and Chicago’s 1982 Tylenol murders. (All he’ll say about the Tylenol case is that contrary to one popular theory, the killer “was not aiming at a particular victim. The motive was the key to the case, and I can’t say any more.” When I mention that the case was never solved, Brooks interrupts to say, “You mean that no one was convicted.”)
After a couple decades of teaching police survival, Brooks says he sometimes gets too wrapped up in it. He admits he’s caught himself yelling at the cops on TV when they do something wrong. That’s not surprising, really, because Brooks, Remsberg, and Anderson see TV and movies as bad influences on cops. Calibre’s book The Tactical Edge, for example, warns against the “Starsky and Hutch Syndrome”–holding your gun next to your head, muzzle up. The grip was made for TV, so the camera could tightly frame the actor’s face and the gun at the same time. In real life, it’s pointless and dangerous. An Indiana trooper trying to force a door during a raid while holding his .45 that way accidentally discharged the weapon, the book notes, fatally shooting himself in the head.
Though there’s never been a business relationship between them, Calibre’s founders still stay in touch with Brooks. “He’s considered sort of the father of the police survival movement,” Remsberg says.
Brooks reciprocates the compliment. “Denny and Chuck put on probably the best presentation on survival I have ever heard of, by far,” Brooks says. He sent his son, a corporal with the West Covina (California) police, to a Calibre seminar several years ago.
Despite his pivotal role in police survival, Brooks is uncomfortable with the term “officer survival movement.” To him, as to some other cops, the word “survival” next to the word “movement” brings to mind rifle-toting extremists in camouflage. “I never thought of it in those words,” he muses. “It started too gradually.”
The day after being interviewed, however, Brooks calls back. Not for nothing did Joe Wambaugh write of him in The Onion Field that “his thoroughness was legend.” Brooks has checked the definition of “movement” in every dictionary within reach. “There is no other way to say it,” he concludes. “There is definitely a movement toward officer survival.”
As executive producer for more than 100 MTI training films, Anderson was a stickler for quality and accuracy. He sat in on police academy classes when he could, and once sent a questionnaire to 2,000 police departments asking what they wanted to see in training films.
Though MTI’s management wanted Anderson to stick to producing, in 1977 he directed an MTI film called Hostage Negotiation for Police. He later hired Remsberg, whom he’d met through a mutual friend, to write the instructor’s manual for the movie.
The collaboration was a hit. “That film was a smash success,” Anderson says. “They sold 50, 60 copies to the U.S. Army alone.” The following year it took a Silver Screen award at the U.S. Industrial Film Festival. With a running time of 47 minutes, Hostage Negotiation was the longest police training film ever made.
It was also the start of a durable partnership. His appetite whetted, Anderson directed another MTI movie, again over management’s objections, with Remsberg helping on the research and script. Survival Shooting Techniques outdid the earlier effort by winning a Golden Camera at the 1979 IFF.
The two men had plenty of material left after finishing the 30-minute movie and figured that a book would be a good idea. Remsberg wrote Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters with the understanding that MTI would publish it. His two main sources, listed as coauthors, were Special Agent Ronald Adams of the Riverside (California) police and Lieutenant Thomas McTernan of the New York police.
Soon after finishing the manuscript, however, Remsberg found out MTI wanted a 200-page book, with no more than a few dozen photos. “This is not how Denny and I saw the book,” he says. “This was very jarring.” He returned all the money MTI had advanced and got the rights to the book.
Shortly before that, Anderson says, he’d realized that the kind of police movies he wanted to make couldn’t “just be cranked out.” He quit MTI and under the name Bravo Productions made Risk of Capture, a classified film for the federal government about surviving as a hostage. It was finished just before the hostages returned from Iran in 1981, and several of them who saw it, says Anderson, said it was so accurate “it sent chills down their backs.”
Meanwhile, negotiations with another publisher fell through, and Remsberg and Anderson decided to publish Street Survival themselves. “Neither of us knew anything about the book-publishing business,” says Remsberg. They laid out their personal savings to publish the break-even quantity, 5,000 copies, of a 400-page book crammed with over 500 photos. “We figured we’d have to sell 5,000 copies in five years, in a worst-case scenario.” Remsberg planned on staying with his free-lancing, and Anderson would continue running Bravo.
When Street Survival came out in April 1980, Calibre’s “office” was the basement of Remsberg’s house in Evanston. “The phone would ring at three in the morning, guys calling up wanting to order this book,” Remsberg says. “They’re working nights, and they don’t have any idea that this is ringing in somebody’s home. So I would stumble out of bed and answer the phone and take an order and chat with these guys. It was pretty wild.”
