Unless it’s a sure thing, life is all about taking risks. I’ve taken quite a few in myself, not that I’m proud of that fact. Many were taken in the line of duty, and I’ve been very lucky. Luck is something that goes hand-in-hand with risk taking, whether you’re crossing the street or trying to pass another car on a dark stretch of highway. Hopefully, you’ve assessed the circumstances and made the right decision. Sometimes you look back and wonder, what was I thinking?
I was recently asked about “the riskiest thing I’ve ever done” for an interview. As I reflected on my answer, I paused. There were so many that I had a hard time deciding. For some reason I settled upon one incident I remembered from my law enforcement career, although there were many, many more from which to choose.
It happened when I was a rookie officer. It was a late spring afternoon, the sun was still shining, and I was routine patrol in a shopping district when the call for assistance came from another officer in the area. This officer, a plainclothes detective, had stopped two individuals conducting what appeared to be an illegal transaction and subsequently discovered that both were armed, one with an M-1 Carbine in the trunk of his car. The detective managed to subdue the one with the rifle in the parking lot of a strip mall, but the other guy ran. I was close by and immediately went to back him up. As I was circling around the back of a series of one story buildings, the second offender ran right past me. I’d heard the brief description, “male white with a beard,” and knew it was him. I jammed on the brakes and slammed the car into park. Or I thought I did. I’d actually shifted into reverse and the vehicle lurched backward as I got out. Jumping back behind the wheel, stopping it, and re-shifting into PARK cost me about ten or twelve precious seconds. I radioed that I’d seen the offender running behind the buildings as I began a foot pursuit. Although I’d only lost sight of him for a few seconds, when I rounded the corner he was nowhere to be seen. I moved cautiously along the rear of the building, gun drawn, and checked out a recessed area where there were several big Dumpsters. The search yielded nothing.
I continued along the alleyway. Two civilians were standing by an open overhead garage door and I asked them if they’d seen somebody run by. They replied they hadn’t. Just then I saw something moving above me and looked up. The offender had somehow made it to the roof. I pointed my pistol at him and ordered him to halt. He backed up, disappearing from view. The building was approximately fifteen feet high and I couldn’t figure out how he’d gotten up there. (I discovered later that he’d used the Dumpster to gain access to a rain gutter and had shinnied up the gutter to the top.) I radioed his location and then asked the two guys if there was a way up to the roof. They looked a little out of sorts due to my gun and previous conversation with the offender, but said there wasn’t. I then asked if they had a ladder.
One guy quickly gave me a wooden step ladder that was about six feet tall. I placed it against the wall and ascended, only to find that I was still way short of the edge of the roof. I stood on the top step and reached up. My fingers could barely curl over the edge. I holstered my weapon and reached up with both arms. I was able to grab the edge of the building and pull myself up, like I was doing a pull-up. (To be honest, one of the guys who’d given me the ladder grabbed my foot and helped me a little, but doing a pull-up in uniform, with about thirty pounds of equipment on, made the task a bit more challenging.)
As I pulled myself up and over, I spied the offender perhaps thirty feet away, his back to me. I imagine he must have been looking for a way down, but the parking lot was filling up with squad cars. He probably never suspected that somebody would be reckless (or foolhardy) enough to climb up on a flat roof after an armed assailant. I must admit now that I can’t remember thinking much about the risk. It did flash through my mind as I scaled that wall, but I figured I could let go and drop if I saw the offender take aim at me. None of that happened, however. I pulled myself up onto the roof, drew my weapon once again, leveled it at the offender, and ordered him to get on his knees and place his hands on his head or I would shoot. He complied. I approached him, handcuffed him, and then radioed that I had one in custody.
“Where you at?” someone asked on the radio.
“I’m on the roof,” I replied, wishing I’d had the wit and resourcefulness to rephrase it with a musical. “Up on the roof,” after a song that had been popular during my youth. Once everything settled, the problem became how to get us both down. We ended up summoning the fire department for assistance. Neither of us wanted to risk going down the same way we’d come up.
I had a smile on my face as wide as a Chicago boulevard when I descended, and a couple of the guys patted “the rookie” on the back. The sergeant, however, didn’t say one word. My dream of receiving a letter of commendation soon faded and such a letter never came, but I realized I probably didn’t deserve one anyway. I rode by those buildings in the months that followed, replaying the incident in my head and realizing what a perfect target my head was as I pulled myself up onto that flat roof. I’d assessed the risk, and I’d taken it in my youthful exuberance, not thinking things through. The guy was effectively trapped, and although he could have easily started shooting at people below in the parking lot, the more sensible approach would have been to wait for back-up before going after him. Still, in the heat of the moment, I decided to take the risk. My action, albeit impetuous, had caught the offender off guard, and sometimes you can seize the initiative. It worked in this case.
Would I do it the same way all over again?
Hmm, let me think about that . . . You know, it sounds kind of risky.