Grace Under Fire
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Resident Press. They have provided permission for us to re-publish it here.
Hackett (AR) Chief of Police Darrell Spells took time this past weekend to pen the below letter which reflects the events of one year ago today where he, and Sebastian County Sheriff’s Deputy, Bill Cooper would make national news, and forever be remembered.
The morning had started as any other morning. My wife and I said our goodbyes, and I love you’s. As I walked out of the bedroom she stopped me and tightened my vest snugly across me. The call from dispatch came immediately as I got in my vehicle and turned my police radio on. Disturbance on Highway 253 between a father and son. We develop habits over the years in police work. Some good, some bad. I always check in service when I get to a certain location in the mornings depending on my route. When I cross Highway 71 headed into Hackett, I immediately pick up the mic and check “10-8” as I head west on Highway 10.
Due to the amount of radio traffic that morning, I didn’t. I’ve always been a stickler for unnecessary radio traffic. My belief has always been, “say what you’re going to say and get off the radio.” Nothing irritates me more than having a situation developing rapidly and an officer makes an unnecessary traffic stop or runs grandmas tag number at Walgreens because it’s improperly parked. This time it was a mistake.
Dispatch didn’t have a clue I was there until several minutes later. As the call of shots fired came across the radio I began to put the faces with the voices. I knew these Officers. Some I got to know the first week I arrived in Hackett. You could hear stress in their voices. Not panic, but stress.
There’s a difference. Stress in the fact that they couldn’t see the threat. They couldn’t engage the threat because they couldn’t see the threat. They also didn’t know who else was in the house. The suspect had wanted to cause a ruckus this morning. Going from room to room, window to window in the mobile home firing at officers at the scene.
When I arrived at our staging area I began directing traffic away from the scene (a mile or so down the road). I remember the heat of that morning. I remember checking my patrol rifle. I also remember my phone ringing. My wife and I always answer each other’s calls. She had seen numerous police vehicles heading our way on her way to work and knew something was wrong. As we waited for more officers, I remember looking over at Deputy Walter strapping on his helmet. As the helmet snapped, that’s when the call came over the radio.
“Cooper’s hit!”…… Deputy Walter looked at me and said “We’ve got to go.”
By this time several other officers had arrived. Our caravan would make our way to Cooper’s location to extract him. Scenarios raced through my head as we sped to the location. A location I wasn’t familiar with. I had been on Highway 253 a handful of times, but never to this address.
I recall watching the vehicle in front of me, but also peering out the driver’s side window trying to see the suspects’ house.
“We’re ALL are in a really bad spot……”
This was the last radio traffic I heard as the first of the bullets punctured the glass on the Ford interceptor. The fight or flight instinct immediately kicked in. You learn about it in the police academy, but honestly wonder if it will ever happen to you. The second round ripped through the driver’s side glass as my instincts told me to duck. The whistling sound of the bullets filled the cab of the vehicle. At that time, my temple began to throb as drops of blood covered my police radio and ticket book.
The funny thing about a head injury is you can’t access the damage to yourself. Making myself a bigger target by raising up and looking into the rear-view mirror wasn’t a good idea either. Had it been my hand or any other visible appendage I could have looked at it and said to myself “Ok, it’s not that bad. Let’s fight!”
As the other rounds penetrated the vehicle, a million things went through my mind in seconds.
How are we going to get to Coop?
Where is he shooting from?
How bad am I hit?
When is he going to stop shooting?
I grabbed the mic out of instinct and said “I’m hit!”
My initial plan was to push open the passenger side door and grab my patrol rifle as I dove out. I managed to succeed with half of my plan. As I pushed the door open my left hand missed my rifle and I plunged head first into the ditch without my rifle. I briefly considered going back into the vehicle to get it, but was afraid the suspect would fire again if he saw me in the vehicle.
I can’t say I was afraid during the ordeal. Things seemed to move in slow motion and I seemed to be focused on thinking clearly. I think that’s when training kicks in. There was no panic. Finding cover was somewhat simple as I used my vehicle and the ditch I was in to conceal myself. Another advantage I had was the person to my left.
Captain Steve Cox vehicle had also come under fire. As I wiped the blood from my eyes I looked over at Cox and said I’m hit! The reassuring words of “you’re going to be OK” didn’t quite match the look of concern I saw in his eyes.
As my boots sunk lower and lower in the Arkansas mud, I kept trying to get a visual on where the shots were coming from. I held my Glock in my right hand. The shots had to be coming from over a hundred yards away, but my pistol gave me a sense of security should the suspect have gotten closer. My boots filled with water I as I prepared to wait. The moments I was in that water filled ditch seemed longer than it actually was. It was long enough for me to tell myself that I was going home….I was going home to my wife...I was going to watch my son graduate high school this year…I was going to be there for my youngest daughter to start college…I was going to watch my oldest land her dream job at Children’s Hospital.
