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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  His Aim is True
News & Columns

His Aim is True

In a nation riddled with gunshots, David Acosta helps cops overcome the trauma of a shooting.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // June 11,2007 -

“I spun around to fire at him,” says Phoenix Police Department Sergeant Craig Church about the day he was certain a gunman had taken his life.



“He went down, there was an eternity of seconds while I was yelling commands at him, and then I saw blood dripping everywhere, running down my legs, all over the cement. My shirt was blown open'there was all this meat sticking out of me.?



His first thought was, “I’m a goner.?



The 47-year-old white male Church killed in June 1992 had decided to go on a rampage in a middle-class residential neighborhood after facing the loss of his home.



“He was a strange bird about his personal space,” says Church. With a shotgun, handguns and 300 rounds of ammunition, the man set off with a hit list. His first target was a single mother and three children who lived across the road. One of the children saw him coming across the patio. The family bailed out of a window and called the police. Church, who was only minutes away, responded first to the call.



“They were shaking like leaves. They didn’t give me much information. I went round the corner, through the gate and there he was. He knew he was caught but he stood his ground. He didn’t challenge me. I didn’t even know he had a gun. He hunkered down. I was yelling at him, had the flashlight on him, but all my reactions were slow; I was caught up in this mind-boggling analysis. He brought the shotgun up, jabbed at me as if he had a bayonet. I went to pull the trigger but he stepped left, then right and I had to spin round to fire at him.?



The double-O buckshot, the most lethal round a shotgun can fire, hit Church under the armpit from just six feet away. “I never even knew I was hit,” he says. It entered in slug form, disintegrating ribs and his scapula, blowing out his left lung, pellets exiting his neck and back. All he could hear was the sound of his own handgun, a Glock 9 millimeter, as he fired nine rounds into the man.



Such confrontations are at most a story on the local television news: 60 seconds of footage of the scene, a mug shot, an officer’s name, then all of it brushed aside for the next story, already forgotten.



But for police officers who take a life'and must overcome the horror of a stranger trying to kill them'coming to terms with that can take a lifetime. That is, if they ever get over it.



One cop is trying to change that.



Three years ago, David Acosta, an ex-SWAT team member based in Salem, Utah, set up NFOST (National Foundation for Officer Survival Training). What he and his nonprofit organization are doing may well prove to have far-reaching repercussions not only for officers who have survived being shot but also for the force in general. He is intent on shedding light on areas of law enforcement, tactics, attitudes and values that have yet to be discussed not only in the public domain but also, in some cases, among cops who patrol our streets themselves.



Acosta, who'in looks and intensity if not quite in stature'is reminiscent of Robert Blake in James William Guercio’s underrated, Utah-shot motorcycle-cop epic Electra Glide in Blue (1973), had long held ambitions to join the force before his 10-year-stint in North Las Vegas’ SWAT team. “I’d hear the sirens, step outside, have to see what was going on, where it was going. As I got older, that got magnified, until the best thing I could do was be in that car.”



After the mean streets of North Las Vegas and a two-year stint setting up and running a kidnap-prevention consultancy for Latin American businessmen'“I wanted new skills, but it was a feast or famine business?'he moved to a quiet precinct in King County, near Seattle. “I wanted my kids to have trees and running water to look at instead of concrete.” It was there he met rookie Aaron Hasenoehrl, the man who directly inspired the creation of NFOST, a name that manages the remarkable feat of sounding both paramilitaristic and redolent of Christmas cheer.



“He’s like a little brother to me,” Acosta says. “We went out to train in an abandoned house, we kicked the living snot out of the bad guys, chased down all the outstanding warrants, we all but put ourselves to sleep.” Hasenoehrl, who had only a couple of years on the force, idolized the much more experienced older policeman. Others in King County were more skeptical. “There was a lot of rumors about this big shot ex-SWAT from Vegas,” says Hasenoehrl.



A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, Acosta shared a passion for bikes with Hasenoehrl. In October 2002, they went out motocross riding 'something Hasenoehrl was not familiar with'and in a freak accident, Hasenoehrl missed the landing only for the suspension of his dirt bike to collapse on impact. A vertebra at the base of the spine exploded into 30 pieces. “When I hit, I felt my legs go numb,” he says.