One of those phone calls was from a reserve police officer in south-suburban Lansing. He loved the book and asked if Calibre had any films or slides they could show to a group of cops he would get together.
The partners agreed to do a simple presentation, and one night with a trunkful of books they trekked from the North Shore to the south suburbs. “It was held in some junior high school,” says Remsberg. “He had about 30 guys, and they’re all crowded into these junior high school desks with the writing arm.”
Unfortunately, Anderson had forgotten the slides at home. “Denny tends to wing it,” Remsberg says with a laugh, “so we scrounged around and found a blackboard, and he drew some things that he had in mind from these slides. Then we talked a little bit about officer survival and invited people to buy the books and nobody much bought anything, and they kind of all left.
“This was one of the most depressing rides of my life, back with our empty cash box. We had sold maybe four books. Denny’s wife had gone along to handle the deluge of sales we’d anticipated. . . . We had really laid everything on the line with this book.”
But word about Calibre and officer survival spread among south-suburban cops. Within a few months Street Survival was into its second printing, and a cop from Richton Park called to ask if Calibre would come out and present a program. In November 1980, Remsberg and Anderson did two identical one-day seminars a week apart at Governors State University; they scheduled the second after the first one sold out.
Later that winter, Remsberg got a panicked phone call from a cop with Youngstown State University in Ohio who’d lined up an officer survival seminar only to have all his speakers cancel. He needed two days of material–with barely two months’ lead time.
In February of ’81 Calibre pulled it off, and the seminar pulled in about 350 officers. “These guys were totally blown out of the saddle by the fact that anybody would talk about officer survival and make it a program that didn’t put you to sleep,” Remsberg says. Teaching street tactics up till then, he notes, had typically consisted of disjointed accounts of “somebody’s war stories.”
Driven by word of mouth, more requests for seminars rolled in, and Calibre’s seminar business was off and running. A year later, the company started promoting its own schedule of seminars, which debuted at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. “This was like playing Broadway,” says Remsberg. “California at that time was the real source of the officer survival movement. That’s where Pierce Brooks had gotten his start.”
The first day, Remsberg recalls, a huge police sergeant from Phoenix sat “right in the front row, right in front of the speaker’s podium. He sat there the whole time with these huge arms folded across this enormous chest, just looking at us. No expression. The most intimidating presence you can imagine. And I figured, ‘Jesus, this guy hates us.’ . . . Being civilians was a big barrier to leap with these people.” By the seminar’s end, though, Sergeant Wayne Corcoran was a convert, and he has since helped Calibre decide on seminar content, get photos and film footage, and develop new material.
Though some of the early resistance to Calibre was due to the messengers, some was due to the message too. “There was a lot of just a lack of feeling that this was important,” says Remsberg. “There are chiefs who make the statement ‘Police officers are expected to get hurt.'”
Other departments, he says, “resist this because they consider it militaristic. Sometimes if a department is ultra PR-oriented, they don’t like the idea of their officers getting this type of training. I’m talking about departments that won’t allow shotguns to be visible in the patrol car, because this is offensive to the community. A sergeant has a shotgun, locked up in his trunk, and if you need the shotgun you’re expected to call the sergeant and have him come to the scene and release it to you.”
On the other hand, Remsberg says, many departments quickly realized that they didn’t have the time, expertise, or manpower to put together training materials of Calibre’s, well, caliber. Researching and filming Surviving Edged Weapons, he points out, took two years and $275,000. In many departments, he says, “training budgets don’t even approach that for the entire department for the whole year, much less for one project.”
Not every police department appreciates Calibre’s work, though. Earlier this year, San Diego police chief Bob Burgreen held Surviving Edged Weapons partly responsible for his officers’ having shot to death a record 12 people and wounded 16 more in 1990. (Though the only city with a higher rate of police shootings of civilians was Detroit, all the shootings were ruled justified by the San Diego County District Attorney.) In a San Diego Union story quoted in Crime Control Digest, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter, Burgreen said the video “created a sense of paranoia. It was overly graphic and it had parts that in my opinion were out-and-out racist.” The chief said he’d been unaware that the video was being used for training and ordered its use discontinued, noting that two officers involved in 1990 shootings had cited the video in their decisions to use deadly force.
