The holidays were winding to a close in 2002. It was December 29th, Christmas was over, and the New Year loomed close. Of course, it was cold. I had been to a movie with Becky, a fellow officer and friend. We were doing some last minute shopping when I received a page. My pager was the type where a third party could type in only their number and/or a numerical code of some sort. Checking the display, I saw my sister’s phone number followed by the numbers 9-1-1. Thinking my niece or nephew might be sick, I immediately made the call, only to hear the desperate voice of my sister. “He’s got a gun!” She was being held at gunpoint by her husband, my brother-in-law.
I have no recall of what I said after learning of her desperate plight. I do remember immediately calling our dispatch center and providing as much information as quickly as possible for responding officers. Becky and I ran to the car, which was fortunately a marked police vehicle, and raced to my sister’s house. The whole time we were en route, I continued to talk with the dispatcher and repeatedly asked her to make sure everything was being recorded.
Screeching to a stop at my sister’s house, we ran to the door. We were unable to see into the downstairs area, which was where my sister and brother-in-law were located. I recall having a discussion with Becky about the children’s safety and then grabbing each of them individually and handing them off to Becky. I grabbed Becky’s gun while she ran to cover with my niece and nephew, secreting them behind the front wheel well of our car.
I managed to keep my phone flipped open, thus transmitting what was occurring. As I crept downstairs and entered the room, I tried to move tactically while maintaining a good eye on what was in front of me. My sister was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, my brother-in-law off to one side. I was at the apex of the triangle.
Although I cannot remember in what order some things occurred, I recall trying to conjure up as much of my negotiator training as I could. I remember talking to him, trying to minimize what had already occurred, and pleading for him to not make things worse. At this point, I learned he had already taken a shot at my sister, the round striking the floor by her feet and not physically harming her.
“Hang up your phone!” he shouted.
Rather than doing so, I merely put my phone down and maintained the connection so the dispatch center could monitor what was occurring.
My sister was still sitting in the middle of the room between the two of us. During my exchange of words with my brother-in-law, she was able to dart to the safety of a bathroom located in the basement. Then, in a surreal scene, one that defied comprehension, it was just my brother-in-law and me facing each other with guns drawn. All negotiations had ended.
I heard other officers arriving on the scene, and both my brother-in-law and I began yelling to them.
“Stay out!” I yelled.
“No, I want you in here,” shouted my brother-in-law.
My concern was obviously for the welfare of my sister, but I was also afraid that if any officers entered the room, the chances for a peaceful resolution would diminish greatly. My personal and professional knowledge of the “suicide by cop” phenomenon, wherein individuals goad the police into shooting them, was weighing heavy on my mind. I didn’t want to see him lose his life.
Then, the most critical moment in this situation occurred. My brother-in-law and I began yelling at one another.
“Please, drop your weapon, everything will be okay.”
“You’re a negotiator, Dawn,” he cried. “Negotiate!”
“This is my sister!” I screamed at him.
His reply was lost in a haze of frightening moments, but I’ll never forget what happened next. He brought the weapon up to his head. “It’s over tonight,” he said.
The words resonated in my mind. Then he made a slight movement with his wrist, barely perceptible, but in conjunction with his statement, it seared into my mind. I was certain he was about to pull the trigger and shoot himself.
Screaming at him, I shot him once in the center mass of his body, striking him in the stomach. In response, a barrage of bullets came my way. Instantly, I felt my left hand and arm burning, and I was no longer able to hold my weapon. I fell to the ground while hearing my sister screaming for me. As quickly as it began, the shooting stopped. I later learned he had emptied his gun.
I was down but not out. I heard the officers in the foyer and recall yelling to them. “The gun’s on the floor—it’s empty—lying next to the shooter in the middle of the room.” I tried to provide them with as much tactical information as possible.
I picked up the phone that I had previously set down. The line was still open. “Send an ambulance; there’s been a shooting.” There was some confusion as to which one of us was shot, and I am sure that my racing adrenaline caused me to be less clear than normal.
Once the EMTs arrived and things were secured, my brother-in-law and I were transported to the same hospital. I had been shot at nine times and hit with four rounds. One bullet went through my upper left arm, nicking a nerve, thus causing the burning in my arm and hand. That round is also what caused me to drop my gun. Two shots went through my left knee, though neither of them hit any bones. There was another round that went through my left calf, through the meaty part, and didn’t hit anything vital.
My brother-in-law suffered a wound to his abdomen.
Ironically, I remember being worried about him. Although others have questioned why I did not “shoot to kill,” the truth is I never wanted him to die. In fact, when I began to think clearly once again, I kept hoping maybe something good could come from this situation. I was hopeful for an epiphany on his part, and I worried about my sister, niece and nephew. What would happen now?
Ultimately, a plea agreement was reached and my brother-in-law went to prison. To my knowledge, he fully recovered from his wounds. He has since been released and has visitation rights with my niece and nephew. Needless to say, I still worry about their safety.
I have permanent nerve damage in my left arm, which affects my hand. Half of my left hand is numb but I can still function, and I’m able to continue to work as a police officer. My left knee is problematic and arthritic, which is to be expected from that type of trauma. I also fell on the ice while recovering from the gunshots and sustained a tibial plateau fracture. As one would expect, this injury exacerbated the already tenuous state of my knee. I have had no further issues with the bullet wound through my calf.
It is exceptionally difficult for me to write about something so dynamic and explosive. I am not sure I am capable of completely articulating the events of that day; nevertheless, that experience was life altering in many ways. And while I play the events over and over again in my mind, I am certain I would do things the same way. Those of us in law enforcement willingly accept danger and have no qualms about risking our lives in order to protect others, most of whom are strangers. To have been given the opportunity to protect my own family is something I consider a gift.
(For more stories compiled by John Wills in “Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or amazon .com.)