Brothers in Arms

In mid-July, 2009, two Sandoval County, New Mexico deputies staked…

In mid-July, 2009, two Sandoval County, New Mexico deputies staked out a remote mountain cabin. A homeless man was the suspect, dubbed the “Cookie Monster” because he tended to steal only pillowcases full of snacks and other food. What no one knew at the time was that the subject was Joseph Henry Burgess, a suspected serial killer believed to have committed at least five brutal murders elsewhere over the years. Nor did anyone know that he was armed with a .357 revolver, believed to have been stolen from one of his dead victims.

When Burgess entered the cabin, Sergeant Joe Harris and Deputy Theresa Moriarty confronted him. A struggle ensued. The suspect produced the stolen .357 and opened fire. One bullet shattered the sergeant’s gun hand and another severed his femoral artery.

His partner was not carrying her service weapon that night since she had accidentally locked it in her trailer and borrowed the sergeant’s backup gun. She drew this and attempted to shoot the gunman but could not get it to work. The weapon passed from her to the dying sergeant, who apparently weak hand only, shot the cop-killer twice in the head with it, ending the fight with fatal hits. The sergeant expired a few hours later from loss of blood. Sergeant Harris received a posthumous medal of valor for his final actions, and Deputy Moriarty has also been given a citation for courage.

There are lessons to learn. “Homeless” does not equal “harmless.” What the local folk seem to have imagined to be a quaint “character” turned out to be a ruthless serial murderer. “Senior citizen age” does not equal harmless, either. This cop-killer was 62 years old.

For readers of this publication, of course, what leaps out at us is the second officer being unable to operate the backup gun of the first.

Manual Of Arms
The Sandoval County incident, call it Case One, was not the first time a cop came to grief because he or she could not use another officer’s weapon. In Case Two, a heavily armed gang of bank robbers led police on a running gun battle in California, with a large number of police joining in. One officer was handed a police department AR15 with which he had not been familiarized. Shortly thereafter, he faced the gunmen alone, and they pinned him down in a murderous hail of fire while he was unable to shoot back. This officer finally figured out how to work the AR and began returning fire, at which time the gunmen fled. All of the gang were eventually captured or killed, but this officer had experienced a very close brush with death.

In Case Three, an officer became part of an ad hoc task force of various departments in a fast-breaking response to another heavily armed group of bank robbers. He was issued a shotgun from another department’s patrol car and when it became necessary for him to fire at the fugitive vehicle, he was unable to do so. The brand of slide-action he had been issued had its controls in different places than the make and model issued by his own department.

Lesson: If you must arm another officer, brief him or her quickly on the manual of arms. The popular Remington 870 has its safety as a crossbolt at the rear of the triggerguard and its slide release is at the front of the guard, while the also popular Mossberg’s safety is a sliding thumb-type on the tang, and its slide release is at the rear of the triggerguard. The AR15 and the Ruger Mini-14 are both popular patrol rifles, but each has its own manual of arms, which must be explained when handed to another officer who may not be familiar the weapon.

The Heckler & Koch P7 is not as popular in US police circles as it once was, but is still in use. The officer handed one needs to know its unique squeeze-cocking mechanism. A wounded Los Angeles County Deputy handing his gun to a veteran LAPD officer may know that the city guy was issued a Beretta 92F like his own, but must bear in mind that one of those departments carries “on safe” and the other, “off safe,” and mention the condition to the brother officer to whom he’s entrusting the weapon.

Many officers today carry 1911 pistols. They’ll have to explain the manual safety of the cocked-and-locked 1911 to another officer who may not be accustomed to “wiping off” a thumb safety before firing a semi-automatic pistol if the gun is used in an emer-gency to arm the second officer.

Empty Chambers
Some cops carry small autos for backup with the chambers empty. In Case Four a reporter, an ex-cop, was on ride-along with city officers when a call came in describing multiple heavily-armed robbers. One of the patrolmen quickly handed the reporter his backup, a Walther PPK .380. Checking the weapon out of habit, the reporter discovered the chamber was empty. He jacked one in, decocked, and was prepared when the time came. The reporter, who later returned to law enforcement, was glad that he “knew his guns” and had reflexively checked the chamber before arriving at the danger scene.

If you work near a military base, you may find yourself working together with military police when a major emergency requires inter-agency backup. Should you need to use your military counterpart’s sidearm, remember that on many if not all Army posts, MPs generally carry their M9 Berettas with empty chambers. USAF Security Police will have their pistols fully loaded and chambered, usually lever up. Marines performing the same duty will have rounds chambered in their M9s, usually lever down.

Perp’s Weapon
An officer having to resort to someone else’s weapon is an uncommon occurrence, but as we see in the recent Sandoval County tragedy, it does happen. Sometimes, the officer even has to fight with a perpetrator’s weapon. In Case Five, a suspect suddenly drew a hidden revolver chambered in 9mm and shot an Illinois state trooper point blank. Her Second Chance vest stopped the bullet. Realizing she could reach his gun at close range faster than her own holstered duty pistol, she jumped him for the gun. In the course of the struggle, she finally shot the would-be cop-killer to death with his own revolver.

At this writing, I’ve not been able to determine just what the backup gun was that the second officer was unable to fire in the Sandoval County incident. However, none of us knows what will be at hand the next time we have to fight for our lives. This incident reminds us that it’s important to know how other police weapons operate, not just the ones we ourselves take to work and train on.

This column is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Joe Harris of the Sandoval County, New Mexico Sheriff’s Department. We extend our condolences to his family, and to his brother and sister deputies, especially Deputy Theresa Moriarty, who fought so hard to save her partner’s life.

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