Officer Down: Proper Focus

Deputy Steve Rankin didn’t feel like dealing with a drunk driver this night. He never did. The 25-year-old deputy had less than a year on the job, but he’d made enough DUI arrests to know that they often involved dealing with obnoxious, sometimes hostile drunks, a lot of paper work, multiple court appearances and little reward. Still, drunk drivers were dangerous to themselves and others, and it was his job to get them off the street. So it was with some irritation, tempered with a strong sense of duty, that he pulled up behind the black Mercury as it stopped in front of him.

The Stop

When he had first spotted the vehicle, Rankin had planned to do nothing more than issue the driver a warning for a loud stereo, but he was now becoming increasingly more convinced the driver was intoxicated. He was also beginning to feel rather uneasy about the stop, not because he felt especially threatened, but because he sensed the driver would be difficult to deal with.

While completing an early-morning business check just minutes before, he had heard, and then seen, the Mercury, its stereo blaring, approaching on a state highway near the business. He started to follow, but before he had had time to initiate the stop, a white Saturn passed him and fell in behind the Mercury. Rankin backed off slightly and watched both cars for a short time, noting that their occupants appeared to be traveling together as a group. He sped up, pulled around the white Saturn and slipped in between the two cars.

Then suddenly, the Mercury cut over to the left and took off down an intersecting two-lane county road. Startled, Rankin braked hard, but shot past the intersection before he could slow enough to make the turn. He backed up into the intersection and dropped his transmission into drive. Cutting his wheel hard to the left, he gunned the engine, and followed the rapidly-disappearing Mercury down the unlit road.

After pushing his cruiser hard for a mile or two, he finally caught up with the Mercury and was surprised to see that it slowed down as soon as he got close. After calling in the vehicle description, plate and location, he flipped on his blue lights. The Mercury pulled over, but stopped only partially onto the shoulder.

This was no typical stop, and Rankin was becoming increasingly more suspicious that he was dealing with a drunk driver. He immediately grabbed his PA mic and ordered the motorist to pull all the way off the roadway. No response. Rankin repeated the order, and again there was no response. The motorist’s slow, apparently confused behavior seemed to confirm Rankin’s suspicions, but the young deputy was in no hurry to approach him at this point. He knew the danger of approaching a drunk driver on this dark, narrow roadway, and he had no intentions of doing so until the Mercury was well onto the shoulder.

Then, as Rankin paused before repeating the command again, the motorist’s door came open. He knew this could be dangerous, but also knew it was rather typical of drunk drivers. Having become focused on the possibility that the driver was intoxicated, he didn’t feel particularly threatened. Still, he needed to get the Mercury off the road. He repeated his command, this time in a firmer voice that demanded obedience. He was relieved to see the door close, and the vehicle pull well over onto the shoulder.

Rankin pulled up behind, offsetting his unit to the left to ensure that its headlights and takedown lights illuminated the vehicle’s driver’s side. Not wishing to jeopardize his case, and aware that his dash cam was unreliable, he checked both its video and audio, and then stepped out into the cool winter night. Although he felt no serious concerns for his safety, he was starting to feel some uneasiness from a growing sense that the situation would soon get tricky. It was one of those times when he wished he had a spotlight to shine into the driver’s outside mirror, but his department didn’t equip any of its cars with spotlights. To make matters worse, the Mercury’s windows were tinted, making it all but impossible to see inside its murky interior.

Although Rankin had no way of knowing it as he approached the vehicle, the individual inside was someone he had stopped in another car about four months before. During that stop, several of his fellow deputies had radioed to warn him that the driver—a 32-year-old career criminal named Ben Westbrook—was well known for his propensity for violence. Later, he would learn that Westbrook had more than 70 prior arrests, a good number of which involved drugs, domestic violence and assaults against police officers, but that night Westbrook had shown no signs of hostility. Tonight would be different.

The Encounter

Rankin stopped after reaching a point just behind the driver’s door and leaned forward slightly to make contact with the driver. Suddenly, the door swung open, its top corner brushing the brim of his hat. Startled by the abruptness of the movement and unexpected impact with his hat brim, Rankin instinctively flinched his head back. It was an instinctive reaction that may well have saved his life. Hot flame exploded before his eyes, snapping his head backward and buckling his knees. He collapsed to the pavement, stunned and convinced he was about to die.

