"Dispatch, 42, are you clear, yet?"
"42, just clearing now, dispatch."
"Dispatch 42, all units still tied up, I have no additional unit to assign. Shots fired, 42, Dunkin Donuts, South Main Street front plate window shot out. Three young white males, all dark clothing, medium height, dark hair. Last seen heading south on South Main Street."
"42 dispatch, responding code 2"
"Are you kidding me", I muttered to myself. My first Christmas back home. I just separated from the Air Force police this past April and here it is 4:00am on December 25th, Christmas Day, on the midnight shift from Christmas Eve. I survived an airborne rescue mission to the Tonkin Gulf at the end of the Vietnam Conflict, political terrorists in Germany and a couple of deployments with the USAF Police Emergency Services Team handling anti-terrorist operations and hostage recovery, so I should be equipped to handle shots fired in a busy New Hampshire city in the early 1980's.
It was a white Christmas, that year, snow and ice along the roads, as my cruiser streaked through the downtown festive lighting. Two blocks down from the center of the town one-way loop, I had already shut down my blue lights and slowly cruised past the Dunkin Donuts, expecting to see the front window shattered. It appeared to still be intact, but my senses were still on high alert.
Just south was a 24-hour gas station and in the pool of the parking lot lights were three young males in dark clothing walking away from the Dunkin Donuts. I pulled into the lot, positioning my cruiser to the front and left of the approaching young men. I quickly exited my cruiser, now with the cruiser between me and the potential threat, I quickly got the attention of the three males.
With my holster unstrapped and my right hand around my grips, I pulled my .357 revolver up slightly within the holster, but not drawing it free.
"Gentlemen, I just received a call about shots fired at Dunkin Donuts and three young, white males headed south from there. Would you guys know anything about that? Anybody here armed with a handgun?" After several protests about not knowing what I'm talking about, I directed them all to place their arms straight out at their sides and turn to face away from me.
In very clear and straightforward language, I advised them they were not to move without me telling them to do so. I told them I was going to search each of them separately and to listen closely to my commands. Any movement by them, other than what I commanded them to do could be taken as an act of aggression against me and I did not want to shoot anyone on Christmas morning. I asked several times if each one of them understood me.
I moved around to their side of the cruiser, in front and off to the right side, now. I directed the first male to turn and approach me keeping his arms out to the side. I quickly patted him down, finding no weapons. I had him assume a stretched-out position with his palms down on the hood of my cruiser. I would immediately notice him attempting to straighten up in my peripheral vision. The second male had the same search results; no weapons. I had him assume the same position.
Now my mind starts working to distract my instincts. Another exaggerated call. The window didn't even appear to be broken. These are kids but their only crime is their parents probably have no idea they're wandering the streets at 4:00am on Christmas Day. My wife and 4 year old daughter and 1 year old son are snuggled in bed at home and Santa will beat me there this morning.
I direct the third and last male teen to turn and approach me and keep his hands outstretched to his sides. I go through the steps again, making sure he knows not to move unless told. I pat him down. At the center of the waistline of his pants is a hard, square shaped bulge. I take two steps back, point to his waistline and ask, "What is that?"
Instead of telling me, he quickly reaches his right hand down to his waist, reaches in and pulls up what I see as the grip of a black metal pistol, now in his hand, clearing his waist band. Time slows to a crawl, my eyesight tunnels into sharp clarity on the waist area of this young man. I see his hand, I see the handgun in it. As if down a tunnel, I hear my own voice, "Freeze, don't move!"
He actually seems to freeze at my command. The front sight of the handgun gets caught still inside his waist band and he makes no further effort to pull it free. The scene is momentarily frozen in time for me. Almost 40 years later I recall it vividly.
Sound returns to my ears and vision telescopes back out as several cruisers arrive and my fellow officers appear around me. One of them lies his palm down over my cupped hands and over the top of my drawn revolver. "Joe, it's over! You can relax, and take pressure off the trigger, lower your arms!"
Full survival instinct and military training had taken over my senses and I never realized, not only had I drawn my service revolver, I had already squeezed down on the trigger, just not enough pressure to squeeze off a round.
As it turned out, two brothers and a friend had decided to go try out the Army .45 caliber pistol replica BB guns the older brother had bought for the younger brother. There was a second BB gun in the third male's waistline.
In the cold winter night of Christmas Day 1982, my life and the lives of several others could have turned out a lot differently. In the circumstances of that incident, with the report from dispatch, my clear orders and the responses from the young men involved, the lighting for the area and the close proximity of a clearly visual deadly weapon, I would have been justified in defending myself with deadly force. I am grateful to this day, training, instinct and my own intuition saved my future and those three young men.
The fact that even though I saw the deadly weapon being drawn against me, I acted properly when the barrel got caught in clothing and was never aimed at me. I also learned a more important lesson that Christmas morning. I was prepared to defend myself in my sworn duty to protect the lives and freedoms of my fellow citizens, even if that meant taking another's life to do so, or committing myself to the ultimate sacrifice in the service of my fellow man. It's a commitment each police officer must make.
I've always believed in Christmas magic and miracles. I'm not really sure what time He was born in the manger on Christmas morning, but I believe He was watching over me that Christmas morning at 4:00am.