Shoot! Shoot Now!

For the most part, I can remember circumstances surrounding an incident with reasonable clarity. There is one event however, indelibly etched in my mind, that has no beginning—and really no end when I stop to think about it. The pundits will say that a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. So quite possibly this is not a good story— maybe you should stop reading now… but I need to tell it because the middle is so crystal clear even these many years later.

It was a bright and crisply cold day. I am inside a Chicago Transit Authority station on the Eisenhower Expressway. I stare down the long ramp that goes down to the platform that is on the expressway level. That platform runs for about a block and then becomes another long ramp that climbs to street level at the far end. The entire stop, consisting of a station at each end, the ramps and the platform runs for two city blocks.

CTA Pano

Left to right: Platform at traffic level, long ramp to station, station.

I am extremely familiar with these surroundings, having worked as a part time ticket agent for the CTA during my college years. Many a long hour was spent in the ticket booths that nest inside each station. But today, I am a cop on assignment at this location. I am outside the ticket booth and my back is to the street where the occasional bus stops to pick up and discharge passengers to and from the rapid transit trains that run in the center of the expressway. I watch down the ramp as a young man approaches, climbing steadily upwards toward me.

He looks to be about early twenties and although he is Caucasian, he sports afro style light brown hair. Coupled with his white skin, he presents a non sequitur image of an Afro-American. The overall look is no doubt intentional, but it just doesn’t work. He vaguely reminds me of a guy I went to school with—I never liked that guy. He’s wearing a heavy ¾ length tan corduroy jacket, similar to what I saw in a mail order catalog just a few weeks previous. He walks with determination staring at me as he approaches. The sun catches a bright reflection off of an object he is carrying in his right hand.

My alert level rises several points as I strain to identify the object. As he gets closer, I can make it out to be a hunting knife, identical to the size and style my cousin and I used to carry when we were tramping the north woods of Wisconsin as teenagers. We used the knives to cut underbrush and saplings. Somehow, here at this transit station in the city, I do not believe that is his intention. I reach under my coat and clumsily draw my little five shot snub nose. It takes too long. He is rapidly closing the distance between us. My “Surviving Edged Weapons Attacks” training vaguely flashes before me—wasn’t there something about a “21 foot rule?” No time to even think about that now—he’s definitely closer than 21 feet.

I call to him to stop and I gain a few feet by stepping rapidly backwards, but he is a man on a mission. It is astounding at how quickly your brain can process information under extreme stress; I do a quick assessment of the consequences of shooting. Directly behind him is the ramp sloping downwards towards the platform. If I miss, or if the shot is through and through, the bullet will hit the corrugated metal roof of the ramp. The decision is made in a fraction of a second.  Shoot! Shoot now!

At this distance it’s an easy shot. He’s too close, but a well-placed shot or two will most likely take him down before he can do much harm, but…

…but my trigger finger will not work. It’s like my finger has fallen asleep. Whose finger falls asleep? Even with every ounce of effort, I cannot pull the trigger. I step even further back, stumble into the turnstile and fall on my back between the walls of the turnstile. I cannot roll. My trigger finger is paralyzed. He is on me now; he raises the knife and strikes, the blade just a few inches from my chest.

I awake with a start. My heart is racing. My head is wet on the pillow. My wife sleeps quietly at my side. It’s “the dream.” In my case, it’s a recurring dream and it is nearly identical each time it happens. Thankfully, it only happens two or three times a year.

Most law enforcement officers have experienced “the dream” in some fashion or another, but some won’t generally discuss the details. For many, the situation may vary from dream to dream, or the hanging point may be different. Several have told me they pull the trigger, the gun fires, but the bullet falls out of the barrel, harmlessly to the ground. For cops, such dreams are not unusual and their meaning can be debated ad infinitum.

In my case, I am certain that it was the manifestation of a subconscious doubt as to whether I would be able to shoot another human being. The power to take a life without protracted legal procedure is one of the most awesome powers possessed by every police officer. Much of our training addresses the laws that cover the use of deadly force. We talk about the fact that state law details the precise circumstances under which deadly force is permissible. Then department policies will most usually proscribe additional limitations and finally, most law enforcement officer personally limit themselves even further. Is it any wonder why we might dream about deadly force? My subconscious doubt was erased on a cold February night in 1974 at 13 minutes past midnight when my partner and I exchanged gunfire with armed robbers. My revolver worked just fine, as did my trigger finger. From that day forward I never had that dream again. That was “The Shootout at the High Roller’s Pool Hall” and you can read it by clicking the title.


19 Comments on “Shoot! Shoot Now!”

  1. Yep, I think most of us have a repeating nightmare. I have about three completely distinct dreams and my wife says she hasn’t seen me this active in my waking hours. I don’t know if I ever remember the whole sequence of each dream, but I fight in each one. I usually get the snot beat out of me and when I wake up I’m extremely tired. They are no fun at all. I refer to them as my “urban” combat dreams.

