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Anything can happen, anytime: The non-routine traffic stop

As Officer Thad Baldwin pulled the pickup truck over in the 600 block of Sill Street in La Crosse, Wisconsin at about 3:30 PM on March 25th, 2006, the 27-year veteran “had a feeling,” that something was not routine about this stop. There was a male seated in the bed of the pick-up, who waved and issued a friendly greeting, “Hey dude,” as Officer Baldwin approached.

The impaired female driver was friendly also, and he discovered she had an alcoholic beverage in the drink holder next to her. Baldwin asked her to step from the truck and walk over to the sidewalk. As she did, a second male who had been in the passenger seat of the truck, exited quickly. Thad said his action and demeanor “caused alarms to go off.”

Thad asked him to step back into the truck and he refused, claiming he was going to prevent Officer Baldwin from hurting his friend. Assurances to the contrary and additional requests did not gain even a modicum of compliance. He was able to get identification from the three in the truck and the noncompliant male was found to be Joseph Smith, a man with many, many police contacts, both criminal and psychological in nature.

Thad called for back-up on his walk unit, but recognized the telltale hum that indicated the battery was dead. He went back to his squad and asked for a back-up and when he returned he saw the male’s hand was cupped and Thad saw he had palmed a screwdriver concealed it partially up his coat sleeve. Thad ordered him to get rid of it and the male dropped it into the bed of the pick-up.

By this time Officer Jon Wenger arrived on the scene and Smith was ordered to get back into the truck or face arrest. Smith’s answer was a definitive, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere!” When Baldwin and Wenger took hold of Smith he locked his hands together and resisted and the struggle took them up against the truck.

Wenger signaled he was going to use the TASER. Thad nodded and Jon disengaged, drew his TASER and shouted the warning, “TASER, TASER, TASER!” Hearing this, Baldwin released the suspect and disengaged.

Jon fired the TASER into the back of the suspect, who was wearing a heavy coat and it had zero effect on Smith. The “clack, clack, clack,” noise of no contact was heard loud and clear by both officers.

Shots Fired
Jon said after the TASER probes hit, everything happened so fast. Smith instantly swept the screwdriver up from the back of the pickup spun and attacked Jon stabbing him repeatedly, thrusting the screwdriver into Jon’s chest. Jon tried to block the blows with the screwdriver, but he was stabbed “three or four times,” almost instantaneously.

Thad said what happened was over in seconds. He related, “My training kicked in.” The sudden brutal assault by Smith was so violent it was obvious, “Smith wanted to kill him.”

Baldwin drew his weapon and saw that Smith was all over Officer Wenger, who was trying to maintain his balance and move out of the way of the deadly assault. Baldwin said he remembered thinking, “If I go high there is a chance of hitting Jon so I aimed low to the mid-torso. I double tapped him.”

The attacked ceased immediately and Smith slumped forward to the ground, struck twice by two 9mm 147 grain hydra-shok rounds. Thad then covered the man in the pickup bed and the female driver because they were yelling and he did not know what would come next. In a short time he realized they were both yelling, “What did you do dude! Are you crazy dude?” They were yelling disapprovingly at the suspect Joe Smith.

Even though Jon had been stabbed repeatedly by Smith, his Second Chance Vest stopped all the blows except for one puncture wound to his side. He received the wound above his left side panel between his ribs. His sudden movement caused him to tear the meniscus in his knee, which required corrective surgery and put him on light duty for six months. Regardless of his injuries, Jon radioed, “Roll first responders we have shots fired and the suspect is down.” Jon immediately put pressure on one of the wounds to the suspect, since one round nicked the femoral artery.

He is credited for saving the life of the man who just had tried to kill him.

Officer Baldwin said, “I couldn’t be prouder of the way the department handled this shooting.” He explained that his Assistant Chief, His Union Rep and the Chief were there immediately. He said they were all there out of concern for him and the support he received was outstanding.

For his actions Officer Baldwin received awards for heroism from his department and The Wisconsin Professional Police Officers Association. Officer Wenger received recognition for his heroism also, putting the suspect’s treatment before his own. Wenger was also named Second Chance Save 982.

Joe Smith’s life was saved by the same people who he had tried to kill. He personally discovered that is why they are called “the good Guys.” He eventually was sentenced to serve 56 years in prison for his deadly assault.

Lessons Shared
Officer Baldwin felt he was prepared and “It was Stab? Shoot! And it happened that fast. I was well-trained for that moment.” He admitted that before the incident he was never the most enthusiastic person at training, but still he trained hard. He emphasized the importance of training and paying attention to feelings. He had sensed something was terribly wrong and he acted on those feelings and those feelings were correct.

Officer Wenger said, “We all know every day we go out there anything can happen anytime. On that day it was my turn.” He emphasized all officers starting their shifts need to remember that it might be their turn next, because “anything can happen anytime.”

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.