Hasenoehrl loved the force: the camaraderie, the action, even if it was mostly breaking up fistfights. (He never had to discharge his weapon.) The loss of his legs brought an end to being a cop, something he did not cope with well. The drive to get back to being on the street, explains Hasenoehrl, can be very destructive, especially with no one to talk to about the emotional aspects of being injured. Things got so bad Hasenoehrl thought of suicide. “He asked for a gun,” says Acosta, “to keep by his bed because he was afraid of prowlers. Instead we had volunteers from the precinct coming in round the clock after their shifts to stand guard at the front door.”



It was Hasenoehrl’s inability to find someone to talk to in the force who had been through something similar that prompted Acosta to establish a network of support “so that would never happen again.”



Two weeks after the accident, Acosta attended a course on officer survival training. “It was substandard, below par. You didn’t get credit for attending it, and at $300, it was very expensive. All it involved was a video of incidents that had gone wrong'scare tactics.” One young officer, who knew Acosta to be a stickler for preparation, told him he could do much better.



The final factor that pushed NFOST into being was a lost child.



When Acosta came on duty one evening at King County, the entire precinct was out looking for a missing child. “I had never seen a mother so terrified in all my life.” The search had been underway for two hours. Acosta left the precinct, said a prayer, turned a corner and there was a boy matching the child’s description riding his bike. Acosta threw the bike in the back of his patrol car and took the boy the one block home. “The boy would have been home with or without me, but the elation I felt being part of that call changed my life. I love my profession so much because men and women who would sacrifice their life for a perfect stranger without a second thought surround me. I wanted to find a way to give back to my brothers and sisters on the largest scale possible. This is the best way.?



Part of Acosta’s gift to the men and women in blue is getting them to fight for their own lives with everything they’ve got.



While 52 law enforcement officers lost their lives in 2003 in the United States, it is the personal price that Acosta paid, losing one of his closest friends, Raul Elizando, that throws the clearest light on what drives Acosta with regard to officer survival.



“This perp, who was much smaller than Raul, was dancing in the street, acting weird. He tried to get him off the street but the guy was on coke and meth. Pain isn’t an issue with some drugs. Usually you twist somebody’s wrist, you can make him or her go in any direction you want. But if you’re on meth, you get a broken wrist and nothing happens. They got in a struggle and the perp caught him by surprise and overwhelmed him. Raul didn’t expect someone like that to fight, and he was punched into a black vortex of panic. The perp bit off his ear, bit his neck, got his gun away from him and shot him dead.”



If Elizando had trained more, Acosta says, he would at least have been much more aware of what might have gone wrong. Which is why he teaches officers about lag time, when the mind freezes. “Your mind goes into hyper drive. Am I really being shot by a kid in a gas station at 5 in the afternoon in Orem with all these people watching?”



You walk into a bank in the middle of a hold-up. One of the robbers sees you come in and, in a flash of sunlight, mistakes the book in your hand for a gun. He shoots you. If this were TV, you’d fall backwards and die. And that is why, if this were instead real life, you might well do the same.



We’re conditioned by generations of TV and movies to equate a gunshot with death. Officers can be victims of this, too. One cop Acosta knew of, who was shot in the arm, went into shock and died. So he has Dr. Dale Carrison, director of University Medical Center Trauma Center in Las Vegas and NFOST’s medical expert, explain to officers that gunshot wounds aren’t “that bad,” unless they pierce or shred the heart.



“You assess yourself,” says Acosta. “Am I bleeding to death? Chances are it didn’t hit any vital organs and the body shuts down the area. If it enters your body and exits the other side, you’re good to go.?



To be shot is not the end. It’s just the beginning.



“Most shootings take place seven to 10 feet away, when an officer is about to apprehend someone or during a domestic dispute. When the majority of cops get shot is at traffic stops, when they walk to a car.” According to FBI statistics, out of 708 officers killed in the line of duty between 1985 and 1994, 97 of them were at traffic stops, of which 67 were officers on their own.