Westbrook, his thirst for blood not yet quenched, pointed his gun—a .380 autoloader—at the helpless deputy as he leapt from the car and pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun was jammed from a double feed, and Westbrook didn’t know enough about the weapon to clear it. After several futile attempts to clear the jam, he gave up and started pistol whipping Rankin, followed by savage kicks to his head and body. Then it occurred to him that his prey was also armed, providing him with a high-quality firearm that was unlikely to malfunction. He grabbed the Glock 17 on Rankin’s side, and tried to wrench it from its holster.

In the meantime, Rankin had experienced an inexplicable phenomenon. As he lay on the hard pavement expecting to die, he had seen and felt the presence of his father, who had died 12 years earlier. His father had leaned over him, wrapped his arms around him and held him in a gentle embrace, as if to welcome him into heaven. Rankin had welcomed the comforting experience at first, but then a powerful whack to the back of the head had jolted him back into consciousness. A vicious blow from the hard steel of Westbrook’s .380 had awakened him to the realization that he was alive and would have to fight to stay that way.

Now spurned on by the will to live, he absorbed the punishment from Westbrook’s fierce blows as his brain raced to come up with a plan. Then he felt the tug on his gun as Westbrook tried to disarm him. This was something he could handle. Like most officers, he had been trained to roll over onto his gun to protect it, and it worked. Not only did the movement pin the Glock under his body, but it also broke Westbrook’s grip. As Rankin started to struggle to his feet, Westbrook stepped back and delivered another savage blow to his head. Undaunted, the dazed deputy rose to his feet, prompting Westbrook to break contact. Now free of his assailant, Rankin headed for his patrol car as he went for his gun.

Westbrook was no longer the predator, and he didn’t know how to handle it. Rather than make any effort to regain the advantage he had so unexpectedly lost, he decided to do what cowards always do—he ran.

Meanwhile, Rankin had turned back toward his adversary, gun drawn, and opened fire. He had lost his glasses, and the right side of his face had already swollen to the point that his eye had closed up, but he was determined not to let that stop him. With a rapidity borne from anger, determination and adrenalin, he unleashed a barrage of gunfire at Westbrook as the man jumped into the Mercury and drove away. Unfortunately, none of his bullets found their mark. Several had come very close, but Westbrook had managed to escape unscathed.

As Westbrook sped away, Rankin dropped the empty magazine from his Glock and started to reload, but then remembered that there were several private homes down the road in his line of fire. Further gunfire would jeopardize innocent citizens, and that was unacceptable to him. Leaving the gun empty, he dropped to his knees, called for help, gave out a suspect description and direction of travel, and he waited.

The Aftermath

Westbrook’s bullet had struck him on the right side of the mouth just below the nose, blown out teeth and gums as it dug a groove through the upper jaw bone, and burrowed through his neck between the trachea and carotid artery. Then, after clipping the C1 vertebrae, it lodged in his neck between the C1 and C2 vertebrae. Although a brutally frightening injury, like many gunshot wounds to the head, it wasn’t a mortal wound or even permanently debilitating.

Deputy Rankin recovered from his wound and returned to work four months later. The wound itself had healed well, leaving him with no pain or physical limitations, but his overall health was not good. As time went on, he became increasingly more fatigued and developed greater susceptibility to colds, stomach problems and other illnesses. Four years later, it was discovered that he was suffering from lead poisoning caused by the bullet in his neck. The bullet was removed, but not before his illnesses, accusations of slacking from other members of the department, and the offer of another job in the private sector convinced him to leave the department.

Westbrook was arrested without incident the day after the shooting, and subsequently convicted of attempted murder of a police officer. Due more to his extensive criminal history than the brutality of the attack, he was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 62 years imprisonment.

Discussion & Analysis          

Deputy Rankin wasn’t especially concerned about his safety before the attack, but it wasn’t because he missed the danger signs. Rather, it was because he—like many officers in similar situations—misinterpreted them. Instead of viewing Westbrook’s suspicious behavior as a possible prelude to attack, he saw it as indicative of an intoxicated driver.