In just a matter of moments, a vehicle came from the opposite direction and shielded me from possible gunfire.
“Crawl to us!”
It was SCSO Captain, Allan Marx and Keith Lindley of Barling PD. They had been ahead of me in the caravan and had turned around once they heard me on the radio say I was hit. They guided me to the back of the vehicle where I took cover in the back seat as Marx sped away. Two officers from different agencies putting their bodies in the direct line of fire to help a brother from another agency. I still have a difficult time being around them today. It’s out of respect.
I know what they did to get to me. “Thank you” just doesn’t seem like enough.
By this time the ambulance had staged where I had initially been directing traffic. As they helped me out of the vehicle and onto the ambulance I kept repeating one phrase…..
“Go get Coop!!!”
The EMT’s tended to me quickly. In just a matter of seconds I was bandaged up sitting on the ambulance jump seat.
Things continued to move in slow motion and focus became even more intent. Once I was bandaged I asked the EMT if I could call my wife. My phone had continued to ring as I lay in the ditch. I was able to reach her and could hear the fear in her voice as she said, “Are you ok?, What is wrong?”
A spouse just knows. Even though I reassured her that I was OK, she knew everything wasn’t. I asked her to meet me at the ER, but not to come alone.
As I hung up the phone, the extraction team arrived with Cooper. I was trying to get out of the way of the medics so they could work on Cooper. As I stepped off the ambulance, I was grabbed by a medic and told to get “my big butt in the front seat. We’re leaving.”
There’s no time for egos. This is their scene now. By me trying to stay out of the way I was creating more work for them. I jumped in the front seat and we left for Fort Smith. The entire EMS team did a tremendous job that day.
They were right there in the fight with us.
The trip to Fort Smith didn’t take long. I knew what was going on in the back. I knew it wasn’t good.
As we crossed an intersection on Highway 71 going into Fort Smith I remember seeing a news camera following the ambulance as it sped to the hospital. I realized that I needed to get in touch with my kids and family to let them know I was OK.
There’s always a ton of misinformation when events like this first happen. The rush to be first is often full of inaccuracies. As we arrived at the ER, my wife was waiting. I grabbed my phone and was able to call my family. I told them not to answer any calls unless it was from me and not to believe anything they read until they heard it from me first. My phone was a constant ring at the ER. Text messages were coming in one after another. Friends I hadn’t heard from in months were checking on my well-being.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, numerous officers were already there including several Fort Smith Officers. Many of whom I had never met. They treated me as one of their own. The kindness they showed to my wife and I will never be forgotten.
A quick MRI revealed bullet fragments near my temple. The doctor said an inch or so either direction or things wouldn’t have been good. I kept trying to get updates on Cooper’s status, but all they could say was that they were working on him. We left the ER, but in the back of my mind I knew I couldn’t be gone long. I got the text not long after we got home.
We raced back to the hospital where even more deputies had gathered. There was a silence among us. A deafening silence. As I waited in the lobby someone asked had I saw my vehicle? I stated. no.
“Turn around”, they replied.
I turned to see my vehicle riddled with bullet holes on the local news station. It was surreal.
It was around that time that I was allowed to back and say my goodbyes to Cooper.
Cooper, a man that had made the ultimate sacrifice. A man who was one of the first to welcome me to Hackett when I took the Chiefs job there. A man who was community policing before the term even existed. As someone stated earlier this year, he was the best of all of us.
Healing starts with family, friends, and strangers…
Most Cops have routines. I’m no different. Each morning before work I would stop by the local EZ Mart and get a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit along with a Coke Zero to start my morning. The next morning after the shooting I went on my front porch to find a sack containing my daily breakfast. The neighborhood was a sea of blue lights or thin blue line flag similar to the one I fly each day in front of my own home. As my wife and I settled in for dinner that evening I heard a noise outside. It was my neighbor, Greenwood Coach Kincaid, who was outside mowing in the August heat. I walked outside and told him it wasn’t necessary. He told me he didn’t want us worrying about anything the next few days.
I returned to work the next day. I couldn’t sit at home. I knew what would happen. I’d stare at the walls and drive myself crazy. On the way to the office I tuned in to one of our local country radio stations. Every morning at 8:00am they say the pledge of allegiance and have a morning prayer. That morning they prayed for all the officers involved as well as my family and I. I had held it together up until that point…
…I LOST IT.
