Why Constable Drew Harrison is glad he was sprayed with OC
After being incapacitated by bear spray and facing down an armed suspect, this LEO attributes his survival to his training
If you have ever wondered about the reasoning behind your instructor insisting on you being sprayed with pepper spray during training, let me tell you a story.
On February 28th, 2022, Constable Drew Harrison, a seven-year veteran of the Niagara Parks Police Service, was working a day shift in the tourist area on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. At 2 p.m., he received a call from a staff member of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission. A homeless man was yelling obscenities and scaring tourists under the Rainbow Bridge. The staff wanted the man removed.
Constable Harrison and his partner, Constable Thomas Szczygiel, checked the area and found the homeless man seated against the wall under the bridge. He had layered clothing and two backpacks placed facing each other next to him.
Constable Harrison greeted the man, who identified himself with his health card. Initially, the man was cooperative. Drew explained to him that there had been a complaint and he would have to leave. Constable Harrison offered to give him a ride either to Canada's favorite restaurant, "Tim Horton's," to get him a coffee, or to a shelter called "The Out of the Cold." Considering the temperature at the time was 6 degrees Celsius below zero, this offer should have been a welcome relief for the man.
While speaking with the man, Constable Harrison recalled, "Suddenly, it was like someone flipped a switch. The man began to scream, 'Fuck you guys! You are fake! You're fake!!!'"
Constables Harrison and Szczygiel tried to calm him down, but the suspect got up and went back and forth to his backpacks several times. It seemed that despite being upset, he was preparing to pick them up and leave. However, instead of leaving, the man suddenly produced a black canister and sprayed Constable Szczygiel with an orange cloud, which was later identified as bear repellent.
Harrison explained, “In Canada, it is illegal to carry pepper spray. So, to bypass that law some people carry bear repellant or bear spray, which is legal.”
Constable Harrison forced to defend himself
As Harrison's partner backed away, completely blinded by the pepper spray, Constable Harrison quickly drew, expanded and loaded his baton at shoulder level to meet the current threat. Harrison noted, "My department had not issued TASERs at that time, but we have them now."
Undeterred by the baton, the suspect turned the canister toward Harrison. Drew recalled thinking, "This is going to suck, but I have been trained for this, and I can handle it. I had been sprayed with it in training and personally knew that even if I was sprayed, I could stay in the fight."
He was about to find out.
In an instant, Constable Harrison was also drenched in the wet, burning, heavy-duty pepper spray designed to take the fight out of a grizzly. However, Constable Drew Harrison was not a grizzly bear. He was a cop determined to make it home after his shift!
The cloud of spray enveloped Harrison, and Blepharospasm (the involuntary slamming of his eyes) occurred instantly. Harrison was blinded and felt the intense burning. He could almost hear his instructor shouting, "Open your eyes! You have to open your eyes! Get back in the fight!!!"
Gifted with the prior experience of being sprayed, the constable forced his eyes open. Through blurred vision, he saw the man making a motion that he identified as extracting a knife from its sheath. His eyes then forced themselves shut, but he knew the man had just armed himself.
A perfect blend of preparedness and training kicks in
Drew's response to the situation was a result of a perfect blend of his prior training in hockey, boxing and police training, as well as a mental drill he had repeated often. Through visualization, he would imagine a knife attack and prepare for the correct response by thinking, "Knife equals gun! Knife equals gun! Knife equals gun!"
To anyone watching, Drew's response would have appeared automatic, but it was the result of his training being dynamically applied.
Response is instantaneous
Being in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, Drew shouted to his partner, "Knife!" as he released his grip on his baton and smoothly transitioned to his .40 caliber Glock 22 Gen 4.
Once again, Drew forced his eyes open and acquired an even clearer image of the unyielding transient charging at him with the knife, blade forward, in a deadly attack mode.
Drew described, "I took a shuffle step down from the platform, squared off, and fired. Then I threw myself over the railing." Drew landed on a sidewalk on the opposite side of the railing, taking himself out of the line of attack. In that moment Drew said, “I had auditory exclusion. I couldn’t hear my shots at all. I thought I fired two rounds, but later discovered I had fired four. Initially I didn’t know if I hit him or not.”
Both officers now had their weapons drawn, but the man just stood motionless in the very spot Drew had left moments before, still holding the knife. The officers ordered him to "Drop the knife!"
Drew radioed, "Shots fired! Both officers have been sprayed. We need help!"
Drew said, moments later, "I couldn't hear the approaching sirens, but I heard officers on the radio saying, 'We're coming!' Hearing those words was like a shot of adrenaline."
Treat and cover
An employee from the Bridge Commission witnessed the incident and sprang into action, bringing bottled water for the pepper-sprayed officers.
Both officers worked as a team, alternating between covering the armed attacker and shouting, "Drop the knife! Get down!" while the other rinsed their eyes with water. The suspect continued to stand menacingly, non-compliant, while clutching the deadly fixed-blade knife.
Finally, the suspect slowly lowered himself to his knees. Drew flanked the suspect and ordered him to the ground. Once behind the suspect, Drew saw that he had dropped a knife that had landed right next to the man, making it still accessible.
Drew moved in, planning on delivering a kick to the suspect, to move him to the ground, but it was then he first noticed a through-and-through bullet wound to the man’s hand, and blood flowing from the man’s sleeve. In his assessment, Drew concluded correctly, this fight was over.
(Later investigation revealed that Drew's life-saving shots hit the suspect in the upper leg, hand and twice in the chest. The shots were fired while the suspect was advancing at a run with the knife at a distance ranging from 8 to 3 feet.)
After making this assessment, instead of delivering a kick, Drew placed his foot on the man's back and eased him to the ground. Drew said, "He went limp. It was at this moment I decided not to move the knife and to leave it there as evidence."
Like all the decisions he had made up to that moment, it proved to be a sound one. The suspect was no longer a threat.
Refusing treatment at the hospital
Constable Harrison was transported to the hospital for treatment. The doctor wanted to remove all the substances Drew was sprayed with, but he initially refused treatment. He explained, "I wanted someone from forensics to take photos and samples before any of it was removed. It was evidence."
Drew acknowledged that as the son of parents who served in the police for over 30 years each, he knew this day might come. However, the recovery process was tough for him. He praised his department's protocol for officers' post-shooting well-being, which included:
- Time to recover before returning to duty.
- Meetings with a support group of officers who had also experienced officer-involved shootings.
- Eventually returning to the scene and firearms training.
- Meeting with an experienced police therapist.
- A gradual return to duties.
Drew has been back to work for some time now and finds it helpful to talk to groups of officers in training about the incident.
Constable Drew Harrison's new normal is good
At the time of the incident, Drew Harrison was engaged to be married to Kassandra Peekhaus, who is also a constable at a different police service. They were married in May 2022, and they are now expecting their first child. Drew's life since the incident has been lived with a new perspective.
He fully realizes that the man he offered to help responded to his kindness by attempting to rob him of the rest of his life. If he hadn't been trained the way he was, he wouldn't have been able to dance with his new wife on their wedding day or look forward to the birth of their child. He wouldn't be able to appreciate the magnificent beauty of his patrol area as he does now. Simply put, he wouldn't be here.
Question: To be sprayed or not to be sprayed?
The reason Police1 reached out to Officer Harrison, and he graciously agreed to share his survival story, was to help our readers decide whether or not to be sprayed with pepper spray during OC training.
Drew shared his story to demonstrate how, like him, some readers may one day discover that their lives depend on the training and experience gained from being sprayed.