Anderson and Remsberg’s prompt rebuttal in CCD pointed out that of the 28 shootings, only two of the suspects had been armed with edged weapons. And regarding the two officers who said they’d been influenced by the video, Calibre noted that Burgreen hadn’t offered “one scintilla of evidence that the influence was in any way improper.”
The most important thing, Calibre’s founders argued, wasn’t that 28 suspects who’d displayed life-threatening behavior had been shot, but that none of the officers had lost their lives. They also pointed out that the video demonstrates a full continuum of force, from verbal challenge through bare hands and baton to firearms.
Calibre called Burgreen’s charge of racism “a ludicrous and insulting accusation.” (Both the suspects and the cops depicted are a mix of whites and minorities.) In response to the charge that the video is “overly graphic,” Calibre noted that the incidents depicted are based on actual confrontations. Morgue photos–of people killed with knives, arrows, even a fork–were included to wean cops away from complacency about edged weapons. Finally, Anderson and Remsberg noted, the video was named Best Film of the Year by the American Correctional Association, and prison guards are probably likelier to face knives than any other kind of law-enforcement officer.
Though he hasn’t seen the video and thus won’t take a side in the dispute, John Crew of the American Civil Liberties Union’s northern California chapter notes that “San Diego has been enduring several years of nonstop, intense controversy involving deadly-force incidents and other allegations of police misconduct.”
Some shoot-outs are so notorious they’ve become emblems, the Alamos and Pearl Harbors of police work.
Say “Newhall” and you invoke the 1970 midnight gun battle that left four California Highway Patrol officers dead on the pavement of a truck stop. All four were married, and none was older than 24. They left behind a total of two sons and five daughters.
Page one of The Tactical Edge shows two photos from Newhall. One shows the two empty patrol cars. The other shows the four officers lying on gurneys, still in their bloodstained uniforms but with morgue tags already tied to the little fingers of their left hands.
“Miami” is shorthand for one of the FBI’s darkest days, a 1986 shoot-out between eight agents and two professional criminals. After an estimated 140 shots were fired by both sides, both bad guys were dead. So were two FBI agents. Five of the surviving agents were wounded; two were permanently crippled.
The U.S. Marshals Service’s own nightmare came on a lonely stretch of twilit North Dakota road in 1983, when U.S. marshals and local officers tried to arrest Gordon Kahl, a white-supremacist tax resister. Kahl was known to be armed at all times; the group he was with included two other armed men, one of them his son.
As an edgy standoff exploded into gunfire, Kahl killed Marshal Ken Muir with a single rifle shot to the chest. Moments later, at a distance of perhaps a foot or two, he fired two shots into the head of deputy marshal Bob Cheshire, already seriously wounded. A chunk of Cheshire’s skull landed in the road 20 feet away. Another deputy was permanently brain-damaged from a head wound. The two local officers were also wounded; one had the index finger on his right hand shot away.
Kahl escaped, and though his wife and son were in custody almost immediately, he used his connections with such extremist groups as the Posse Comitatus and Christian Identity to go underground. Almost four months later he was cornered in an Arkansas farmhouse by several dozen federal, state, and local officers. Rather than wait for other officers to launch a tear-gas barrage, local county sheriff Gene Matthews went in after Kahl. In a point-blank exchange of shots in the kitchen, both were fatally wounded.
Stanley Morris became director of the Marshals Service a few months after the Kahl shoot-out. He saw a dispassionate postmortem of the shooting–and training based on it–as a way to both purge the inevitable rumors and prevent more of his people from getting killed. The easy way, he says, would have been to “just bury them in flags, as heroes. That’s horseshit. The fact is, some mistakes get made. We needed to bring in some quick, up-to-date survival-type training.”
In 1984, at Morris’s request, Calibre assembled four custom sessions for about 1,300 marshals and deputies. It was the first time a federal law-enforcement agency had gone to a civilian group for tactical training. The centerpiece of Calibre’s seminars for the Marshals Service was a re-creation of the North Dakota shoot-out so exacting it took six months to assemble. Anderson went to the site and used crime-scene photos to re-create the shootout with slides. Narration was worked around tapes of the officers’ actual radio transmissions.
Morris says he was “very, very pleased” with the classes. Part of the reason is that they helped bring about something he’s even happier about: During his six years as head of the Marshals Service, none of its officers, including Mike Thompson, were killed in the line of duty.
“The best memorial to Cheshire and Muir is a better-trained, more alert agency,” says Morris, now deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the “drug czar’s” office. “People felt the training made them better, smarter, and safer.”