    We pay a great price for doing God’s Work, more than most will ever understand.

  2. Dennis Banahan says:

    Jim, Great story and it certainly hits home. Many of us have had “the dream” as you indicated. When I was in Homicide, we were sent to the police academy for a two-week course in Clinical Psychology. As you may have guessed, everybody griped and moaned. The clinical psychologist who conducted the class was a guy named Joe Kulis. I never forgot him. He was outstanding. Captivated everybody for eight hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks. He asked us about our dreams and I told him mine. When I was done with my story, he asked me if I had ever been in a gunfight. I told him I had been, and he asked me if I ever had the dream after that. I hadn’t. Funny how the mind works.

    • jimpadar says:

      Joe Kulis… a name from the past. What a remarkable man! I also enjoyed that class immensely. I thought he had cops and our daily stress figured out to a “T.”

      I have met very few coppers who after a beer or two wouldn’t admit to having “the dream.”

      • Wally Klinger CCSPD says:

        Dr. Joe Kulis taught my recruit class at CCSPD academy. Probably one of the best psych classes I ever had.

        He took the book mumbo jumbo and made it come alive in a manner we as recruits would see…… very soon.

        I hope he is well and living the good life out of his practice and academia.

      • jimpadar says:

        I did a little Googling and it appears he is active with Chicago City Colleges and still doing occasional seminars. God bless him, he was indeed a memorable man.

  3. Kaye Aurigemma says:

    WOW! This one gave me goose bumps!

  4. Fern says:

    Jim, I’ve been having that same bullet rolling out of the barrel for years. The kicker is that it’s been since high school. For that reason I always check my ammo and make sure my weapons are working properly. I add that i have no doubt in my mind i can use deadly force if i have to. The drive in my mind is that no one who is trying to kill me can keep me away my wife and my twin girls. Good story once again Jim.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting… getting home safely is a powerful motivator!

      • John Klodnicki says:

        Your stories are great. our missions in the D units are interesting, lots of arrests, cases cleared and lot’s of us getting carpel tunnel. Remember the old type-writers? We pounded out reports, in triplicate.
        Remember the early days of patrol? Remember “Beeping” in our field reports? Box 1 robbery, box 2 armed,box three beat 1821 etc.etc. I’m sure the new breed of officer would be interested how we preformed our duties.
        Anyway, Keep up the good work.

  5. Janis says:

    I think every profession must have its own panic dreams. Teaching sure does.
    Loved this, Jim.

  6. jim brown says:

    A recurring dream I had was working homicide you would park behind County Hospital on the big grates. I dreamed several times of dropping the car keys down the grates and then I would wake up. One time I was at Mt Sinai and dropped the keys in a small grate and they were easily picked up out of the grate. The dream had the wrong hospital.

    Being retired 20 years I still get police dreams.
    jim brown

  7. Scott says:

    LOL…I had Dr. Kulis in the academy as well. He told me why I wasn’t totally cut out for police work as a career and what my challenges would be and that I should consider other work. He was spot on regarding what would bother me and what I would struggle with. With about 7 years to go though, the rewards outweighed the challenges.

    • jimpadar says:

      Sometimes you just have to follow your own path… During senior year counseling, a high school friend was told he was not college material. Counselor recommended a vocational school. He went on to garner multiple degrees in the aeronautical engineering field, including a doctorate. He wound up as director of NASA’s astronaut training programs.

  8. DrJoe says:

    Kulis is still kicking it – I think. For I am he, so this is probably an authoritative response. 🙂

    Thanks, Jim, for bringing back some fine memories. And thanks to those who left comments that reassured me that something valuable was done in seminars they attended.

    One of my fondest memories from that era concerns a homicide investigator who “complained”, near the end of a course, that I was being unfair to the students by violating their expectations: “We came here to be TRAINED,” he said. “You’re expecting us to THINK!”

    He nailed it!

    There’s a place for rote learning in police training, but unfortunately too much training was, and still is, unbalanced in regard to rote learning vs. conceptual understanding. I always had great respect for the intelligence, curiosity, compassion and creativity showed by the best police officers and tried to teach to those characteristics in all my work.

    If I had to, I would bet that a lot of followers of Jim’s blog are precisely the intelligent, curious, compassionate, creative cops that I was trying to reach, so here’s a tip of my hat to all of you. You kept/keep the profession more or less on the right track despite the constant pressures that work to derail it.

    PS: I very occasionally post to a blog at Plan to SLOWLY increase my posting frequency there as I dump some of my training materials into the public domain.

    • jimpadar says:

      Hey Joe!

      Great to hear from you and I know others who read this blog will be glad to get your update and contact information.

      Thanks also for your kind comments about the blog and especially about the intelligent, curious, compassionate and creative readers. I couldn’t agree more 🙂

  9. Mary Rita Shull says:

    Jim, this is a great story – I am so thankful that you share these! Keep up the great work.

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