'The job I chose could cost my life': A lieutenant's on-duty death forces LEO to question own mortality
In 1987, a police lieutenant was shot and killed by a suspect on the Black Canyon Freeway in Phoenix, Arizona; the incident shook then-rookie officer Jim Calams to the core
The following is excerpted from "Unwavering Honor" by veteran police officer Jim Calams, which takes readers on a ridealong as he responds to calls while working as an officer in Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s. You can order the book on Amazon here. All proceeds from the book support the Stephanie Lynne Calams Memorial Scholarship Foundation. Calams is currently working on writing his second book, slated to debut in 2022.
During 1987, I was working patrol shift two – 1400-2400 hours in the South Mountain Precinct of Phoenix, Arizona.
It was warm that day, pretty much like every day in the Phoenix area. Working the west side of the precinct, 4Frank11 was my call sign. Well into my shift, everything remained fairly quiet. I handled a few GOA calls – gone on arrival – with no complainant or subjects to contact. I could handle a peaceful shift, even with a few meaningless calls.
As I patrolled the southwest area of the precinct at Dobbins Road and 7th Avenue, a call came over my radio.
“All units, be advised. A shooting just occurred in Tempe.” Our Phoenix dispatcher’s voice sounded a bit shaky. “A 918 subject (mental person) shot a police lieutenant at 48th Street and the freeway.”
Suddenly, my quiet shift shattered.
“Units be advised, the suspect is described as a white male approximately 19-25 years of age. Units be advised, the suspect is armed with the supervisor’s handgun and now has taken a hostage on a motorcycle.”
I waited for an update. Better description. “The suspect is now on a motorcycle, forcing the driver with the handgun pointed to the rear of his head, according to a witness. Suspect has entered the Black Canyon Freeway, heading northbound from 48th Street.” “Holy shit,” I muttered. “I need to start heading toward the freeway.”
The dispatcher continued with updates. “Suspect now at 24th Street, still northbound on Black Canyon.” A pause. “Now at 16th Street.” Time to kick it in the ass.
Driving a piece of junk Chevrolet Malibu 6- cylinder, I had the damn thing floored. Oil smoke blowing out the ass end of the car, I checked the rear-view mirror.
“Suspect motorcycle now approaching 7th Street.”
Damn! This dude is coming my way.
“4Frank11. Show me responding code 3 to the freeway.”
Lights flashing, siren blaring, I pushed the car as fast as I could. It shuttered and smoked. The steering wheel swayed to the left. I cursed the city at that moment. They could never get these cars fixed. Too old. Lots of miles on them.
I turned the A/C off, trying to gain more power, even though it didn't work worth a shit. Sweating my ass off, my heart thumped against the siren.
Whoop, whoop, whoop.
“Suspect is at 7th Avenue.”
The words came across the radio at the same second I pulled up the ramp to enter Black Canyon at 7th Avenue.
Suddenly, one of my law enforcement heroes, the Arizona DPS, appeared right behind the motorcycle.
The bike stopped on the shoulder of the northbound lanes. The motorcycle driver jumped over the guard rail. As I rolled in, the DPS officer deployed his shotgun. The suspect leveled a handgun. Wildness covering him, he pointed. Straight at the officer.
He already shot one police officer. No playing around with this shithead. The DPS officer lowered his shotgun.
The threat over, we cuffed the suspect, even though he had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. As I helped with the crime scene, I ended up taking the witness statement from the motorcycle driver. He shook all over, rightly so, after enduring the ride of his life. He proceeded to tell me how he slowed down by the police car back on 48th Street in Tempe. The next thing he knew, a gun was pointed in his face. The crazed 918 suspect told him to go. Fearing for his life, the driver went.
“Is he dead?” the victim asked.
“Oh, yeah. He's no longer a threat to anyone.”
The victim took a deep breath, and still obviously shaken, his shoulders relaxed a little. Later, I found out more details from the lieutenant that arrived on the freeway from my department. He told me the Tempe lieutenant was transporting the 918 subject to a mental institution. The suspect sat through his cuffs in the back seat of the patrol car. To us in this profession, that meant the suspect was handcuffed behind his back but was flexible enough to bring his legs all the way up to his chest, subsequently bringing both cuffed hands in front of himself. The lieutenant pulled over to restrain the suspect again. When the lieutenant opened the patrol car, the guy managed to attack him. He then fought with the lieutenant and grabbed his handgun. He shot and killed this hero for no reason other than doing his job.
My supervisor looked at me. “So very sad. This man was due to retire soon. I just found out. So, officer, I’m going to tell you this. Never be afraid to ask for help, especially if you’re not comfortable.”
“Yes sir. I get it.” I swallowed hard, his admonition sticking with me.
In the movies and on television, people get the impression that crime scenes clear up in an hour or so. Believe me, that was not the case with that situation. In my experience, no crime scene investigation ever cleans up fast. Between measurements, statements from witnesses, photographs, etc., it all takes time. I arrived on that scene around 3:30 p.m. and finally finished at 9:00 p.m., helping with whatever anyone needed from me.
When the medical examiner showed up, darkness already washed over the scene. While they moved the suspect's body onto their body bag, I noticed it turned a very dark color. Curious, I asked the investigator from the ME’s office if it was normal for the deceased to turn that color?
He looked at me, a quizzical expression on his face. “You must be new.”
“Yes, sir. A year-and-a-half.” Up until then, I hadn’t experienced this extremely dark coloring of a body.
The examiner went on to explain. “Because the scene needed to be processed, with the time it took and the high heat coming from the sun absorbing into the road’s concrete, this is very typical.”
I thanked him for the street lesson. By then, the fire department was on the scene with a ladder truck. They used their hose to pressure wash a black tarry substance off the freeway. The blood, at one time red, looked like black tar. As I gathered up my traffic cones and extinguished the road flares carefully placed at the scene, my thoughts turned to this lieutenant I never met. Here one minute and gone the next.
My own mortality came into question that night. I chose the profession of a police officer, and I had no regrets. I understood that I must continue to train and maintain officer safety the best I could.
No matter how good at my job I became, I could never be afraid to ask for help. I climbed back in that piece of shit 1982 Chevrolet Malibu, a bit shaken, and took a deep breath. Then I picked up the mic and cleared. “4Frank11. Show me 10-8.” Back in service. “10-4, 4Frank11.”
I drove into the night, waiting for the next call. No one asked about my emotions. No one suggested I take a break or call it a day and go home. And no one expected me to do any less than finish my shift, including myself.
Later, I could take time to process the myriad of emotions – grief of losing a fellow officer, shock of watching a suspect die and turn a grotesque color, the weight of calming and comforting a victim, and realizing the job I chose could cost my life. A lot to process.
Still on duty, I pushed it all down and went back to work.