I pulled over and gathered myself. I then headed to the KTCS radio station and thanked them personally. It was the least I could do. I formed a friendship with the staff that day that’s still going strong. Just a few months ago we raised $3,000 in two hours during their Make a Wish fundraiser in Hackett. I eventually made my way to the office after stopping by to check on the search for K-9 Kina who had been missing since the shooting and was presumed injured. Kina became a beacon of hope for us. The search for her brought together volunteers from all over the state. She would be found days later, wounded, but happy to see her handler, Dennis Wisner who was one of the first responding officers on scene and was pinned down by gunfire.
Months later I was able to watch the complete video of what the initial responding officers went through. Dennis Wisner handled the situation with the warrior mindset we as officers strive to achieve. Not only focusing on the threat at hand, but directing other officers and even the suspects’ family member to safety. If you have to be in a situation like we were in, you want the best leading you. We got that in Dennis.
One of my best friends, Craig Lawson drove up for Deputy Coopers funeral. During the drive to the service we talked about what to expect the next days, months, or even years. “The human body is not built to handle this. The mind that is. Get the help whether you think you need it or not”.
It would be some of the best advice I received during all of this. Also at the service were friends and colleagues from the El Dorado Police Department and other agencies. For them to drive over two hundred miles to be there to offer their support and condolences meant the world to me.
The outpouring of love and support I, along with other Officers in the area received was amazing. Cards and letters flooded the office daily. Letters from as far away as Ohio and Florida arrived daily. A company from Alabama sent a large thin blue line flag banner with the words Prayers for Hackett PD. The local preschool made a banner of badges they colored. Those badges still hang in front of our office today.
There were some problems we faced along the way however.
One of the problems we faced was the replacing of the police vehicle. The insurance company totaled the vehicle that was damaged and the search for a new vehicle began. I called up the man who had sold me the now totaled Ford Interceptor. Cody Craig, with CAP Fleet Upfitters was there the next day and we began discussions on the new vehicle. I’m not a Ford guy, a Chevy guy, or a Dodge guy. Does it meet our needs and is it affordable? The Ford Interceptor was a good vehicle that met these needs and I wanted to replace it with one similar. For the next five months, I’d be driving the reserve vehicle on duty while the new one was being ordered.
One problem we had was a good one to have. We were flooded with requests for people wanting to feed us and recognize us. When you’re receiving such love it’s difficult to say no. Every weekend was a church or organization feeding us. It would be two weeks before I saw my kids and three before I saw my parents. This was my mistake.
The advice I would give anyone who is going through something like this is don’t forget to make time for yourself and especially your family. Even though you may communicate every day by phone or social media, it’s not the same. Go to them. They need to feel you, to see you, to know that you’re OK.
I found healing in the community I work in and especially the students at the school. One week prior to the shooting I began stopping by the football field to visit with the players and pass out ice cream. I would occasionally toss the football around with them. I bought the Dollar Store out of Ice Cream that week. It was a blast for me to interact with them. Coach Hester had let me speak to them prior to the start of practices and we developed a mutual respect between the players and I. What they didn’t know was that I benefited as much if not more from their fellowship than they did with me. I knew they had a promising season ahead of them just watching them in practice. There were no egos, no me first attitudes, it was all about the team. Team work was instilled in me at a young age from my father who was my little league coach on into my high school years. That foundation probably led me in to police work more than anything. To be part of a team. To make a difference not only in the community in which you serve, but to make a difference in people’s lives each day. I can’t think of any other job that gives you that kind of power to make that difference.
A week after the Dallas shootings in July 2016 I had a local citizen stop by my office. He didn’t want a report. He didn’t want to file a complaint. What he wanted was to pray for me and my department. He said that God had put it on his heart to pray for me. Each week he would stop by and pray. His work schedule changed and he quit stopping by. The prayers continued. He would call each week and pray via phone. That’s the community I serve. That’s Hackett, Arkansas summed up in one selfless act.
The road back…
The road back is a road that I’m still travelling. A road that was paved with the kindness of strangers and the support of family and a community. One of the best things the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office did following the shooting was to have counselors there the next day. I, along with several others went not just for our own well-being, but for our families. One of the counselors told me something that really hit home. “We’re not worried about how you’re doing right now or even three months for now. We’re looking at your long term mental health.”
The sleepless nights came immediately. I could go to sleep, I just couldn’t stay asleep. I wanted to stay ahead of whatever problems might occur. I sought counseling to make sure I was headed in the right direction. I attended a mental health class at Greenwood PD weeks after the shooting. Chief Dawson has always been there for our department. He realizes we’re a small agency and makes the effort to invite us to any training they have. Most times at no cost to us. Surrounding myself with great people certainly helped the process.
