Shots Fired, Suspect Down (Part III)

The Investigation and Aftermath

In Part I, and Part II of this story, I wrote about the circumstances that led me and three other officers to shoot a man as he ran away when we tried to arrest him for murder. In this final chapter we’ll look together at what goes on after the shooting stops.

Holy shit! I just shot someone!

There are a lot of things that happen in the wake of an officer-involved shooting. I had been part of the investigations before, and seen my friends go through them, but this was my first experience as the person being investigated. I had been afraid the suspect would shoot me or another person during the event, but now I experienced very different kinds of fear. My first thought once the suspects were both secure was a fear we had accidentally hurt or killed an an innocent motorist. When I started shooting at the suspect, he was between Highway 101 and me. Anyone driving on that highway was downrange. I listened for the sound of a car crash and prayed of our shots that missed Thurston did not harm anyone else. Luckily it was late and there wasn’t much traffic. We didn’t hit hurt anyone other than our murder suspect.

After a quick moment of doubt and prayer I brought my mind back to things I could still control. The patrol sergeant back at the command post had put out “shots fired” on the radio and one of my teammates called for “code-3 medical”, but a few minutes after the shooting I realized no one had ever told dispatch who the medical aid was for. As I wrote in a previous story, (linked here), working as a dispatcher is an extremely difficult and stressful job. Dispatchers spend their careers listening to chaos and pleas for help on the phone and radio, without any of the closure officers on the street experience. I worried our dispatchers were in the dark and thinking one of us might have been shot, so I radioed that the suspect was down and all officers were “Code-4”, or safe.

My next task was to find all the officers who had been involved in the shooting and tell them not to speak about it to each other or anyone else. We all knew the protocol, but I told them we would assign them each a sequestering officer prior to their interview with the detectives. We do that so the officers involved in a shooting have someone assigned to them both to look after them and to make sure that they don’t taint their memories and statements by talking to others about the incident. The sequestering officer also ensures any evidence we carry with us, like our guns and uniforms, is secured until detectives or evidence specialists come to collect it.

Our Lieutenant had arrived on the scene and I gave him what is called the “public safety briefing”. I summarized what had happened, telling him our approximate positions and direction of fire, that the suspect was on his way to the hospital and that any evidence, injured people, or damage from our gunfire would be to the east.

I knew my time as a participant and supervisor in this event was ending as the investigation began. The lieutenant told us there would be rooms for all the involved officers at a local hotel (thankfully not the one we were at!) while we waited to be interviewed by detectives.

Before I left the scene, my adrenaline started to fade and I thought about my wife. It was a little after 10 pm, and I realized that she would be up watching the news. I didn’t want her to hear about a police shooting on the news right after I left on a SWAT mission, so I called her and said something like this: “Hi honey. I’m fine, but I’m going to be really late. I just shot someone, and I probably won’t make it home until tomorrow sometime. Love you. Bye.” In hindsight, those were not the kind of words that promote a good night’s sleep for any spouse, and my call caused far more alarm than comfort. I apologized later. Many times actually.

I went to my hotel room to await the interview. I had my sequestering officer in the room with me, but was otherwise alone to think about what had happened and worry. I felt certain my decision to shoot was legally justified. I believed the suspect had been reaching for a gun and meant to shoot us so he could escape. He had been running to an area with ample cover (redwood trees) while we were in the middle of a parking lot without cover nearby.

I also knew I was justified in shooting him based on the fact he was a fleeing murder suspect who was believed to be armed and dangerous. Despite my certainty that my actions were lawful, I also believed we were about to be torn apart in the press and in the court of public opinion because a bunch of white police officers just shot a black man in the back. I also knew we were going to be sued by the suspect’s family. That’s just a given after a shooting. I hoped again and again they would find a gun with the suspect, just so we wouldn’t be raked over the coals quite so badly. They did not, and I eventually learned Thurston was unarmed when we shot him.

The Sheriff’s investigators worked throughout the night to process the crime scene and interview witnesses. My partner officers and I stayed in our rooms, trying unsuccessfully to sleep but instead meeting a string of people. Union representatives came by to wish us well and tell us our lawyers were on the way. Sheriff’s investigators came in and took pictures of us in our uniforms and then took our uniforms and equipment as evidence. Others brought us a change of clothes. At some point I learned what I already expected: Thurston was dead. Eventually a lawyer came in and introduced himself as my counsel.

It was very comforting during a stressful time to speak to someone whose only role was to be my advocate. He asked me to tell him about the shooting. He explained what I could expect in my interview with the detectives and calmed me down.

After the sun had risen the next morning I finally went back to the scene of the shooting for a walk-thru with a Sheriff’s detective. We replayed the incident from my memory, but everything felt and looked different than it had the night before when it was dark and stressful. After that it was off to the Sheriff’s Office for a recorded interview with the detective and my attorney. Investigators from my department, the Sheriff’s Office and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office were watching the whole interview on video from a nearby room.

I finally got back to my house about 14 hours after the shooting, ready to see my wife and son and get some rest. I would spend the next two weeks on administrative leave, waiting for an appointment with a psychologist to ensure I was ready to go back to work.

I was fortunate in that I escaped many of the negative effects officers can experience after a shooting. I’ve never had nightmares or flashbacks, and I have never doubted that my actions were necessary.

In the years since the shooting, I’ve frequently questioned why someone who didn’t have a gun would act like he was trying to draw one from his waistband when five SWAT officers were chasing him. The only things I can assume are that he was so used to carrying a gun there that he acted based on habit, or that he didn’t want to go to prison and wanted us to shoot him. News reports I saw later reported that Thurston’s family members thought he would try to commit suicide-by-cop. I guess his reasons don’t really matter now, but I still wonder.

The District Attorney eventually decided we bore no criminal liability for our use of deadly force. The suspect’s father, who was a long term resident in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, sued us for violating his son’s civil rights, but the lawsuit was dismissed. So was his appeal to the 9th Circuit Appellate Court. Even the vilification I expected in the media and the court of public opinion never materialized.

I often wonder how things would have been different if the shooting had taken place today. I fear in our current environment many would see me as one of the “bad cops” based on my decisions that night. My hope is that this story will at least give you a different perspective and cause you to ask more questions before reaching a conclusion the next time you hear about a police shooting. I think a shared understanding, even if we disagree, makes us better partners in providing a secure home, hometown, and homeland.

Thanks for reading. This account is taken from my memory alone and presented with the goal of letting you see the complexities involved in a decision to use force. I hope the story did not offend anyone or disrespect the loss suffered by the suspect’s family. I hope it was worth your time.