Cell phone or gun? Officers make split second decisions on whether to shoot suspects
Figuring out the difference between a cell phone and a gun turned out to be the difference between a fatal shooting of a suspect and what ended up as an arrest without any serious injuries for Sgt. Earl Mays of the Carson City Sheriff’s Office. His split second decisions and that of deputy Nick Pinochi likely saved the life of the suspect they detained.
With numerous recent officer involved shootings making national news, law enforcement are under heavy scrutiny when faced with lethal dangers. However, what many people may not realize is what goes into making that split second decision for officers and if they choose wrong, they may be the ones wheeled away in a body bag.
Recently, Mays and Pinochi were involved in an incident with a suspect who had injured another deputy and was threatening them with lethal force.
On May 26, officers were called to the 400 block of South Saliman Road for reports of a man, David Torres, threatening to allegedly throw his infant into a swimming pool. When deputies responded, deputy Bob Guimont blew out his Achilles heel trying to kick in a door after Torres ran into the apartment and Guimont heard females screaming. Torres escaped out the back window and led remaining deputies on a foot pursuit down 5th Street before hopping a fence into the Juvenile Detention Center. There Mays, who had taken out his baton, was able to locate and corner Torres. As Mays ordered the suspect to the ground. Torres crouched down and claimed he had a gun in the waistband of his pants.
According to Mays, he continued to order Torres to the ground and every time Torres kept saying “I have a gun” with his hand on his waistband simulating he had a gun. It was then Mays drew his gun on Torres, because it was now a lethal threat against Mays.
Officers are only supposed to disarm their weapon when there is a lethal threat, a subject using a weapon who may try to or already have harmed officers or another person.
But instead of shooting him, Mays believed the “gun” Torres had was a cell phone or other similar object, so he decided to holster his gun and resort back to his baton. Mays said he noticed the way Torres was holding the object and with his training decided it didn’t quite make sense that it was a gun.
“He runs towards me and I hit him with my baton and he kind of slows down but he continues to go down the aisle towards me,” Mays said. “But I holstered my weapon, Deputy Pinochi (who had joined to assist at this time) had his Tazer out and Torres kept looking back at us saying he had a gun. He had a cell phone in his hand and turned real fast and yelled ‘bang’ at the same time that Pinochi tazed him. He started getting up and then I struck him a few times with my baton.”
The incident ended without major injury. Torres suffered minor injuries when the Tazer struck him, but Mays said the incident could have ended much worse.
“Even though I don’t think it’s a gun, it’s nerve wrecking to think about because when I first encountered him, he was in this box per say with a storage area, a fence and when I encountered him he turned towards to me like ‘I have a gun I have a gun,’” Mays said.
“Its happening so fast I don’t want to say you get caught up in it. It’s evolving and it’s unpredictable. I don’t know what he is doing or what is going through his head,” Mays said. “Is he going to hop the fence, is he going to try to rush me and attack me or pull out a gun and shoot me? It’s stressful and obviously your adrenaline is rushing you fall back on your training and just do what you can to control the situation and do your best that you can.”
It was the split second decision both officers made not to shoot that saved Torres’s life, but it could have been at the expense of the two officers’ lives. If Mays had been wrong about the object in Torres’ waistband, Torres could have pulled out a gun and shot and killed the officers.
“It is terrifying, is this the moment of truth right here right now? Maybe, maybe not, we’ll see in about two seconds because that is all it is, two seconds,” Mays said. “You don’t have five minutes or the next day to think about it, it’s right now and it’s literally like a snap. It’s what we train everyday for is just for that situation right there and sometimes we get an end result that is good like that where we don’t have to shoot and kill this guy.”
It makes it particularly difficult for officers in a time like this because they are under a small microscope from the public and Mays said that did play a factor in his decision not to shoot Torres.
“That’s the first time in almost 20 years in law enforcement that was probably the closest thing I have come to shooting someone and that’s the first in my career that the thought of second guessing myself and ending up on CNN has crossed my mind,” Mays said. “That I didn’t want to be that guy on Ferguson or New York and have myself, my department, my family go through that. So did it cross my mind, absolutely.”
“In all reality would we have been justified? I don’t know,” Mays said. “Part of it is, OK if we would have shot him and he didn’t have a gun, believe it or not he is an Army veteran, so I didn’t want to be on CNN being white cop shoots unarmed Hispanic war veteran.”
This is the dangerous situations police face everyday. It can quickly turn into a kill or be killed situation like this where, if even just a small factor had been changed, someone could have died. One big factor that can change the outcome of a standoff is training for every possible situation.
“Everyone got to go home that night but some officers don’t,” Sheriff Ken Furlong said. “A lot of these big national shootings you can look back and ask are the officers properly trained, do they have adequate training?”
One way the Carson City officers prepare for these kinds of situations is to go through various shooting trainings, such as night shooting. While the incident with Torres happened during the daylight hours, Mays said it could have easily been a much different situation if it had occurred at night because of the lack of visual and he may not have known Torres had a cell phone instead of a gun.
“It changes everything at night,” Mays said. “You have to process it so fast but yes, if it was dark and he came up with something he probably would have been shot when he tried to run towards me. I probably wouldn’t have given him the chance to run by me because he was telling me I have a gun and then he runs towards me, he probably would have been shot right there.”
Deputies went through night shooting training last week to work on their skills so if there’s a situation in the darkness they are trained to be able to properly and safely discharge their weapons if need be. It’s important for them to learn because the darkness takes away their ability to fully access a situation and limits their options, the officers said.
“We do a lot of these trainings at night because it is a lot different because we have low light situations and we have to be able to use our flashlights with the guns at night while shooting in the most safe and tactical way,” said firearms instructor deputy Thomas Miller.
To go through the training, there are two sections: one is the regular firearms course, just with no light and the second is a simulation of a deputy going down a hallway and having to shoot targets through openings.
Rifle instructor deputy Kip Lee said it helps because it’s a high stress situation to be in a house or building that’s unfamiliar in the dark with people screaming, police lights flashing and a subject threatening lethal force and this helps try to reduce some of the stresses. By going through this training, officers should hopefully be able to respond better in real life situations because they have been through simulations.
“It’s a ‘I’ve been here before, and done this,’” Lee said. “It gives officers confidence and knowledge to fire accurately and to address and handle their weapon.”
One of the big stressors at night is the presence of police lights. It makes people more nervous and can amp up a subject as well as an officer.
“The use of the lights makes things different,” said deputy Jessica Chrzanowski. “The lights mess with your range of sight and they definitely do make you a little nervous and you have to be more aware and focused in the field at night.”