“It motivates us when we hear these things,” Anderson says, “to know that we can affect peoples’ lives.”
Calibre’s custom seminars for the marshals and a later series for the U.S. Border Patrol form only a small fraction of the company’s 400-some seminars to date. Street Survival seminars go on across the country, from San Diego to Buffalo to Orlando to San Antonio to Indianapolis to Baltimore, averaging more than two every month from August through June. They pull in several hundred cops at $135 each, pretty cheap considering what business-type seminars typically run. Like the books and videos, the seminars are off-limits to noncops. Only cops can register, and security is tight. Career felons, after all, study police tactics so they can plan ways around them. A set of photos in Street Survival, for example, taken with a surveillance camera at a California prison, shows two cons practicing how to disarm a cop.
The seminars begin with what Remsberg calls “mood-setting material.” Often taught by Lieutenant Dave Grossi, a firearms instructor with the police department in Irondequoit, New York, a suburb of Rochester, it focuses on the threats street cops face, primarily in terms of weapons and “the mentality of the offender.”
“We outline that the seminar is going to deal with survival of different types,” explains Remsberg. “Physical survival–keeping from being killed or injured–legal survival, and psychological survival, emotional survival, so that you remain mentally and emotionally intact through all these experiences.”
The seminars’ audiovisual opener is a filmed interview with an earnest former Milwaukee-area cop who was so brain-damaged in a parking-lot shoot-out that he can barely mumble. The film cuts to his imprisoned assailant, who had previously murdered a cop in Massachusetts. The gist of the con’s comments is “Hey, I had my job to do, he had his job to do. No, I don’t regret shooting him.”
Part of the reason for starting with this attitude-adjustment session is the increasing prevalence of the “yuppie police officer,” to use a term coined by Calibre instructor Gary Klugiewicz, a sergeant with the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin.
Not so long ago, the typical rookie was a blue-collar male with military experience. But now, Remsberg says, “the trend is toward the type of people who have never been in a fight. They’ve never been in the military. They’re not familiar with a world of violence, and it’s quite a transition.”
Not being ready for violence can be fatal. In a recent FBI study of 50 cop killers and their victims, Remsberg says, the typical cop anticipated cooperation from the suspect and was reluctant to use force or escalate the level of force, as by pulling his sidearm. The victims also let their guard down too easily or tended to take shortcuts; gaffes like failing to properly handcuff suspects have alone killed countless cops.
The first day of the seminars, then, concentrates on things like the mechanics of making an arrest: the approach, appropriate use of force, searching and transporting the prisoner. Calibre maintains an extensive, constantly changing library of photos, slides, and film and video clips, mostly sent in by cops.
The recent resurgence of civil disobedience makes demonstrations a timely topic. Cops at the seminars are treated to part of a recruitment film by Operation Rescue, a national antiabortion group. In this context, the film isn’t a how-to; it’s a how-not-to: one of the things it shows is a cop breaking a protester’s arm. (Anderson and Remsberg won’t divulge how they got this particular clip.) For balance, they also show police film footage of some of the right-to-life activists’ tricks for resisting arrest: hooking themselves together with bicycle locks around their necks, wearing splints on their wrists to make handcuffing impossible, hiding razor blades inside bandages.
The emphasis on tactics continues on the second day. The morning focuses on drug crimes, while the afternoon zeroes in on the touchy issue of “deadly force”: when and why a cop can justifiably shoot someone–and how to do it with the least risk to the officer and bystanders.
The first part focuses on the when and why, the legal considerations that make deadly force defensible. Since long before the recent, highly publicized police brutality complaints in Los Angeles and elsewhere, police use of force has been a steady topic of controversy. And deadly force is a true witch’s brew: Take the changing complexities of statute and case law, and mix them with a police department’s own policies. Then add the sheer terror of a confrontation on the verge of gunfire.
Is the offender armed? With what? Can you see well enough to be sure? (Over 70 percent of assaults on police officers occur between 6 PM and 6 AM, according to the FBI–in other words, when it’s dark outside.) How close is he? Is he actually attacking you? Is he about to? Would shooting endanger other officers or bystanders behind the offender? Ideas about deadly force have come a long way from the old police administrator’s adage that you only pull the gun out when you know you’re going to use it. By then, you’re probably too late.
