I saw Officer Robinson a couple of weeks ago and he told me that my book helped him finally understand 40+ years later what happened that night. He was in the third car to arrive and whose door was hit by one of the last shots fired by the felons. When Robbie showed up on scene and bailed out the passenger side door of his vehicle with the shotgun, he first encountered Gary Kness. Gary’s gun had just run dry and Twinning had just executed Officer Pence. He heard the sirens coming in the distance and knew help was on the way and there was nothing more he could do, so he fled the scene, running into Robbie during his escape.

Well, Gary is standing there with Officer Alleyn’s empty gun in his hand and blood all over his shirt from having helped Officer Alleyn. Gary simply says, “They went that way,” and he points in the direction the felons were escaping, and Robbie advances to try to find the felons in the direction that Gary indicated.

In an interview with me, Gary said all these years he’d wondered why Officer Robinson didn’t shoot him. “Did he assess me as a good guy, really quick?” he wondered. So I asked, “Hey, Robbie, what do you remember about meeting Gary?”

“I just remember a guy saying ‘They went that way.’”

I asked, “Well, did you know he had blood all over him or a gun in his hand?” and he said, “He did?” He was so tunneled in and focused on what was happening that he had no recognition that Gary was standing there with a gun in his hand and with blood all over him. This little story can teach us a whole bunch of lessons about how our minds and bodies work under stress, and it’s just another example of how we can learn from Gary’s experience.

eJournal: And that was only one detail your interviews clarified.

Possibly the biggest misapprehension was that an officer put empty cases in his pocket after reloading. Why was it so important to set the record straight?

Wood: We have heard about the brass through the popular gun press so many times, it was important to recognize what really happened. Speaking as a pilot, when you learn of a crash that occurred and the investigation is completed and the results come back that the crash was the result of pilot error, the natural defensive mechanism for most pilots is, “Well, those guys screwed up, but I am better and I’m sharper and I pay more attention than they did so it could never happen to me.” The thought that you could have made the same mistake in the same situation is very uncomfortable, very unsettling, so you tell yourself that it’s not true.

Within the law enforcement community, it is very much the same way. If you learn of an incident where an officer is hurt or killed, the natural reaction for most police officers is to say, “Well, I’m better than that and I wouldn’t make that mistake.” It is something that we do to calm ourselves to be able to deal with the risks that we face on the job because if you are constantly thinking about the risks then you are not paying attention to what you need to be doing.

In a way, Pence became a caricature for individual failure. Over the years there were a lot of law enforcement folks and armed citizens who looked at Pence and said, “Well, yeah, the guy was a screw up and he did things that I wouldn’t do because I would have performed better in that situation.” I don’t think it was done maliciously but as a natural sort of defense mechanism, a way to distance ourselves from the horrible and frightening possibility that we could end up doing the exact same things in that situation.

[Continued...]