This kind of improper focus is very common, especially among hard-working officers like Deputy Rankin who are aggressive about making self-initiated arrests. We need such officers to keep our streets safe, but not at the cost of their lives. Officer safety must come first. With the right mindset officers can focus on safety without losing their crime fighting edge, but it requires dedicated effort and commitment. Deputy Rankin’s ordeal provides a graphic example of how important it is to develop this kind of focus.

There’s a great deal more to be learned from this incident—lessons that can save lives—and we owe it to Deputy Rankin to learn as much as we can from them.

An in-depth analysis of this case reveals a number of these crucial learning points, including lessons related to questionable-risk traffic stops, vehicles with tinted windows, proper equipment, weapon retention, when to reload, suspect mindset, winning mindset and post-shooting concerns.

A thorough analysis of this critical incident follows. Before you read it, however, please review the discussion questions below and work through your own answers.

Stay safe.

Discussion Questions

  1. What might have accounted for the fact that Deputy Rankin wasn’t especially concerned about his safety, despite the fact that he had noticed several danger signs prior to making the stop?

  2. Westbrook’s actions prior to the attack did not appear to be threatening enough to justify the use of high-risk tactics, but they were unusual enough to call for a higher than normal level of caution. What tactics would you use to more safely conduct traffic stops that fall into the gray area between unknown risk and high risk?

  3. Traffic stops involving vehicles with tinted windows present special safety concerns. One option for handling them more safely at night is to reverse the windows’ mirror effect by turning off all your lights except the parking lights and rear-facing roof lights, and then ordering the motorist to turn on his dome light before you approach the vehicle. Do you agree that this is safer than the traditional approach? Why? Should the same tactic be used during the day, or when there is a significant amount of outdoor illumination at night? Why? What other tactical options are there at such times?

  4. Deputy Rankin’s weapon retention training included the tactic of rolling over onto one’s gun in order to protect it during a disarming attempt on the ground. How important is training when responding to a threat under stress and/or when wounded? What does this say about the importance of training in general?

  5. Without giving it any conscious thought, Deputy Rankin headed back to his patrol car immediately after getting to his feet. What might have accounted for this? Is it always advisable to return to your patrol car when under attack? Why? Under what circumstances would it be safer to seek roadside cover instead? What can you do to help ensure that you will use other available cover if needed?

  6. Consider Deputy Rankin’s decision to not reload his weapon. Although understandable, why might this have resulted in disaster?

  7. What do Westbrook’s actions have to show us about the cop killer mindset?

  8. In what ways did Deputy Rankin’s attitude and actions exemplify winning mindset and warrior spirit?

  9. Discuss other factors that contribute to a winning mindset.

10. What can Deputy Rankin’s case teach us about how officers should be treated in the aftermath of a shooting?


Danger Signs and Focus
Deputy Rankin wasn’t especially concerned about his safety as he approached Westbrook’s vehicle, not because he failed to notice that something was wrong, but because—like many officers in similar situations—his attention was focused on the wrong thing. It was not that he failed to notice the other car following Westbrook, Westbrook’s attempt to elude him, Westbrook’s reluctance to pull off the road, or the driver’s door opening after Westbrook stopped. In fact, he knew these actions were suggestive of possible criminal activity, but failed to account for the fact that they might be indicative of a pending attack. Instead, his focused was on dealing with an intoxicated driver.

Interestingly, like many officers, Deputy Rankin disliked dealing with drunk drivers because of the large amount of paper work and court time required. Nevertheless, he understood the importance of getting impaired drivers off the road, and worked hard to make sure he did it right. Consequently, when he began to suspect that Westbrook was intoxicated, his attention shifted to in that direction and remained there. Worse, because of the poor quality of his equipment, he was further distracted by having to make sure it was all operating properly. Under the circumstances, although his suspicions had been clearly aroused by Westbrook’s unusual behavior, they didn’t cause him any special concern. As he later explained, he felt that the stop would be “tricky but not dangerous.”

It is easy to fall into this trap because we naturally become complacent after repeated exposure to any hazardous activity without suffering any adverse consequences. Even though we possess a powerful survival instinct that quickly indentifies subtle danger signs and then alerts us to them with a sense of alarm or uneasiness, we tend to base our response to these emotional responses on past experience. Since we rarely if ever get seriously hurt on the job, we eventually learn to discount our concerns and let our guard down. In short, we can become victims of our own success.

