Steve Tracy, Illinois Officer of the Year
Train the way you fight, fight the way you train.
Park Ridge, Ill. Officer Steven Tracy is a Contributing Editor for LAW and ORDER Magazine and a Technical Editor for Tactical Response Magazine. He is also Illinois' 2012 Officer of the Year for quick-thinking and courageous actions in safety securing a gun from a suicidal man in a very public place. Tracy attributes his successful diffusion of a very potentially dangerous situation to his training and 24 years of experience.
After the incident, his name was submitted by a peer for his department's Officer of the Year award. In March, he was presented that award by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations' Park Ridge Post 3579 Meritorious Service. Then the Park Ridge VFW nominated Tracy for the Illinois statewide Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States State of Illinois Outstanding Law Enforcement Award. He received that award in June.
Park Ridge Police Chief Frank Kaminski submitted Tracy's name for the James J. Wade Most Outstanding Law Enforcement Officer, which is presented by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. Tracy received that honor in June.
In August 2011, Officer Tracy received a check well-being dispatch. A woman called her husband to say she was on her way home from work. He simply said, "I love you," and hung up. His wife found this unusual. When she got home she realized that only one door lock was engaged as opposed to the usual two (the self-locking lock and the interior-only locking bolt). This too was unusual.
Although he had never talked about suicide before, the man had been feeling down recently. As a retired police officer, he may still have a gun. She was afraid he might have hurt himself and didn't want to enter the house alone, so she called 9-1-1. Officer Tracy met her at her house and searched the entire home. The woman's husband was not home, but on the kitchen table lay his wallet, keys, including his handcuff key, his eyeglasses and his wedding ring.
According to Tracy, a lot of people threaten to commit suicide but aren't willing to go through with it. However, when they leave their eyeglasses and wedding ring behind, you start to think they are very capable of going through with it. This had now become a missing persons call.
After he filled out that report, he got a call about a man matching the description of the woman's husband. The man was alongside a wooded area next to a major street. Tracy was sure that was him. He arrived at the scene to find a man wearing shorts, a T-shirt and sandals-covered in blood. "This has to be my missing person," Officer Tracy said.
Tracy shouted the man's name and the man responded by slowly focusing his gaze on Tracy. That's when Tracy first realized there was a handcuff on his right wrist. In his right hand was a brown paper bag. Tracy figured there was a gun on the other end of that handcuff inside that paper bag. Tracy used his car for cover but never withdrew his weapon.
"Some officers may have taken the approach where you draw your weapon and yell at the guy to drop his weapon and put his hands where you can see them," Tracy said, but his experience led him to believe that wasn't going to work in this case. "First of all," Tracy said, "His gun was handcuffed to his wrist, so he couldn't put it down. Also, he had just shot himself and wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind." "Your reaction time cannot beat their action time-so if he pointed that gun at me I knew I was going to have to draw and shoot him," Tracy said.
Tracy said he fell back on his Meggitt simulator training. Meggitt provides turnkey, full spectrum, virtual-through-live training capability with complete mission planning and situational awareness tools. (For more on Meggitt Training see "Meggitt Firearms Training Systems," LAW and ORDER, March 2012.)
The first thing Tracy did was ask the man, "You're not going to try to hurt me, are you?" The man responded with a look that Tracy interpreted as, "What? No!" Tracy also assumed he would have had only one bullet in the chamber, which he had already used.
As Tracy approached the man, he could see inside that paper bag. The man was not gripping the gun - which he now saw was a 4-inch barrel Colt Trooper .357 Magnum. Tracy also saw that there was a bullet wound in his chin. He had apparently shot himself and the bullet went up and lodged itself into the top of the pallet, never having made it to the brain.
"He appeared to be in shock," Tracy said. "I approached him pretty quickly, but I never drew my weapon. I thought, if he sees me approach him with my weapon drawn, he might come out of his shock and raise his gun to make me shoot him and help him finish what he started."
The closer Tracy got, he could see inside the brown paper bag that the man was not grasping the gun, but rather it was dangling behind his hand, so it would take a few movements for him to grip the gun to shoot at Tracy if indeed he had more bullets.
"I told him I was going to secure his weapon," Tracy said. "He nodded that he understood, because he couldn't speak. I pulled the Colt's cylinder release latch to open it, preventing its ability to be fired. Then I took out my handcuff key and after unlocking the cuff on his wrist the weight of his gun allowed the cuff to fall off his hand. I then carried the cuff, with my key still in it, with the gun still dangling, about 15 feet away where I dropped it on the ground where it could later be bagged and secured."
The man was taken by ambulance to the hospital and survived. His wife later wrote Tracy to thank him for the way he handled the situation. But Officer Tracy was only doing what he was so well-trained to do. He has worked as a patrol officer, traffic officer, field training officer, firearms instructor, and also in investigations.
And while experience comes in handy when trying to figure out the best way to handle a situation, which can be tough under stress, he says getting in as much training as possible in your career also helps. "Train the way you fight, and fight the way you train," he said.
Yesenia Salcedo is a Chicago-based writer and the former Managing Editor of LAW and ORDER, Police Fleet Manager and Tactical Response Magazines. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.