The patrol car camera shows officers of the Cottonwood Police Department approaching a family in a Wal-Mart parking lot after midnight on March 21, 2015. The police are responding to an alleged assault of a Wal-Mart employee, a relatively routine call in Arizona, or anywhere. When they arrive, they find eight people milling around what looks like a heap of laundry bags behind a Chevrolet Suburban.
As another patrol car arrives, one of the officers says, “We need to separate these folks and talk to them.”
“No, you’re not going to get . . . you’re not going to separate me from my family,” a male family member says.
And then they attack, hitting officers, gouging their faces, wrestling for their weapons. Police try pepper spray, TASERs, a baton. Nothing works. The combatants pummel the police. They raise their hands in surrender only to resume the attack. By the time the fight ends, one officer is shot, one suspect is dead, another wounded and seven taken into custody. The fight lasts seven minutes.
Later, the Arizona Republic will report that the Gaver family performs as musicians on the streets of Boise, Idaho. For the past four days they have been living from their car in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Cottonwood, a town of 11,000 located about 60 miles southwest of Flagstaff.
Nothing is routine
“It’s an example of how things can go wrong fast,” Sarasota Police Officer Sean Gleason says as he shows the video to residents in the SPD Citizens Academy. “I show this video to the [members of the police] defensive tactics class because we need to know about fighting. I want [the officers] to say, ‘I’d survive this situation.’”
The situations are becoming more common. “These days, everybody knows this stuff. They see martial arts on TV all the time. You could be doing a routine traffic stop and the next thing you know you’re fighting for your life.”
Which is why the department’s lead defensive-tactics instructor teaches Brazilian jujitsu, a ground-fighting martial art that schools officers in grappling techniques and escapes.
Fighting the fighters
The inside of the SPD defensive tactics room looks like my high school wrestling class, with thick blue pads on the walls and floor and a yellow bucket and mop in the corner. Gleason, a K-9 officer, and assistant SWAT team leader Det. Dwayne Shellhammer demonstrate the moves police are most likely to need. Such as when drunks pile out of a bar and start a fight and officers have to wade into the pack.
The drunks turn on the officers. They’re too close to use weapons. The assailants move too quickly to handcuff. Someone grabs an officer around the throat from behind and pulls. That action shows intent to hurt or kill the officer, and lethal force is justified, but Gleason and Shellhammer know a better way. Gleason breaks the hold and applies pressure to the sides of the neck, explaining the move as he demonstrates it.
“We’re the only agency that does the vascular neck restraint. It’s a blood choke where you cut the blood flow to the brain. It’s not like this.” He puts his arm across Shellhammer’s throat. “That’s a choke hold and it can be lethal. The VNR will put them to sleep.” Shellhammer’s face glows red, a testament to the effectiveness of the hold.
“When you become a police officer,” Gleason says, “you have to completely change the way you think about things . . . everything you do, whether eating dinner or making a traffic stop. You ask yourself, ‘what am I going to do if somebody walks in with a gun or someone in that car shoots at me?’ Every call you go on, you have to think, ‘is this person going to attack me and am I ready?’ Mom, dad, a kid . . . anybody could kill you at any time.”
Next: On the firing range with the SPD.