The key to dealing with this problem is to make a commitment to put officer safety first. This is not to imply that officers should be any less aggressive in fighting crime or confronting violent offenders. To the contrary, we are duty bound to confront crime and violence with courage and an unwavering commitment to public safety, but our focus must always be centered on safety.

This can be done by developing the habit of always scanning for danger signs while asking ourselves, “What is there about this situation that can make me vulnerable, and what can I do about it?” Then, when we detect anything that appears to increase our vulnerability, we must compensate by shifting to higher-risk tactics, taking cover, slowing down, calling for backup, etc. If nothing else, we can at least raise our awareness level and start planning a response in case something goes wrong.

In most cases this will not require the use of high-profile felony tactics. In Deputy Rankin’s case, for example, he could have approached Westbrook’s vehicle along its passenger side (more on this later), which would have significantly reduced his vulnerability to attack. This could hardly be called a high-profile tactic, but it would certainly have been safer than walking directly up to the driver’s door.

When developing the habit of putting safety first, it is important to keep in mind that thoughts, like physical behaviors, become habits through repetition. By making a conscious effort to focus on safety on every call, no matter how mundane it may appear to be, safety will eventually become a habit. It takes commitment and effort, but safety awareness can eventually become an integral part of everything you do, even as you continue to aggressively fight crime.

Questionable-Risk Traffic Stops

As was just discussed, it is important to take action whenever you notice anything that appears to be a possible threat. This of course requires safety awareness and proper threat assessment, but identifying the potential threat is not enough. You must also decide what to do about it, and that isn’t always easy. Human beings are creatures of habit, and we sometimes get so used to doing things a certain way that we just don’t think about other alternatives when something seems amiss, especially if we haven’t thought of other options beforehand.

This is one of the reasons why training is so important. It presents us with tactical options that we may not have otherwise considered. In this case, for example, Deputy Rankin had never been presented with the idea of approaching a vehicle along the passenger side when it appears that extra caution is needed. Like all officers, he had been taught how to conduct a high-risk stop, but Westbrook’s actions did not appear to be threatening enough to call for such extreme measures. This traffic stop fell into the gray area between unknown-risk and high-risk, and Rankin had no tactical options for dealing with it. So, like many officers in similar circumstances, he simply followed routine and approached along the driver’s side.

The passenger-side approach is not the safest means for conducting a traffic stop, but it’s a big improvement over the driver’s side approach.  Besides affording you a great deal of additional protection from passing traffic, it will usually catch the violator off guard, especially at night, and allows you to take cover alongside his vehicle if he starts shooting. Furthermore, it gives you more room in which to maneuver or retreat, and often makes roadside cover available to you. But probably its greatest advantage is that it helps you avoid walking into an ambush at the driver’s door.

Another alternative is to order the violator exit and come back to you while you stay by your patrol car for cover. The idea here is to draw the motorist out into the open, where you can get a much better visual on him and bring him into an area that you control. It also has the tactical advantage of separating him from any occupants and/or weapons in the vehicle, and gives you the psychological advantage of letting him know that you are in control. Psychologically, it establishes a strong command presence, especially if you use the PA, forces him to leave the home turf of his personal vehicle, and draws him into an area that’s unfamiliar to him.

Another important advantage is that you can gauge your verbal commands and actions to your perceived need for control. If you are only mildly concerned, you can simply ask him to step slowing from the vehicle and walk back to you while you stand behind your open car door. Or if the risks appear to be greater, you can move to the rear of your car or some other advantageous position, order him to exit, and then direct him to a place of your choosing with a series of carefully constructed commands similar to those used in a high-risk stop.

However, this tactic also has its drawbacks. The first and most serious is that it gives the motorist appreciably more mobility than when seated in his car, including the ability to draw and fire with greater speed and accuracy. On the other hand, this danger can be significantly alleviated by issuing proper commands, wise use of your car or roadside objects for cover, and proper use of your spotlight at night.

This tactic also has the disadvantage of making it harder to control any remaining occupants in the vehicle as you try to split your attention between the violator and passengers; therefore the number of occupants should be considered before using it. Still, its advantages make it well worth considering as an alternative to driver’s side approach.