Acosta continues, “You go up to the car, you get shot three times in half a second, and the bad guy gets out to finish you off. You fight back, you are going to win whatever it takes. Don’t clutch the gunshot wound and cry for help. Don’t scream on the radio, ?Two Charlie 3, shots fired, I’m hit.’ Be professional. The game is on, move to cover, draw your weapon, return fire, deliver deadly force.”



In the public eye, use of deadly force, along with racial profiling, is arguably the most troubling aspect of modern policing. Acosta confronts the former issue head on. In a situation where “a bad guy” may injure or kill either an officer or members of the public, Acosta says an officer must use everything necessary to put the shooter down before stray bullets kill civilians.



Craig Church discharged his Glock 9 mm nine times during and after being shot. His aim was thrown off slightly by the impact of the shotgun. Two of his shots hit the man in the head, killing him instantly, one above the eyebrow, the other going through the cheek to the back of the brain. Nonfatal rounds hit other parts of the man’s body as he fell. Despite having a magazine clip of 18 rounds, Church stopped at nine. “I held up when the target changed, to assess it,” he said.



In the case of the meth addict who killed Elizando, officers shot him 15 times, including through the heart and yet he didn’t die. “You can be shot through the heart and live for one minute,” says Acosta. The youth shot himself in the head.



The likelihood that you’ve ever considered taking another human life is, hopefully, small. Those who join the force make this decision even before signing up.



“I made the decision the day I joined the department,” says Acosta. “All choices after that'to be on the receiving end of my gun'are made by someone else.?



But while officers are asked at the preliminary interviews before joining the force how they feel about taking human life, Acosta is adamant that the psychology of it, indeed of many aspects of policing, is woefully lacking in attention at both the academy and precinct level. Matters have improved to some extent. Twenty years ago, an officer who shot and killed a suspect might be back on the beat the next day. Now they get three days paid leave and two mandatory sessions with a psychologist. For Acosta, this isn’t enough. “We are so far behind the curve of addressing the psychology of deadly force or any force come to that,” he said.



Acosta received mandatory psychological counseling after an incident during his SWAT years, “and told them what they wanted to hear so I could get back on the street.” The problem, he says, is that psychologists, not being cops, don’t understand what cops endure. Why, he asks, should they hand over control of their lives to someone hired by the department to vet their mental health? “No cop wants to be labeled as going to a shrink or psychologist, so they internalize a shooting. The divorce rate [among officers] climbs straight up after a deadly force encounter.?



Church agrees mental health is a key issue. “Obviously, it affects a cop’s performance.” But there is an enormous reluctance on the part of officers to deal with their own mental health. “It’s a huge stigma. I don’t know if we’ll ever overcome it,” he says.



One cop, he says, ended up robbing banks with a M-16, killed another officer, and is now serving 30 years behind bars. His behavior was traced to post-traumatic stress syndrome. Whether resulting in alcohol abuse, the John Wayne syndrome of actively seeking out dangerous situations, crumbling families; the stress and trauma a cop goes through can manifest in day-to-day life and work with disastrous results, colleague and public complaints, loss of confidence in the officer amongst his partners and, worse, in himself.



The No. 1 killer of officers after they retire, notes Acosta, is heart attacks. “The pent-up stress is insane. I get a call every week from a cop who starts crying in the shower. He’s got water on his face because even he doesn’t want to see or know he’s crying.”



Which is why Acosta sees his job as both preparing cops for their work and helping them repair themselves when emotionally or psychologically damaged. The problem isn’t just the shrink. “They are made to feel if they go and see a mental-professional that they have become throwaways'they’re broken. What officer wants to stand up in court and admit that he went to see a shrink after his last shooting? What officer would put himself in that situation??



Overcoming the stigma that beleaguers mental health for the police is NFOST’s greatest challenge. “Being injured physically and emotionally shouldn’t be open for scrutiny. It should be a nonissue. We have to convince officers who have been critically injured or taken a life to openly seek counseling, to get help, to have their issues addressed and fixed, to get them to see that these are legitimate tangible wounds, just like bullet wounds. But that is something they have to accept on their own.?



