Sonoma County Deputy Erick Gelhaus “…shot a 13-year-old boy holding a replica AK-47…” in October, 2013. The District Attorney is not criminally charging Deputy Gelhaus in the death. Predictably, people are calling for the deputy’s head, and the FBI is considering an investigation. Deputy Gelhaus’ profession bequeathed to him a high stress fate. I was in a similar situation, and the outcome was totally different.
In the late 1970’s, I was a patrol officer working as a one man car for the Pasadena Police Department. My day was like many other days until I was dispatched a call of a large truck repeatedly smashing into a residence on the SW side of the city.
Arriving at the location, the truck was parked in the driveway with the diesel engine idling. Proceeding up the driveway, I saw no evidence that there had been any “smashing” into anything. An older man was encountered at the front of the truck. Suddenly, a shirtless 16 year boy jumped out from behind the truck into a two hand shooting stance aiming a 45 cal. pistol directly at the man standing next to me. Drawing down, I ordered the kid to drop the gun and to get on the ground. He continued to aim the gun at the man. I ordered the boy a second time and then a third time before he complied by throwing the gun down and proning himself out. Holding the suspect at gunpoint, I put out a radio call for assistance. The kid rose to his hands and knees and began to move toward the gun which lay three or four feet in front of him. Holstering my revolver, I drew a baton and delivered a powerful blow to his back driving him to the ground just short of reaching the gun. I quickly cuffed him.
To this day, I know that I made mistakes. I should have pulled the trigger when the kid jumped out from behind the truck. I should have pulled the trigger when he got off the ground and moved toward the gun. My failure in both instances needlessly risked the life of the older man and myself.
There is one significant point; the 45 cal. pistol turned out to be a lookalike bb gun.
The kid had the nastiest looking welt that ran on a diagonal from his right shoulder blade across and down his back. Momma showed up and began screaming about police brutality and lawsuits. She did not understand that if I had done my job properly she would have had a funeral to attend.
My failure was significant. I now doubted myself and wondered if I posed a future risk to the public and my brother officers. A sergeant trying to mollify me by saying that it is hard to shoot a kid was for naught. I know that I failed.
I left the department in 1980, not because of this incident. I do think, however, that it helped set the stage for me to be vulnerable to recruitment and a job offer from outside of law enforcement.
When I reentered law enforcement with Simi Valley PD, I still had the concern. But, training techniques vastly improved through the years with interactive shoot, don’t shoot scenarios. Doubts are well vanquished. If I were to be transported back to the shoes of that officer in the 70’s, the incident would end in a double tap or a failure drill. As it turned out, I don’t carry the emotional burden of Deputy Erick Gelhaus. And, I was subject to neither potential federal inquiry nor civil lawsuits.
A kid who made a big mistake lived another day.
It is ironic how failure became a blessing.
Uu-ah, Sheepdog! Hunt the Wolf and the Jackal!
Links in this Blog:
Calif. Deputy Shoots And Kills Teen Carrying Toy Gun