Tinted Windows

Deputy Rankin had never received any training on how to approach a vehicle with tinted windows. Often, the best tactic for dealing with this hazard is to turn off all your lights except the parking lights and rear-facing roof lights, and then order the motorist to turn on his dome light before approaching the vehicle. At night, this tactic reverses the mirror effect caused by the tinted windows, thereby making it harder for the vehicle’s occupant(s) to see out and easier for the officer to see in. The effect isn’t total, but it is better than trying to approach the vehicle while blind to everything going on inside. Its effects also increase as the amount of ambient light from street lights, passing traffic, etc., is reduced. This makes it more effective on dark, lightly traveled roadways like the rural road where this shooting occurred.

Since the reverse mirror effect is limited to hours of darkness, it is usually best to avoid this tactic during daylight hours. Depending upon how dark the windows happen to be and the brightness of the sunlight, it may be possible to improve your view inside by telling the motorist to turn his dome light on, but you should use other precautions as well. Approach along the passenger side, and make sure your spotlight is aimed directly into the outside mirror to keep its beam from reflecting off the tinted glass and help distract the driver. However, considering the hazards of approaching a vehicle while clearly visible to its occupants and blind to everything going on inside, it is safer not to approach at all. Instead, call the driver back to you during daylight hours.


None of the patrol cars on Deputy Rankin’s department were equipped with spotlights. Ironically, Westbrook’s tinted windows made the use of a spotlight inadvisable in this case. Nevertheless, the spotlight is vital to officer safety during most traffic stops and other potentially dangerous activities. It is also essential to the effectiveness of officers when checking buildings, searching for individuals, reading addresses, and other vital public safety functions.

Another shortcoming of Deputy Rankin’s equipment was the unreliability of his dash cam and audio recorder, a deficiency that did in fact have an adverse effect on his safety. By putting him into a situation in which he felt compelled to check it before approaching Westbrook, it further distracted him at a time when needed to be focused on more important concerns.

As serious as budget concerns may be, officer safety must come first. Things as important as spotlights should be the last to be cut, not only because they are vital to officer safety but also because they are essential to the safety and security of those we serve. If necessary, agencies should reach out to the community for help. The public is usually responsive to the needs of the police departments, especially when it comes to safety equipment. Many service organizations and businesses are also quick to help because of the positive publicity it generates for them. In addition, reaching out to the community will often demonstrate the department’s concern for its citizens, and may help to motivate the politicians to increase law enforcement budgets.

Firearms Proficiency

Thirteen of Rankin’s 16 rounds hit Westbrook’s car, at least three of which struck Westbrook’s headrest or the dashboard near where he sat. This was very good shooting considering the fact that Rankin was under great stress, had just received a bullet wound to the face followed by a severe beating to the head, lost his glasses, and was shooting with his right eye swollen shut. This degree of accuracy was largely due to the fact that he, like many dedicated safety-conscious officers, had worked hard to achieve a high level of proficiency with his firearm. While Rankin’s firearms proficiency didn’t change the outcome in this case, in many other cases the ability to quickly return accurate gunfire can make the difference between life and death. Every officer should be skilled enough with firearms to use them with a high level of proficiency under even the most adverse conditions.

Weapon Retention

Deputy Rankin credits his training with enabling him to effectively retain his weapon while barely conscious. He had been well trained in ground fighting at the academy, and the training had included the tactic of rolling over onto one’s gun in order to protect it during a disarming attempt. While it may appear that this tactic is such a obvious response to this threat that an officer would use it intuitively even without training, it is important to remember that it isn’t easy to improvise even relatively simple tasks under stress, especially when reeling from the physical and mental shock of a gunshot wound to the head.  Under the circumstances, Rankin’s training played a key in helping him defeat Westbrook’s attack.

Returning to the Patrol Car

Deputy Rankin immediately headed back to his patrol car after getting to his feet. While this did not affect the outcome, it is interesting to note that it he did it without thinking, apparently as an instinctive response to the threat. This is not uncommon when officers are attack away from their vehicles, because the patrol car is a police officer’s home away from home; a familiar place that seems to offer a safe haven. It also provides reasonably good cover, but it is probably the psychological comfort it offers that creates the strongest draw for most officers. Unfortunately, the safety your vehicle offers can be a dangerous fallacy. Most street-wise suspects knows about the propensity of officers to seek the cover of their patrol cars, and will expect them to head in that direction. Roadside cover is often closer, and in many cases it is more bullet resistant than a car body, shrouded in darkness, and/or located at a spot that offers other tactical advantages. Retreating to your patrol car under those circumstances is likely to expose you to your assailant’s gunfire for longer than necessary, and may make it easier for him to locate you and track your movements.

