Here's what it's like to almost shoot an unarmed person

By John Roman

I was working day shift in patrol when dispatch broadcasted a 417 call (subject with a gun). I was sent as primary and my sergeant was my back up. The description of the suspect was: A white male in his 30s, wearing a hat, a vest, glasses and headphones on his head.

The location was given and I was there within a minute. I got out of my car and guess what I saw? A white male in his 30s, wearing a hat, a vest, prescription glasses and headphones on his head.

He was walking in the middle of the street and did not see me pull up. I drew my gun as I yelled at him to stop and put his hands up. He turned around and gave me a confused look. I was less than 30 feet away from him.

He saw me, but it still didn’t click in his head that a police officer was pointing a gun at him and giving him orders to put his hands up. He then reached into his vest with his right hand.

What do you do?

• Did I have enough information that he was the correct suspect? Yes.

• Was he in the location dispatch sent me? Yes.

• Was he dressed as described? Yes.

• Did he put his hand into his vest? Yes.

• Could he have pulled a gun out? Yes.

• Did I have reason to fear for my life? Yes.

• Could I have shot him? Yes.

Here’s what happened.

I was prepared to shoot him, but there was something about his facial features that made me think twice. There was just something about him that told me I needed to give him an extra second before I pulled the trigger.

With my gun pointed at him, he then pulled his hand out of his vest. As I started to pull the trigger I saw that his hand was empty.

He didn’t have a gun. He was reaching into his vest to turn off his Walkman (yes, I dated myself). After speaking to him, it was clear he was mentally challenged.

Some might ask why I didn’t shoot him. Some might second-guess me. But there was something about his face that told me I had to wait that extra second.

It was the decision I had to make right then and right now. I couldn’t make it two days, two months or two years from now. The decision could not be made from the comfort of my living room while watching the news on TV. Not in Starbucks with friends, wondering why the cops shot an unarmed, mentally challenged man. Not while reading about it on Facebook.

The decision to shoot him had to be made right there in the middle of the street at that very moment with the information that was given to me.

I didn’t ask to be there. I was sent because that was my job.

You can ask every cop and they’ll tell you a similar story where they could have shot someone, but didn’t. Think about that for a moment.

Every day and night across the United States there are situations where cops don’t shoot, but could have. The public never hears about the restraint officers have in these high-pressure situations.

Only a person who has walked in those shoes can understand.

It’s important to remember that working the street is not like a video game. You can’t start the game over and there is no pause button.

Editor’s Note: John Roman is a traffic officer for an Orange County police agency who writes a blog, Badge 415 (badge415.wordpress.com/). His posts focus on the human side of police work and safety tips. Roman, a cop for 20 years, has handled more than 5,000 accidents as a collision investigator. Behindthebadgeoc.com will share some of his columns. You also can follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/badge415.