Cops with more experience and better survival training are less likely to use deadly force, contends Bill Lewinski, a psychologist who taught at Calibre seminars for four years. Lewinski, executive director of Mankato (Minnesota) State University’s law enforcement program, contends that a less-experienced officer is likelier to rush straight into a dangerous situation, displaying what Pierce Brooks calls “tombstone courage.” The better-trained cop, Lewinski argues, will keep some distance, take cover, and slow the confrontation down, allowing more time to talk the suspect down or at least avoid gunfire.
The ACLU’s John Crew, who directs his chapter’s Police Practices Project, agrees that the trend is away from “policies of police departments that reward perceived bravery. What you want to encourage is the more responsible approach of ‘Cover the exits and wait for backup.'”
To give cops realistic yet relatively inexpensive training in the split-second decisions they might be forced to make, several police-training companies make “shoot/don’t shoot” movies. Calibre makes two, typically projected onto a paper screen. An officer stands 15 feet or so from the screen with a .38-caliber revolver loaded with low-powered clay bullets. Each scenario is filmed from the officer’s point of view, and each forces him or her to suddenly decide to shoot or not. When the film is stopped, the clay bullets mark where the cop would have hit.
One scenario opens with the officer walking down a sidewalk. A bystander runs up and says excitedly that he’s just seen a black man accost a white man in a nearby parking lot and take him into an adjacent alley. The cop cautiously approaches and peers around a corner into the alley. A black man in a jumpsuit is holding a semiautomatic pistol on a white guy, whose hands are in the air. In the next instant, the white guy takes off running down the alley and the black man whirls toward the camera. It turns out he’s an undercover cop, but in the instant it takes him to hold up his badge, he’s been “shot” many, many times.
More than 500 law-enforcement agencies have used the two “deadly force” movies. One department in Florida even shows them to neighborhood watch groups so they can get a sense of what cops are up against.
Officer David Buck of the Elgin police, an avuncular 42-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and touches of gray in his hair, is a Calibre veteran. Last year, he and three other members of Elgin’s tactical team stormed the apartment of a local drug dealer rumored to own an automatic weapon. The suspect wasn’t home and the raid came up empty.
Five days later Buck got a call to a street disturbance. The man the tac team had missed had gotten into a fight with another man and kicked him hard enough to split his forehead open. As acting watch commander, Buck talked the man into surrendering peacefully.
It’s fair to say that this is a lot of what officer survival is about: absolute readiness to use deadly force if necessary, plus the training and good judgment to avoid using any force if it’s not necessary.
About ten years ago Buck attended one of Calibre’s first seminars, and in the summer of 1990 he attended another. As a field training officer, he makes a point of staying up on tactics. “Some people think I’m pretty smart for doing it,” he says. “Some people probably think I’m paranoid. I don’t care; I’m doing this for me.”
As the seminars have evolved over the years, Anderson has sometimes made striking use of his psychology training–and his director’s sense of the dramatic. For several years he taught a module on the police shotgun. Just before he finished, Anderson would stop and face the audience, an unloaded 12-gauge Remington 870 in his hands. After a pregnant silence, he’d ask, “How many of you would like to see what it’s like to be involved in a shooting?”
He usually got a few raised hands and a lot of quizzical looks. In a soothing but serious voice, he would tell everyone to nudge the cops next to them to make sure they were awake. They would do so, with a few chortles. Then Anderson would tell them to place their hands flat on the tables in front of them.
The lights would then be turned way down. Nervous sounds would float up from the audience as they heard Anderson load five rounds into the pump gun and rack one into the chamber. “You could hear their hair standing on end,” he recalls.
Wheeling in a semicircle, Anderson would blast off all five blanks in seconds. As the muzzle flashes lit up the audience like strobes, he says, “I would see these eyeballs bulge.” Steve Casstevens, a traffic officer with the Hoffman Estates police who’s been to two Calibre seminars, describes cops falling off their chairs or diving under tables. Anderson remembers a 15-year cop and firearms instructor who wet his pants and a Vietnam vet who was found on the floor in a fetal position. (What passing hotel guests and staff thought can only be imagined. “It was deafening,” Remsberg recalls. “We would set off smoke alarms. We did it in Denver and the fire department showed up. We had to shut down the seminar.”)
Then the lights would go back up, and dust shaken loose by the muzzle blasts would float down from the ceiling. “I owned them at that point,” Anderson says.
The point of the exercise was to talk about what they had learned, especially about themselves. Some people say a cop should be able to count gunshots, but when Anderson asked how many he’d fired, the disagreements were violent. “You’re not robots,” he reassured them. “Accept that.”
As he fired, Anderson says, he always saw some officers turn their heads away. Cops don’t like danger any more than anyone else, and they hate not being in control. He’d discuss that, too.