The training was an eye opener. Hearing the instructor say “you’re reliving it in your mind right now aren’t you?” was an interesting experience. These instructors had dealt with similar situations hundreds of times. It helped that one of the instructors happened to be a friend from back home. Sterling Claypoole was the El Dorado Police Chaplin and would often ride with me on patrol when I was at the El Dorado Police Department. He had also been there for me in my personal life during a difficult time. Having him there as someone to confide in certainly helped the situation. The goal is to take it one day at a time.
The multi-agency brotherhood has only grown stronger since August 10, 2016. If you haven’t been a part of law enforcement in some capacity it’s hard to explain. It’s a family. Many of them you have never met. The thin blue line does not know state or even country boundaries. When something happens to one, it happens to all of us. Every day it seems as if another officer has made the ultimate sacrifice. Cowardly, senseless acts have taken too many of our fellow brothers and sisters in blue. The divide between the public seems wider than ever. We can’t let this be the status quo. It’s going to take efforts on BOTH sides to bridge that gap. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but we as law enforcement have to make the effort. Change the mindset with your actions not words. The public does not see half of the acts of kindness law enforcement does on a daily basis. There’s a reason for this. That’s not why we do it. That sack of groceries we deliver, that bag of diapers we give to the couple whose vehicle just broke down, that flat tire we fix for the kid on the sidewalk, the elderly man who has fallen in his home that we help up, that’s all a part of who we are. It’s the SERVING in protect and serve that we all do daily. For every one article, you read on social media about an officer going above and beyond, there’s a thousand more throughout the country that you don’t hear about. We don’t do it for the recognition. I was told early in my career that if you’re doing this job for atta boys and money, you’re in the wrong profession. Thick skin comes with the job. You won’t last long in this profession if you don’t have it.
I’m not sure in a situation like this if you ever attain it. In the months following the shooting the transition was made to the prosecution of this case. Our prosecutor, Dan Shue and his staff, did a great job of keeping us involved in the process.
I usually received a letter every couple of weeks informing me of any motions that were made. I knew this had the potential to be a death penalty case. It would be one gripped with emotion from everyone involved. When it was learned there would be a plea in the case, I was asked if I would like to give a victim impact statement. I never considered myself a victim. The thought had never crossed my mind. I was hesitant, but this would be the only time I would ever face the suspect. The words I chose actually came easy. Sometimes I struggle with the words to say. The words flowed naturally….
“As I reflect on the events of August 10, 2016 I find solace in the fact that the work of thousands of officers just like myself continue. Although the impact of the events on that day will live with us forever, the cowardly act of one will not deter the work that many of my fellow brothers and sisters and I continue to do daily even after this tragic event. Each one of these men you see here today are willing to put their life on the line every day for complete strangers.”
The recent words of my pastors’ sermon about being a blessing to others comes to mind.
Proverbs 11:25 says” The one who blesses others is abundantly blessed; those who help others are helped.”
Isn’t it ironic that within this statement lies the fact that should your family ever need help, it would come from us. You see that is what separates this job from any other profession. We cannot allow ourselves to let evil dictate the way in which we serve. We continue to serve unselfishly, wholeheartedly, with pride, and with dignity.
It is the calling that we all share.
It is that bond between us that helps form a thin blue line between order and chaos.
Instead of focusing on the sixty-two rounds that were fired at officers that day, I will focus on the hundreds if not thousands of kids that Deputy Bill Cooper helped throughout his career.
Kids like the very ones I’m honored to serve and protect every day in Hackett. Instead of focusing on the damage you inflicted on me, I will focus on the town I serve. The town whose outpouring of love and compassion I still feel on a daily basis. Instead of focusing on hate I will recall the words that Dr. Martin Luther King once said many years ago….
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Forgiveness is a daily struggle.
Forgiveness will be on my terms.
As a Christian, it is what I am supposed to do. The Bible never said it would be easy. I never name the suspect by name. Often times I have to think what his name is. His name should stay at the back of my mind. Heroes like Bill Cooper, Dennis Wisner, Alan Marx, Mark Harris, Keith Lindley, and every one of the men who laid in that ditch and surrounded that house to ensure the safety of other officers and the public are always at the front. That’s where they deserve to be along with leaders like Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck , Greenwood Chief Will Dawson, and Lavaca Chief Phil Beshoener who offered their resources, but most of all their friendship during this year.
I honestly believe you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with. I’m blessed to have surrounded myself with some of the bravest men and women to ever put on a uniform.