So far, more than 300 officers in Utah have taken part in NFOST seminars, which are split between videos, discussions and lectures on officers’ experiences, followed by survival training, where cops go through being shot, albeit with paint balls, which can hurt more than real bullets, says Acosta.



Utah Peace Officers Association state training coordinator B.L. Smith, who took 100 officers to a seminar in St George, describes NFOST’s course as “exceptional.” There is a critical need for what Acosta does, he says.



“You have to deal with the mental state. There’s no such thing as a good shooting. You have to take another person’s life, someone who has a mother, father, brothers and sisters, a wife and children, and if there’s no reaction, then what do you have? A sociopath? Do you want an individual shouldering all that trauma, all that hurt and going back on the street??



Church was one of several cops who told their stories to the Utah officers. “During seminar breaks, the guys come up to you like magnets. I was in Mesa and one guy asked me, ?Ever see images?’ He had been unable to save a man burning to death in his car and it still haunted him. People show up to ask, ?Am I normal?’”



If NFOST had been around after Church’s shooting, he says it would have made a lot of difference to his recovery. At the time he had only been approached by a detective with a need to talk after being shot in a purse snatch. But all the issues that Church had to deal with after the shooting'particularly not being able to remember the moment when the man fired at him'are subjects NFOST tackles by bringing together officers from all over the United States who have been through similar experiences.



“I don’t know how much people want to hear,” says Church. “Sometimes cops don’t want to go. It can get pretty intense in there.” Cops, it seems, do not discuss issues such as getting hurt. “Only Dave [Acosta] does that. I haven’t ever had anybody ask me about my shooting. Everybody’s too busy. But it is strange, given the work we do. It never crosses your mind.”



To put food on the table, Acosta works construction jobs. Our second interview was after he returned from delivering concrete in Heber at 5:30 a.m. He decided on a nonprofit organization to show he was serious about wanting to help and chose to rely on the experience and stories of others as a way of not setting himself up as a self-appointed guru. His only financial support at the moment is from print and design shops in Orem. Seminars he conducts at $80 per-head break even. Other expenses he pays out of his own pocket. “If it was about the money, I’d have failed 10 times over.”



But after almost three years, NFOST is nevertheless gaining attention from many quarters. Acosta has 300 members and has trained 2,000 police officers across the country at a time when training expenditures have been cut nationwide, and the general trend is against officers attending courses, according to B.L. Smith.



Acosta has also been in Iraq twice recently, at the behest of the Orwellian-sounding Security Management Group International, a company that uses ex-Special Forces, Delta Force and Navy Seals to protect U.S. civilians working for major corporations. He was called in to advise on training to win any situation and went out on what he describes as covert missions. “They liked my mental approach to winning and overcoming deadly force encounters, and they wanted me to share this message. The company was investing in morale. At first the guys were skeptical. But when I told them that, if I was driving, the only way anyone could stop me was if I got a bullet in the head, we got along fine.?



Among Acosta’s photos of Iraq, one records a hooded insurgent behind barbed wire, his arm around his little boy sitting beside him on the sand. Pointing to it, Acosta says that all of us'fathers and sons, parents and children'are the same in the end. For all his hawkish politics'he supported Bush’s invasion plan 100 percent, “at least initially?'Acosta reveals a strong egalitarian streak. He attributes this to his father, a high-level diplomat who he says treated everybody as an equal.



Yet does this egalitarianism square with his promotion of the hyper-vigilant, super-fit, highly trained and conditioned, mentally secure officer? Sometimes his tone evokes a crack police force if a totalitarian state, an image he quickly dispels.



“It’s not about storm troopers,” he says. “It’s about long-term mental-health classes and resources.” He talks about a rookie who approached him for advice the day he started work on the streets. “?Be the best officer you can possibly be,’ I told him. ?Be professional, compassionate and understanding. You’re going to meet people in time of need, but in a blink of an eye you must be prepared to deliver deadly force effectively to protect yourself and civilians.’?



An officer who is confident, who has “command presence,” who, as Acosta says, wears his power on the inside rather than the outside, someone we might relate to'that is the ideal Acosta upholds. “It’s our fault people are suspicious of us. Way too many officers wear their power on the outside. If they have trained, if they are mentally tough, at their optimum best, then they will feel less likely they have something to prove.?



