'I wasn't going to watch them drown': San Diego LEO reflects on 2020's boldest rescue
From a daring ocean rescue to taking down an active shooter, Officer Jonathan Wiese is grateful he's lived up to his nickname: Johnny-on-the-spot
In a year filled with standout acts of heroism from police officers, nothing captured Police1 readers’ attention more than the story of K-9 Officer Jonathan Wiese, who, in a moment of improvisation, ingenuity and perhaps a little bit of insanity, used a 100-foot K-9 leash to rappel 30 feet down rocky cliffs to rescue two young girls and their suicidal father, who had driven his car over the edge into the ocean below. The girls and their father all survived the incident at Sunset Cliffs, and Wiese’s work that day garnered accolades from the city and endless jokes from his chief about getting written up for “misuse of equipment.”
It isn’t the first time Wiese has grabbed headlines for his bravery on duty. In 2019, the officer faced an active shooter alone, taking him into custody shortly after the gunman had carried out a deadly attack on a synagogue.
“Everyone laughs and says, ‘Why are you always Johnny on the spot?’ You make your own luck,” Wiese told Police1.
In this Q&A, Wiese – a Marine Corps Reserve veteran and 22-year police officer whose varied career has included work as a patrol cop, a collateral duty SWAT member, on the beach team and as a K-9 handler – reflects on the two incidents, lessons he’s learned during his illustrious career, and how he’s kept his head up during one of the most challenging years our nation’s police officers have ever faced.
ON THE SUNSET CLIFFS RESCUE
Wiese – who has a fear of heights – credits adrenaline, his military and police training, as well as his paternal instincts as factors in how he managed such a challenging rescue.
“As I'm trying to figure out how to get down this cliff, I'm thinking about jumping in the water but it's pretty high, it's rocky. It's dark so I couldn't tell what I would land in. Now, I can see the driver is out of the truck and he's holding one of the girls in his arms. At the time, I have a two-year-old daughter so looking down into the water and seeing the girl ... all I can picture is, ‘Oh my gosh. What if that was my daughter down there at 5:00 in the morning, in the water at Sunset Cliffs?’
So, it was like ‘Okay, I'm getting down this cliff.’ I'm thinking rope, anything I have, and this leash comes to my mind.”
You weren't scared of it breaking?
“I wasn't scared. I just figured if it breaks, or whatever, and I fall, I'm just hoping I don't break anything when I land. It's going to hurt, but if I have to crawl out into the water and swim, I'm going to do it. If it broke, at least I tried. I wasn't going to sit up there and just watch them drown.
“Fortunately, I've done rappelling with SWAT, and just three months prior to this incident, I had rappelled out of a helicopter up in Los Angeles, so mentally the rappelling wasn't even the issue. I’m afraid of heights, but it just felt like it was going to work. I wasn't really scared it wasn't going to work.
“Now, this is obviously different because rappelling gear, you're controlling your speed, you've got a harness on. This was more of wrapping the leash around my chest and hoping these cops were going to hold onto me as I'm going off the edge.
“Once I landed, the leash just fell off. It wasn't even attached so I don't know if as I was coming down, it just came loose or whatever. It wasn't even hooked onto anything. I just wrapped it around and then it was just tension that was holding me. I was like, ‘Oh okay, good. I got it off quicker’ instead of, ‘Oh crap, this thing wasn't hooked.’ The adrenaline and the tunnel vision on getting the mission done made time stand still for me. All my senses were shut off. Everything was shut off.”
What did it mean to you to save those two kids?
“It means everything to me to save a life, there's no better feeling in the universe. You hear stories of people who do stuff, and the rescuer doesn't survive, or the victim doesn't survive, or everyone perishes, and you think, ‘Man, what planets had to align that morning for all this to work?’”
What was the most difficult part of the rescue for you?
“The most difficult part was seeing the little girl that was lifeless because I had such a connection. I was a single guy for the first 15 years of my career. I waited a long time to get married, so when I went to these child abuse calls or things involving kids, I was better able to disconnect from them. But now that I'm a married man and a father, there's no way. You can try to disconnect yourself from it, but it's there. The hardest part was holding her in my arms.”