Cover awareness can help avoid this hazard. By making it a habit to continually scan for cover on every traffic stop you make and every call you handle, and decide beforehand what cover you will use if necessary, you won’t have to think about it you need it. Besides enabling you to reach the best available cover in less time, this will help you avoid using your patrol car unless it is to your advantage to do so.


It is understandable why Deputy Rankin didn’t reload after shooting his gun dry. He had just survived a severe physical and emotional trauma, leaving him in a poor frame of mind for making well thought-out tactical decisions. However, this would have put him in grave danger if Westbrook had decided to clear his jammed pistol after driving away and then return and renew his attack. Severely wounded, now distracted and deeply stressed by his injuries, exhausted and growing weaker by the moment, Rankin was poorly equipped to deal with another attack, and his situation was made even grimmer by the fact that his gun was empty.

This is a training issue. With rare exception, officers are required to fire every round they carry during range qualifications, and the same holds true for most other firearms exercises. What does this condition officers to do after the shooting stops? Instead, they should be conditioned to reload after a gunfight by recharging their guns at the conclusion of every range exercise. Similarly, every reality based scenario that results in gunfire should end with a reload, and the proper use of other post-shooting tactics as well. Under stress, officers will do what they are trained to do, and it is up to their instructors to make sure they are ready to fight back even after being wounded.

For those officers who are not allowed to reload after each range exercise, the next best option is to use mental imagery1 instead. By making it a point to imagine that you are reloading, you will condition your mind and body to do so even under extreme stress. Imagine the reload in detail, and make it as real as possible.  In fact, you can add a potentially life-saving element of realism to the exercise by imagining that you have been shot, and then reloading in spite of your wounds.

Head Wounds

The vast majority of gunshot wounds are not fatal, and although head wounds are more dangerous than others, they are not necessarily fatal either. And, as this case so clearly demonstrates, there is no reason to assume that they will leave you defenseless or permanently incapacitated. The bones in the face and head are curved and very tough, making it hard to penetrate them with anything but a solid right angle shot. In addition, the head is a relatively small target, and we tend to instinctively flinch away, dodge or duck when it is threatened, which reduces the likelihood of a solid hit. Lastly, like gunshot wounds to other parts of the body, most head wounds that kill are instantly fatal. In other words, if you live long enough to know you have been hit in the head, the chances are very good that you will recover. In fact, there is also a very good chance that you, like Deputy Rankin will be able to fight back and win, and then go on to make a full recovery.

Cop Killer Mindset

Westbrook’s persistent efforts to kill Deputy Rankin offer a graphic example of the predator mindset. He wasn’t satisfied with simply shooting Rankin and then driving away, but attempted to execute him afterwards. When that didn’t work, he pistol whipped and beat the helpless deputy, and then tried to disarm him. Most people rarely if ever come into contact with predators like Westbrook, but police officers are different. The nature of the job demands that we cross paths with predators far more often than the norm, and when we do, it is our duty to deal with them. This realization should give us cause for healthy concern, but it must never be allowed to lead to undue fear or fatalism. Rather, it should renew our commitment to work hard, train hard, be mentally prepared, and keep fighting no matter what.

Winning Mindset and Warrior Spirit

Despite any mistakes he may have made leading up to Westbrook’s attack, Deputy Rankin displayed courage, persistence, and a fighting spirit that allows him to overcome the incredible odds against him. When he was first shot, the physical and emotional impact of the sudden blow thrust him into a brief period of inaction that allowed Westbrook to continue the attack unabatedly, but not for long. Interestingly, his first reaction was to accept the possibility of death, which for some reason tends to be a healthy response to such trauma. However, it is imperative not to dwell on such thoughts or surrender to them. Instead, like Deputy Rankin, we must push past them and focus on doing what needs to be done to persevere. When Westbrook’s blows to his head jolted him into the realization that he was still alive, he focused on winning. Death was no longer an option. Forcing himself to get to his feet, he quickly broke contact with Westbrook just long enough to draw, and then turned his anger and determination to the task of stopping him.