“It was a stunt, but it was done responsibly,” Anderson says. “I want people to be affected by what I do. It’s kind of a mind fuck, but what we’re really saying is, ‘You have to find a way to think about this.'”
It worked. Afterward cops would thank him for showing them how far they still needed to go. One told him long afterward that the experience later helped save his life. In a street gunfight, a shotgun-armed criminal opened fire on the officer’s sergeant. The officer resisted the reflex to flinch and look to his sergeant first. Quickly drawing and firing, he shot the bad guy down.
Asked why he no longer does the shotgun bit, Anderson simply says it was dropped in favor of other subjects, the same way other seminar material gets replaced. Three days is about the practical limit for the seminars, and anything new that’s added almost has to crowd out something else.
Remsberg, however, emphasizes the risk his partner was running in front of hundreds of armed cops, despite the slow, careful setup and the ballistic vest Anderson always wore. Still, Anderson can joke about it now: “There aren’t many people who can say they’ve shot at maybe 50,000 police and not been shot!”
Remsberg adds: “Guys liked it. They kept asking for it. ‘Jeez, the last time I was here, you fired the shotgun. Aren’t you going to do that again?'”
On day three, Calibre shifts away from tactics, moving from “how” to “what happens after,” emotionally and legally. More and more, cops realize that physically surviving a brush with death isn’t a complete victory if the eventual cost is divorce, an ulcer, or having your reputation dragged through the courts. For cops, the risk of being killed in the line of duty, scary though it can be, is dwarfed by the risk of what Lewinski, quoting Karl Menninger, calls “death by inches”: burnout, alcoholism, divorce, suicide. “The goal,” Anderson tells cops at the seminars, “is to do your 20 or 25 years and get out with your mind and body intact.”
Depending on the study you cite, says Lewinski, the suicide rate for cops is among either the top three or top five of all professions. “Overall, it’s very high,” he says. Clean, civilized Toronto, of all places, had one cop suicide a month for eight months straight a couple of years ago, he notes. Seventy percent of officers involved in shootings leave police work within five years, mostly because they can’t handle the emotional fallout. One study, Remsberg says, shows cops’ average life expectancy to be 59.
The morning of the third day focuses on “critical incidents,” those crises that shake the beliefs about safety and predictability and our own mortality that allow us to function day to day. Gunfights are the stereotypical example of a critical incident, but Anderson tells his audiences to broaden their definition to “any situation that forces you to face your vulnerability or mortality, or that temporarily overwhelms your ability to cope. By virtue of your job, you may have no choice but to face these situations and the possibility of your own death.”
Calibre’s heavy-duty collection of audiovisuals provides more than enough examples:
One surprisingly common reaction to a critical incident is wetting one’s pants, Anderson tells the seminars, calmly adding that the bladder’s threshold is about 300 cubic centimeters of urine. Who wets his pants or doesn’t during a crisis, he explains, doesn’t show who’s brave and who isn’t; it just shows who’s hit the john most recently.
Filmed examples of critical-incident stress follow:
Steve Casstevens knows about critical-incident stress. In 1981, shortly after joining the Hoffman Estates department, he took a radio call to a “property damage only” accident in a residential neighborhood.
The dispatcher had been mistaken; a 12-year-old on a bike had been hit by a car a block from his house. The boy was dead from massive head injuries, Casstevens recalls, but as sometimes happens with violent death, his limbs were still twitching slightly. “You get there and you think, there’s nothing you can do for this kid, even if you were a surgeon and you could put him right on the operating table.”
The boy’s mother and sister were among the crowd of people running to the scene. “His mother came out of the house and saw me standing there, doing nothing,” Casstevens says. She became hysterical, grabbing Casstevens by the shirt, screaming at him to do something. So for the next several minutes he faked it, taking vital signs, loosening the dead boy’s clothing, and waiting desperately for the ambulance. Looking up from the boy’s body, he saw the ambulance turn onto the street. “It seemed like it took an hour for that ambulance to cover three blocks,” he says. “It took me a while to get over that.”
In addition to its own books and videos, Calibre sells a variety of cop paraphernalia by mail order. One of the more noteworthy items is “Pro-Care,” a small plastic bottle of alcohol-based disinfectant gel. After handling, say, a bloody suspect or a drunk, a cop just washes his or her hands with the stuff, which then evaporates in seconds.
