Kevin was one of my closest friends. Many held him in high esteem. His ability to come through in tight spots defined his reputation. While officer involved shootings should never be a means to measure performance, Kevin was one of two officers in the county at the time who had been involved in 4 shootings. While each OIS was dramatic, one stood out from the rest.
Kevin was in a vehicle pursuit and subsequent foot pursuit of a suspect—M. Kevin caught M then had a violent struggle for his primary duty weapon. The fight went to the ground as they both had their hands on his weapon trying to control it. M was winning the battle and the point of aim from the handgun turned toward Kevin’s head. Fearing he would be shot with his own gun, Kevin emptied the weapon by firing it past his head. The last round caught the lobe of his ear. Though on his back and losing the fight, Kevin managed to reach for a backup weapon and shot M in the crotch.
M was hospitalized but survived. Later, he recovered enough to be transferred to jail. M required follow-up doctor appointments to which a deputy escorted him. During one of his trips to the medical center, M’s female accomplice placed a handgun in a planter. As he and the deputy approached the planter, M feigned chest pain and dropped to a knee. When he returned to his feet he was armed with the handgun and made his escape.
After the escape, Kevin’s personal information was located in M’s cell. The thought of revenge was something that had to be considered. Following M’s flight, he was taken into custody twice, but escaped each time before his true identity was discovered. The case received notoriety and was later featured on America’s Most Wanted. Shortly after the show aired, M was taken into custody in Alabama along with his accomplice, S. Fortunately for Kevin, M never did anything to even the score.
Kevin and I attended SWAT school together and became training partners. We also served on the police association board. He was the president while I served as vice-president—our friendship developed.
One of our responsibilities as board members was to conduct monthly meeting. In time, Kevin began to miss meetings. He gave plausible excuses. His absences did not bother me as they should have. Before I knew it, 6 months had gone by without a meeting. Our treasurer came to me advising that Kevin had embezzled more than $36,000 from our bank account. I confirmed the evidence and there was no doubt in our minds that Kevin was guilty.
We confronted Kevin and he broke down. He shared a history of personal demons he had been dealing with. He begged us to keep the theft private on the promise he would repay the money within 30 days. I agonized over the circumstances but told him we had to report the embezzlement.
After briefing the Chief, I returned to my office. Paul, my boss, returned to our office simultaneously, having just returned from the locker room. While there, he had a brief conversation with Kevin. After their conversation Kevin left and Paul turned the corner to another row of lockers and saw Kevin’s Class A uniform hanging. His badge had a black band around it, representing the death of a police officer. Paul quickly surmised the display signified Kevin’s intent to commit suicide. We both rushed to our cars.
Paul located Kevin in traffic and convinced him to pull over. I soon joined them. Kevin told Paul he intended to commit suicide in our locker room but then aborted his plan when he walked in. Kevin seemed convinced to take his own life. After several tense minutes comprised of dialogue to and from a desperate man, we were able to safely retrieve his handguns and then drove him to see the department psychologist.
The next two days were brutal. I assumed the Presidency, and my first duty was to report the embezzlement to the District Attorney’s office. I visited Kevin each day trying to remain his loyal friend all the while knowing that I would be a witness against him. We had long conversations about faith, eternity, and his present circumstances.
Kevin was open to my suggestions, but I was ordered to discontinue contact with him. His attorney gave him the same advice. One month later, he was fired. I had no further communication with him after August of that year. In December, he pled guilty to embezzlement and was placed under house arrest.
Unknown to us, two months before we discovered the embezzlement, Kevin had committed 5 bank robberies using notes demanding cash and informing the bank tellers that he was armed with a handgun, although none was ever seen. Though we did not know it at the time, the bank robbery task force had dubbed him The Buckeye Bandit, as he wore an Ohio State ball cap during heists. No one on the task force knew him, so no one recognized him in surveillance photographs.
The Buckeye Bandit was inactive for 7 months (while on house arrest), but became active the following spring when he committed seven more robberies. Finally someone from the task force surmised the suspect might have been in custody during the months of inactivity. One of the jail deputies had previously worked at FVPD. He identified The Buckeye Bandit as my friend and SWAT training partner, Kevin. Once identified, the FBI quickly prepared arrest and search warrants for Kevin and his property.
Almost one year to the day after we discovered the embezzlement, the FBI prepared to serve the warrants. Kevin noticed one of the agents watching his residence leading up to the raid. As a result, he got into his car and left. Kevin knew two agents followed him. He forced them to take action in order to apprehend him in a shopping center nearby. A violent fight took place and, while one of the agents was about to be maimed or worse, they justifiably took his life. There was no doubt in my mind Kevin committed copicide—or suicide by cop.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from this experience:
When someone is in trouble there are always warning signs.
- Kevin was tormented by the shootings he had been involved in. His remedy was alcohol.
- He was depressed by the death of his police K9—Haras, which led to a recurring nightmare.
- His personal life was burdened in ways too intimate to be shared.
- His personal finances overwhelmed him.
Do something proactive when you see warning signs.
- I did not offer suggestions or help in time.
- I failed to challenge him when he continually missed meetings.
It is easy to miss warning signs when they do not fit our assumptions.
- I never thought Kevin was capable of doing what he ultimately did so I ignored the warning signs.
- We were accused of stealing small amounts of cash. The allegations were not sustained but in retrospect I wonder.
There is no right way to do something that is wrong.
- Once his criminal conduct became known I had a conflict between professional obligations and personal desires. Ultimately, I needed to handle the circumstances as though they would become front-page news because in the end, they did.
Shirking your responsibility can have dire consequences.
- Would there have been a different outcome had I interceded sooner? I understand Kevin made his own choices. I did not make him do anything criminal or immoral. The question that remains is whether or not his actions could have been altered had I been more alert to what was happening.
Terms learned in leadership courses took on new meaning.
- Duty, honor, integrity, unsullied etc… The textbook definitions were no longer theoretical.
Love the sinner while hating the sin became something more than a principle taught at church.
- The chief was unhappy that officers would attend Kevin’s funeral. He was not alone in his opinion and I understand. My identity is not in the uniform I wear. I attended the funeral in a suit.
It is never too late to debrief a crisis.
- As this event concluded we never officially debriefed it. Naturally, Kevin’s personnel matter was confidential, but so much of what occurred was headline news. Eighteen years later I asked a roomful of people if they knew the story. Only two hands were raised. I spent the next hour discussing the event. You could hear a pin drop as I revisited the gut wrenching details that led to Kevin’s death, and as I shared the sorrowful lessons I learned. In the end everyone came up and thanked me for sharing the story. I pray they remember the lessons I learned the hard way.
Jim McNeff is the author of The Spirit behind Badge 145. He worked in military and civilian law enforcement for 31 years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-seven years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. During his career in law enforcement, he worked with, supervised, or managed every element of the organization. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations. Jim is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at [email protected]