ON ARRESTING THE POWAY SYNAGOGUE SHOOTER
For Wiese, who faced the gunman who had just carried out a targeted attack on a synagogue that left one person dead and three others wounded, making the arrest with no backup was a matter of one of the most important tenets he’s had throughout his career as an officer: you have to act.
“I’m looking for the suspect and I can see there's a car stopped in the middle of traffic. I pull up behind the car, and the driver’s door opens, and I can see the driver is wearing some sort of batter’s glove on one hand. The driver leans out the car and looks back at me.
“Being a cop for 20 plus years, I’m thinking, ‘This is it.’ Nobody wears a glove like that. The way this guy looked back at me, and the way this car is stopped, this has to be the suspect. Then the fear in me goes, ‘Okay, this is an ambush. He's stuck here. Something happened. He just looked back. He saw it's the police. He shut the door. Now he's going to grab his rifle or whatever it is. This is where it's going to happen.’
“I’m thinking it's go time. I get out of my car and at the same time, he gets out of his car and he’s got what looks like a bullet-resistant vest with magazine pouches. But I can tell he doesn't have the gun in his hands.
“So, I just run up on him, and I think the surprise of that shocked him, so I was able to just prone him out, take him into custody.
“There was a lot of information coming from a bunch of different sources at the time. I was just lucky enough to put it together and lucky that he didn't want to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Did you feel any fear at the time? What was going through your head?
“Absolutely you feel fear, but you use that to your advantage. I always say if the hairs are standing up or you're nervous or you're fearful, then you know what you're getting into. If you're going in lackadaisical or nonchalant or you're not heightened awareness, that's when you're going to get in trouble. Obviously, I was scared shitless, because here's a guy who just shot people, I knew he was armed with a rifle, and I'm armed with a handgun.
“You've got all these tools in your repertoire from training. My tool in this case was speed. We use the term in SWAT ’speed, surprise, aggression.’ I’m thinking ‘Okay, I hope this guy's not ready for a cop to come at him full speed.’ So, I came out jumping out of that car, yelling. The dog's barking. Gun’s out and I'm going to close the distance on him, because if he's got a rifle, I'm hoping I can get the drop on him or he's going to realize, ‘Oh shoot, this cop's coming too fast,’ and give up.
“You use all your training and then you have to come up with a decision. Same thing with the cliff rescue. I always tell newer cops, ‘You have to make a decision.’ Failure to act is going to get you in trouble. The synagogue thing was, ‘Okay, I'm going to gamble on charging this guy and getting the drop on him.’ Reversing the ambush in a sense.
“Sometimes it's better to take cover and retreat, other times it's better to walk away. In this instance, this is what I came up with and it worked. I found out later he was trying to turn himself in, but obviously I didn't have that information at the time. And who knows? Maybe that's what he says today, and it was different in the moment. Anything you do as a cop, you have to make a decision. You have to act.”
ON WHY HE LOVES BEING A COP, NAVIGATING 2020 AND ADVICE HE’D GIVE OTHER LEOS
“For anyone thinking about police work, you're never going to become rich. But it is a very fulfilling job. It’s a cliché, but we're here to make the world a better place for everyone in it. That's why we're all doing it. I do it because I can't sit still. I don't want a desk job. I want to be out there in the fresh air. I want to be driving a car. I love playing with dogs. My reward is just what I get to do.”
It's been a pretty hard year for cops for a number of reasons. How do you keep your head up every day?
“Well, I see the reality. It is times like these when I have more people at a red light roll their window down and say how much they support the police, or in line at Starbucks, someone pays for my coffee, or kids wave at me on the street. I tell the new cops, ‘Don't worry about what you read. Don't worry about the news or the bad publicity.’ No matter what you see, or you think these small groups are trying to portray, it's the complete opposite. The vast majority supports us, wants us out there and knows that we're doing a good job.”
Do you have any parting thoughts for our law enforcement audience?
“Just that we're all in it together. We all wear the badge, and no matter what job you do, I thank everyone in this profession because I only work 40 hours a week, so the other 100 hours or so, everyone is out there keeping my family safe, so I appreciate everyone in law enforcement. Anyone willing to put on this badge and go out and risk their life, and ultimately any officer who sacrificed their life is deep in my heart. Thank you.”
NEXT: 50 states, 50 police heroes: How cops made an impact in 2020