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Surest safety is disarming

In over 30 years as a sheriff’s deputy I never fired my weapon except at the range. I came close to firing it in the line of duty only a few times. One of those is relevant in view of recent events.

Over 25 years ago I responded to a call of vehicle prowlers in the Spokane Valley. It was early morning during the summer and many people had their windows open. I parked my patrol car a short distance away and walked into the neighborhood, checking for suspects and victim vehicles. As I checked a car in one driveway I heard a female inside the house say, “It’s a cop.”

At almost the same instant, a man came out of the front door in his bathrobe. He was running toward me and pointing a .45 semi-automatic handgun at me. My response was to draw my weapon, point it at him and yell, “Sheriff’s Department – drop the gun.”

Now there were two innocent people facing each other over guns; neither had done anything illegal. One or both could die in the next few seconds. Neither deserved to die, but who gets to decide? One is a homeowner trying to protect his property. He has the right to own and carry firearms and the right to protect himself and his property. The other is a law enforcement officer trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He has been hired, trained, equipped and given the authority to do so. Whose wife would become a widow, and whose children will lose a father?

There were only two people who could make the decision. What one decided would determine the future for both. The homeowner could decide to obey my command or continue pointing his weapon at me. For me the decision had been made long before.

I took the job with the expectation that I would potentially have to risk my life for someone else’s life or property. I accepted that risk and decided to do my job to the best of my ability, even if it cost me my life. I also decided to take my training seriously and minimize my chances of being killed on the job. I intended to go home at the end of each shift. I wanted to raise my sons and later to retire and spend the rest of my life with my wife. I was willing to die for the citizens of Spokane County, but I was not willing to just give my life away.

Fortunately the homeowner made the best decision for both of us. He stopped and dropped his weapon, saying “it’s only a BB gun.” I picked up the weapon, which was a .45 replica BB gun, and the two of us talked for a few minutes. I explained why I was in his driveway and cautioned him about the dangers of confronting an unknown person with a weapon of any kind, and the risks of acting without thinking first. We parted on a civil note and went our separate ways. Both of us were alive at the end of my shift.

There is no doubt in my mind, even today, that if that man had taken one or two more steps, or in any other way indicated he was going to use his weapon, I would have shot him. I am very glad he obeyed my commands.

While my experience is not exactly like what happened between Mr. Scott Creach and Deputy Brian Hirzel, the basics appear to be the same: two innocent people unexpectedly in an armed confrontation. The “what ifs” are endless.

“What if” the homeowner had stopped pointing his weapon at me, but kept it in his hand or put it in his bathrobe pocket? I can’t answer all the “what ifs.” I will tell you that my weapon would have remained on target until he was no longer armed. As long as he had possession of the weapon I would need to be prepared to defend myself. I would not put my weapon away and start to relax until I had control of his weapon. Only then would I know we were both safe.

Believe it or not, law enforcement professionals have to treat every contact with a citizen as the one that could end their career or life – and do so without seeming to. They can be and have been killed making traffic stops, responding to calls for service, talking to crime victims, from ambush or just drinking coffee. I have a good friend who was seriously injured by the very person who had called for police assistance but didn’t want to put down his weapon.

The best response when told by a law enforcement officer to “drop the gun” is to drop the gun – any discussion can wait.

Considering the number of contacts between armed or violent citizens and law enforcement, it’s surprising more don’t result in serious injury or death. This is because of the dedication, training and professionalism of our law enforcement officers.

Chan Bailey retired as a Spokane County sheriff’s lieutenant in 2008 and now resides in Colbert.


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