Finding yourself in the crosshairs of a shotgun-wielding man intent on killing you, then shooting it out and surviving, is not a movie moment, says Church. Nor is it PlayStation 2. Rather, it’s something “ugly and awful,” he says.



For Church, one of the issues that came out of his shooting was the pain.



“The trauma was brutal. There was no medicine when I got to the hospital. They were digging into my chest with their hands. I could feel these stainless steel barbs they were using. They said, ?Lay still,’ but I just felt more and more pain, and I didn’t pass out.” He woke up three days later'“I thought it was three hours?'his chest sewn to the bed so tubes could not move.



His long recovery was no better. “The pain never went away. Pellets kept surfacing, grinding between bones. There was so much lead shattered in the bones and between my ribs and shoulder blades, muscle would tear every time I moved my arm.?



Two months after being shot, he was back on duty.



“My wife was crying, my kids clinging to my ankles but I went back in. You soon settle back into the routine.”



But nothing would ever again be routine.



His first wife told him to “get the f'k out,” and he hasn’t spoken to the two boys he had with her for many years, even though they live in the same valley. Whether all this was due to the shooting, he does not know. Church remains estranged from his father after a fight five years ago, when his father blamed Church’s stubbornness as a factor in his own shooting. Now remarried with three children, the events of June 1992 must surely be behind him. But they have a way of catching up.



Working the scene of a crime a couple years ago, he saw a dead man in a cab. Looking in the cab’s front window, the face he saw was that of the man who had almost killed him 10 years ago, not the man in the cab. “It lasted for seconds, like something out of The Matrix. It was absolutely frightening. I relived the whole shooting. I asked the psychologist at the post-shooting briefing, and he said it was perfectly normal. It’s called ?latent repressed images.’ Why didn’t anyone tell me about that?”



The unpredictable volatility of memory, the cruel way it lies in wait, ready to pounce at the least expected moment, was also evident talking on the phone to B.L. Smith about the nature of police work. At one point, mentioning a cop who, in West Valley City, opened a car trunk and found three dead children, he became very emotional, his voice choking with tears and pain. “It triggered my memory of having to take two small children from a bathtub after they had been electrocuted many, many years ago,” he said later.



Overcoming the stigma mental health issues carry for officers is a key priority for Acosta. His solution is to get psychologists to talk their language by attending a NFOST course so they can say, “I know what you mean when you say lag time kills officers.?



Shrinks now have his attention, Acosta says. “You are speaking my language, and a gap can more likely be bridged. You have glimpsed my world, where life and death are separated by fractions of a second in low-light conditions, where sensory overload is common, and officers operate under a heavy burden of liability. And guess what? We do it every single day.”



When you hear a man tell you how he saw the face of someone he had to kill 10 years ago suddenly flash before him and how it scared him to the roots of his soul, when you hear a man cry down the phone because he suddenly remembered having to lift two tiny bodies from a bath, it’s difficult to think of cops as anything other than people who bear an enormous psychological weight.



Search for that same moment of emotional insight with Acosta, however, and you are liable to come up empty-handed. Despite hours of questioning, he remained an enigma. He never surrendered his grief. He says he doesn’t want to make an issue of himself, that his mission is too important. Fair enough.



But something he said during the first interview, how he assessed everybody he met'“I assess my daughter’s teacher to see if he’s a pedophile, hell, I assessed you when I saw you the first time?'makes you realize how far apart his reality is from ours.



This begs the question: Why become a cop in the first place? Why place yourself in the position where you have a split second to decide who might live and who might die?



It’s certainly not for the money. Rookies can start out at as little as $10 an hour, which Acosta calls a crime. Church alludes to an aspect that perhaps goes some way toward explaining Acosta’s commitment. Church calls it “the rescuer mentality.”



He tells of a suicidal used-car salesman with a shotgun who wanted a policeman to kill him. “I said to him, ?You get to go 6-feet under, and I have to live with your death.’ ?I never thought about that,’ he said. You always have to look for solutions other than violence. All the drugs and alcohol on the streets'if you can save someone from themselves for that one day, then that’s pretty satisfying.”

 
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