Once the decision is made to go on the offensive, to fight back despite all else, everything changes. Fear becomes determination, even the most desperate circumstances become opportunities, and defeat becomes victory. Deputy Rankin’s courageous actions offer an inspiring example of the power of this kind of thinking, even in the face of the worst possible odds.

Post-Shooting Concerns

Like many officers who are severely wounded in the performance of their duties, Deputy Rankin suffered more from his treatment by his workers’ compensation provider and others than he did from his injuries. In their apparent rush to get Rankin back to work as soon as possible and save money, his worker’s compensation company decided not to have the bullet removed from his neck. Although this didn’t cause him any loss of mobility or further pain, Rankin subsequently began to develop increasing fatigue, susceptibility to colds and other illnesses, and eventual stomach problems. Rather than investigate further, workers’ comp allowed Rankin to suffer for several years before discovering the he was suffering from lead poisoning. In the meantime, several of the department’s command staff, and even some of his fellow officers, had become irritated by his frequent illnesses and absences due to dental surgeries, and began to accuse him of slacking. At about that same time, Rankin began drawing considerable media attention after the video of his shooting was released to them, causing several of his fellow officers to grow resentful. After several months of such pressure, he was offered a good job in the private sector and left the department.

While it may not be possible to control how other officers will respond in the aftermath of a shooting, every effort should be made to ensure that the recovering officer is treated fairly. The department should deal swiftly with any rumors, communicate openly and fairly with the recovering officer, encourage counseling if needed, and make sure the officer is given the best possible medical care. We owe him at least that much.


  • Make it a habit to always scan for danger signs while asking yourself, “What is there about this situation that can make me vulnerable, and what can I do about it?”
  • When conducting traffic stops that fall into the gray area between unknown-risk and high-risk, consider approaching the vehicle along its right side. Another option is to stay near your patrol car for cover, and direct the driver to come back to you.
  • When conducting traffic stops involving vehicles with tinted windows at night, consider turning off all your lights except the parking lights and rear-facing roof lights, and then ordering the motorist to turn his dome light on. This same approach can sometimes be used during daylight hours, but if so, approach the vehicle along its right side and aim your spotlight directly into the driver’s outside mirror. However, the safest daylight approach is to call the driver back to you.
  • Often, the best tactic for responding to a disarming attempt while on the ground is to roll over on your gun, and then follow up with a counterattack.
  • Roadside cover is often preferable to the cover of your patrol car, because it is often closer, and in many cases it is superior to a car body, shrouded in darkness, and/or located at a spot that offers other tactical advantages. Make it a habit to practice cover awareness at all times so you will be able to use the best available cover if needed.
  • Always reload after a gunfight, even if it appears that your assailant has fled the scene or is otherwise no longer a threat.
  • Gunshot wounds to the head are not necessarily fatal. If you are shot in the head, there is a very good chance that you will not only survive, but that you will also be able to fight back and win, and even go on to make a full recovery.
  • Never underestimate an adversary’s capacity for violence, but don’t let this realization lead to undue fear or fatalism. Instead, use it to renew your commitment to work hard, train hard, be mentally prepared, and keep fighting no matter what.
  • If attacked, go on the offensive and focus on winning; never lose sight of your central goal of winning.
  • While it may not be possible to control how other officers will respond in the aftermath of a shooting, every effort should be made to ensure that the recovering officer is treated fairly. The department should deal swiftly with any rumors, communicate openly and fairly with the recovering officer, encourage counseling if needed, and make sure the officer is given the best possible medical care.


1. For those who may be unfamiliar with this term, mental imagery is a mental exercise in which you imagine yourself performing in a particular way.  Used often by top athletes and warriors, it conditions the mind and body to follow a desirable course of action when needed.  Essentially, it is allows you to rehearse the desired action without actually physically doing it, and, if the action is imagined in great detail and done often enough, it can be nearly as effective as actual physical practice.

To watch the dash cam video, visit .
Animated Recap –
To view an animated recap of Deputy Steve Rankin's incident, click on the video box above.
Illustrations by Brian McKenna.
Illustration 1: Rankin is shot as he attempts to initiate contact with Westbrook 
Illustration 2:
After managing to retain his weapon, Rankin retreats to his car, turns and fires at Westbrook

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