A sampling of the merchandise goes along to seminars, spread across tables staffed by several of Calibre’s nine employees. The latest thing in handcuffs, black Velcro versions that are light and compact so they’re easier to carry in quantity, sit not far from T-shirts with legends like “Attack me, I need the practice” and “Fill to this line with coffee and donuts.”
On the third afternoon, the topic is legal survival. Dave Grossi is often the instructor. Tan and lean in slacks and a Calibre Press polo shirt, Grossi has a confident, brisk delivery that befits a man who was a Green Beret in Vietnam. (At a seminar’s end, Grossi, like Anderson, who still sometimes teaches seminar sessions, will be surrounded by cops who want autographs or have war stories of their own to tell.)
Grossi’s topic is legal protection. A cop is more likely to be sued than shot, he says. Grossi stresses the importance of being as complete and articulate as possible in reports and statements about an incident. “It’s not enough to be right,” he tells the cops. “You have to explain why you’re right.” Ask yourself, he says, “What’s the worst way my words could be interpreted?”
Despite precautions, Grossi admits, it may be impossible for a cop or a department to avoid being sued. A cop can’t do his or her job without using force, and even when it’s justifiable, Grossi reminds everyone, “force is a great breeder of lawsuits.”
Grossi typically spends at least an hour giving detailed advice for weathering lawsuits. Some of the tips are ingenious: If an opposing lawyer who’s trying to discredit you asks, “Have you ever told a lie?” you respond, “Counselor, never under oath.”
He also touches on “the hottest new area of police litigation,” cops and their departments slapping criminals with civil suits for defamation, malicious prosecution, or assault and battery. These lawsuits were long considered somehow unprofessional, but, Grossi reminds everyone, “There’s nothing in our job descriptions that requires us to be blue punching bags.”
One cop who sued was Mickey Dawes, a cop in upstate New York who is featured in Surviving Edged Weapons. He and his partner got a call one afternoon from a couple who thought their emotionally disturbed son had committed suicide in a backyard equipment shed. The two cops approached the shed, and Dawes went in.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw a blanket-covered form on top of a garden tractor. Getting no reponse to verbal commands, Dawes reached over and shook the teenager’s shoulder. The kid exploded from underneath the blanket and slashed at Dawes with a 13 1/2-inch butcher knife. The first cut nearly severed the cop’s left wrist. As Dawes turned to run, the kid grabbed the back of his jacket. Dawes was stabbed in both shoulders, the center of his back (through his ballistic vest), and his left side.
He pulled his sidearm and fired blindly over his left shoulder, dropping his attacker with two hits. Dawes staggered out of the shed and fell into his partner’s arms. By the time he arrived at the emergency room, Dawes had a collapsed lung and blood pressure of 60 over zero. He was given last rites.
Dawes survived, however, and sued the parents. He’d made a point of asking them whether the boy had a weapon or a history of violence, and they’d said no on both counts. In truth, they’d noticed the butcher knife missing from the kitchen. They also knew the teen hated authority figures and had once attacked a nurse. Dawes won the suit, but the judge reduced the award, based on contributory negligence; he ruled that Dawes had used poor judgment in approaching the teenager.
Because of its constant contact with street cops, Calibre is virtually “a national clearinghouse for officer survival information,” Remsberg says. New information comes in constantly from cops who’ve run across something they want other officers to watch out for and know Calibre can get the word out.
A set of color snapshots Remsberg got from someone at a recent seminar shows a cop who has just brought in a suspect who resisted arrest. The cop’s face is glazed with sweat, and his eyes are half blank from shock. The close-ups show the blood and the flap of loose skin where the officer was bitten in the throat; he was rushed to the hospital immediately after the picture was taken. The suspect had chewed up and swallowed the chunk he took out of the cop’s throat. Calibre may add the photos to a proposed seminar module on what constitutes a deadly weapon. Even before Silence of the Lambs, some court cases said teeth qualify.
Getting bitten is a surprisingly common risk for cops. Chicago cop Kent Erickson, veteran of a 1982 Calibre seminar, was trying to subdue a shoplifter with his partner in the Walgreens at Michigan and Chicago several years ago when the woman lunged and took a chunk out of Erickson’s throat. Following normal practice, emergency-room doctors bandaged the wound without stitching it. Erickson missed three weeks of work, and for months afterward boils would periodically break out at the wound. Faint scars still remain.
A common civilian reaction to Calibre is to wonder why cops aren’t getting this kind of training at the police academy. “Most people are astonished that the police don’t already know all of this,” says Remsberg.
