Winning in combat: The Ness Brothers mindset

Editor’s Note: Below, Chuck Remsberg speaks with veteran firearms instructor Dave Spaulding about two young officers and their tragically different paths. For a harrowing account of how Dave Spaulding’s own commitment to prevail was tested during a campaign of threats and harassment by a violent cult, see Remsberg’s newest best-seller, Blood Lessons: What Cops Learn from Life-or-Death Encounters, available from Calibre Press.

“The trainer who can plant a vivid picture in your head gives you a great advantage,” says veteran firearms instructor Dave Spaulding.

Spaulding does it with the remarkable true story of two officers. Both trained under the same state curriculum. Both worked the street — just 40 miles apart — in cities with similar demographics. Both were tested early in their careers by life-threatening conflicts.

Tragically for one, that’s where the similarities end.

The officer we’ll call Susan Shaeffer graduated fifth in her academy class. She had a son and two daughters and a husband who was also a cop in her department. When she’d been on the job about three years, she and her car partner — followed close behind by other officers — responded to reports of a suspect shooting up his neighborhood with a .30-cal. carbine during a raging quarrel with his girlfriend.

“They arrived on the scene with guns out,” Spaulding says. “There was a standoff: ‘Drop your gun!’ ‘No, you drop your guns!’ Back and forth, back and forth.

“Finally, [Shaeffer] said okay. She stepped out from behind her patrol car, got down on her knees, put her gun down, raised her hands, and said, ‘Let’s talk.’ Not pausing a beat, the suspect shot her in the neck.

“He was promptly brought down by nine rounds from her partner. He lived. [Shaeffer] survived too, but was paralyzed from the breastbone down. Confined to bed and a wheelchair, she required constant care, unable to be alone at any time. She died two years later of complications from her paralysis and organ shutdown.

“Her biggest mistake was that she took how she thought about that incident and applied it to the suspect. He didn’t think the same way. With her upbringing and mores, she thought, ‘I can talk to him like a reasonable human being.’ Unfortunately, he was not a reasonable human being. He was a killer.”

The other officer in Spaulding’s scenario, Katy Conway, in her twenties and still fairly fresh to patrol, had just pulled away from the stationhouse in her marked unit one winter night when a stranger with a boom-box flagged her down. “He ran up to her lowered window, dropped the ’box, pulled a .357 magnum, and shot her point-blank multiple times,” Spaulding says.

“The highest round struck her vest, but others drilled into her pelvic area and thigh, bad wounds. She was momentarily in shock. He yanked her door open, shoved her into the passenger seat, and started to drive off.

“She radioed for help on her lapel mic, her voice exceptionally controlled. He told her, ‘Bitch, shut up or I’ll shoot you more.’ But she was the one who pulled the trigger. She was able to reach her 9mm and she blasted him into oblivion.”

Spaulding says she later told him: ‘I knew someone was going to die that night, and it wasn’t going to be me.’

“She knew she was alone and that no one else could save her. She needed to be an active participant in her own rescue.”

Spaulding talked with both these officers after their incidents [the encounters are also referenced in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s excellent book On Combat]. Now a retired lieutenant from the Montgomery County (Ohio) SO but still active as a trainer, Spaulding told a class at the latest ILEETA annual conference that the critical difference between the two — and their outcomes — was their way of thinking.

“Foremost in [Shaeffer’s] mind was the idea that she could somehow ‘help’ the person who was threatening her life,” Spaulding said recently during a Police1 interview. “Her academy instructors told me that she struggled with the firearms portion of the curriculum. They quoted her as saying, ‘I don’t know why I have to work so hard at this. I’ll never shoot anyone anyway’.”

At that time at least, he claims there was an “unwritten philosophy” by state training authorities that “the lack of desire to employ deadly force is not in itself due cause for removal from the basic police academy.” So she moved through, graduating with honors. He characterizes her approach to the confrontation in which lethal force was clearly justified as “a noble attempt but misguided and improper for the situation at hand.”

Conway, by contrast, operated professionally with what Spaulding terms “the combative mindset.” Combative in this case does not refer to unwarranted aggressiveness that unnecessarily provokes conflict. Rather, he says, in a law enforcement context it means “ready...willing to fight back. You’re not looking for a fight but if one comes your way, you’re prepared to act, and you will.

“As police officers, we don’t determine when the fight starts; the suspect decides that. But that doesn’t mean we have to be passive or merely defensive in our response. We take the offensive when it’s necessary to win, to prevail, not just to survive.”

Alluding to Dave Grossman’s familiar comparison of law officers to sheepdogs who protect flocks of citizens from the wolves who would prey on them, Spaulding remarks: “One of the nicest things ever said to me was when another trainer told me, ‘You’re certainly a sheepdog...but there’s a little wolf in you too.’

“If you’re going to be a sheepdog, you’d better have a little wolf in you. You don’t have to act on those impulses, but if you don’t understand how the wolf thinks, you’re not going to prevail when you’re up against him.”

Maintaining a combative mindset is a lifestyle commitment, Spaulding believes, and he has contrived a mnemonic he calls “the ’Ness Brothers” to help officers remember what that commitment entails. “The Brothers are Aware-Ness and Willing-Ness,” he explains.

Specifically, they involve cultivating certain basic habits of living:

1. Know what’s going on around you at all times.
“Don’t just check your six, check your 360,” Spaulding advises. “Depending on the environment, that may involve checking up and down, as well as all around.”

2. Know the environment in which you work and live. “When you’re observant on your beat and at home, you know what’s normal and what’s not. You develop a sixth sense that can signal you when something’s not right. Listen to it.”

3. Guard against vigilance slippage. “Periodically check yourself against the color codes or some other symbolic reminder to make sure you haven’t drifted out of the level of alertness you should be in.”

1. Be willing to train, even at your own expense.
“The will to win paired with the skill to win that is steadily reinforced and supplemented is the combination that will allow you to be victorious. Realistically, you probably know in your heart that what your agency provides may not be enough.”

2. Be willing to buy your own equipment, if necessary. “If you’re issued vital equipment that doesn’t fit you, get what does. If you can’t draw properly from your holster, it’s you who will perish, not your procurement officer or your chief.”

3. Be willing to stay abreast of what’s new. “That doesn’t mean automatically glomming onto the latest new ‘magic bullet’ cop fad, but it does mean being curious and investigating new information and new technology that can legitimately enhance your capabilities.”

4. Be willing to do whatever it takes to win. “This is a decision you have to make before your life in on the line. You can’t wait until you’re in the fight to decide how much you care about winning. Your responses will be a direct result of what your thoughts and programming have been beforehand.”

After more than three decades in law enforcement, Spaulding has no hesitation in speaking bluntly. The officer who made the fatal decision to lay down her gun to talk to a violent suspect was “hailed as an ideal police officer, a hero,” by some administrators in her department, he says. “We should not disparage her, but we should not condone her actions as proper.

“To send officers out to keep a lid on society and not train or expect them to fight back is criminal. And yet I have personally heard chiefs say, ‘We don’t want our officers to be combative’ and ‘I can bury an officer cheaper than I can settle a lawsuit.’ They rebuke the ‘warrior’ concept in a paranoid fear of liability.

“The law of the land is that police use of force must be reasonable, based on the circumstances. But too many administrators want their officers to use force that is only minimal.

“In my opinion, if we in law enforcement do not begin to take back and embrace reasonable force, we are in time going to lose the ability to use any force at all. And that is scary stuff.”

In the meantime, Spaulding urges, remember the images: the one of the officer who voluntarily surrendered her weapon…and the one of her counterpart who flat-out refused to die.

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