Departments usually find it tough to line up the time and money for training, but the intangible nature of any training also works against it; equipment is easier to get funding for. “What makes the news is firearms, cars, toys, equipment,” says Anderson, but “the best tool will always be the words a police officer speaks.”
Despite their popularity, Calibre’s seminars have limitations: a cop still has to work within his department’s policies and equipment. Randy Ugorek, a patrol specialist in Chicago’s 15th District (North Austin), took a Calibre seminar in 1981, when a hot new procedure was putting as much light as possible on a car during a night “takedown,” or vehicle stop. Ugorek agreed with the rationale for this, but points out that Chicago squad cars then carried only one spotlight.
To be fair, Ugorek notes that the city’s newest prowl cars are loaded with lights. Besides brake lights and blue strobes, their rooftop Whelen light bars include white takedown lights in front and “alley lights” pointing sideways at each end. A second spotlight is also standard now. Teamed with the car’s high beams and both spotlights, the takedown lights are blinding, Ugorek says. If the person being stopped turns around, all he sees is white, he laughs. “I know because I’ve stood there.”
Another tactic Calibre recommends is parking around the corner from a call, rather than right in front, which can set cops up for an easy ambush. Ugorek understands what they’re getting at, but in his tough west-side precinct, he says, that would just up your chances of coming back to a squad car that had been trashed. It also means that if somebody doesn’t come along quietly, you’ll have to schlepp him farther to your car.
Another of the seminars’ limitations is that, shotguns-in-the-ballroom aside, Calibre uses classroom methods–lectures and audiovisuals. Lots of police skills–handcuffing, search techniques, firearms use–are quintessentially hands-on and can’t be learned in a lecture hall, or in three days.
Hands-on facilities do exist. New York police, for example, have a “fun house,” a building with a series of ceilingless hallways and rooms. Trainers in the building’s center can set up various scenarios and then monitor from above officers going through the course. Anderson and Remsberg went through NYPD’s fun house when they were researching their first book. Remsberg says they did “poorly.”
The Chicago PD once used a former armory at 35th and Normal similarly; it’s so big that two cars could drive around inside to practice vehicle stops. Federal funding for the program reportedly ran out, though, and the building is now the department’s gym.
The movement Calibre and Pierce Brooks helped shape continues to gather momentum. The American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, founded in 1987, devotes much of the material in its journal and annual meeting to survival tactics. Ed Nowicki, ASLET’s executive director and a former Chicago cop, credits Calibre with waking up both cops and police academies to the importance of officer survival. Both of Calibre’s books are “just about necessary reading” for any cop, says Nowicki, who heads the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Police Recruit Training Academy.
One of officer survival’s newest players is the Law Enforcement Television Network, which debuted in summer 1989. Based in suburban Dallas, LETN narrowcasts police news and education 24 hours a day to more than 2,000 departments via an encrypted satellite link. Guests on such shows as Crime Scene, Street Beat, and Command Update have included Stanley Morris and Calibre’s defensive-tactics instructor Gary Klugiewicz. More than 50 Chicago-area police agencies subscribe, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Chicago, Joliet, Northbrook, Elgin, Naperville, Du Page County, and UIC departments.
Calibre’s latest project is a video documentary, Ultimate Survivors. Narrated by William Shatner, it showcases cops whose will to survive got them through crises that could have destroyed them. One is Mike Thompson, the deputy marshal ambushed in a parking lot.
The three other police officers in the video also exemplify the determination to live: Kenyon Tuthill, a cop in Suffolk County, New York, who was blinded and disfigured by a traffic violator who shot him point-blank in the face; Mike Buckingham of the Washington State Patrol, whose ears and skin were burned off when he crashed during a high-speed pursuit and was trapped inside his burning car; and Steve Chaney of the Baton Rouge police department, who watched his partner get shot with her own gun by a huge, “superhuman” burglary suspect who withstood ten bullets before dying. Ultimate Survivors recently won a Golden Eagle, the top award from CINE, the Council on International Nontheatrical Events. The Golden Eagle makes the video eligible for the 1992 Academy Awards, in the documentary category.
These days Anderson and Remsberg are concentrating on the next round of seminar updates. “Unfortunately, the need for this kind of thing is never going to end,” says Anderson, because lawlessness keeps evolving. “Who would ever have thought that Idaho would be infiltrated by neo- Nazis?” Teaching cops to be more aware of the dangers they face–and how to face them–is ultimately better for them and civilians alike, he says. “We want everyone in town safe, including the cops.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.