Traffic Stop Survival

Officer Dave Leighty's keen awareness & razor-sharp tactics saved his life

By Scott Hughes  |   Feb 16, 2015
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Nov. 11, 2013, started out as a typical third shift for Officer Dave Leighty of the Westerville, Ohio, Police Department. He observed a 2004 Ford Taurus failing to display a license plate light shortly after 1:00 a.m. Leighty followed the car, ran the license plate, and learned that the registered owner had a suspended driver’s license.

Leighty notified dispatch and activated his overhead lights. The violator pulled over on Polaris Parkway near the Columbus, Ohio, city limits, a location where he has stopped dozens of cars in the past, which would play a crucial role in what would momentarily transpire.

The Approach & Tactics
Leighty noticed that the driver was staring into his side-view mirror and moving around in the car. This heightened his awareness and so he decided to use a passenger-side approach. Exiting his cruiser, he walked behind it, thus avoiding breaking the beams of his headlights. In addition, as he walked up to the violator’s vehicle, Leighty did not shine his flashlight at the violator’s vehicle while making his approach in order to not give his position away.

As Leighty neared the rear passenger-side door, he noticed a subject, later determined to be a female, slouched down in the passenger seat as if she was “passed out.” Simultaneously Leighty noticed the driver looking out the driver-side open window. Leighty thought this was unusual.

Because the driver was looking out the window, Leighty used the opportunity to scan the inside of the car. He immediately noticed a handgun sitting on the driver’s right leg at which point Leighty drew his weapon.

Over the next few seconds, while Leighty had his weapon trained on the threat, the subject can be observed in the video leaning out the window looking for Leighty, unaware that Leighty was on the passenger side. At one point the violator even made motions with his hands as if to wave the officer up to the driver’s window.

The passenger side approach and advanced tactical skills, such as those taught at Street Survival and TNT: Tactics in Traffic, made the difference between life and death in this situation.

“10-3 … HE’S GOT A GUN!!”
Leighty immediately put out a call for assistance—10-3—and pointed his HK Compact .40 at the suspect. Leighty remained calm while giving loud, clear, verbal commands: “PUT YOUR HANDS UP! PUT YOUR HANDS UP! PUT YOUR HANDS UP!”

The violator did not comply and picked up the weapon. “PUT EM UP! PUT EM UP! PUT EM UP!”

Within six seconds of the first verbal command, the violator picked up the weapon with his right hand. The suspect hesitated, then raised the weapon towards Leighty as he reached for the driver’s door handle to exit the vehicle. Leighty fired his first three rounds through the glass of the passenger window.  As the suspect exited the vehicle, Leighty fired several more rounds through the windshield as he transitioned to front of the car. The suspect exited the car holding the gun in his right hand and appeared to be trying to locate Leighty.

Leighty continued to fire as the suspect momentarily dropped down behind the driver’s side door out of sight. When he reappeared, Leighty fired again, incapacitating his assailant.

Cover & Concealment
At that point Leighty could no longer see the suspect because he was down behind the driver-side door out of his sight. Reverting to his training, Leighty knew that the last place the suspect saw him was the front right corner of his vehicle. Leighty knew that he didn’t want to be standing there if the suspect decided to re-engage.

Reverting back to memory, and being familiar with the terrain, Leighty took cover behind a light pole approximately 20 feet away, out of the suspect’s sight.

“SHOTS FIRED!!!”
Leighty calmly communicated to dispatch—“SHOTS FIRED! SHOTS FIRED!”—while remaining behind the light behind the light pole.

While Leighty awaited backup, the passenger woke up from her intoxicated state and bailed out the driver-side door. Dave ordered her to: “GET DOWN AND STAY DOWN!” She complied and laid down on the street near the suspect.

The Cavalry Cometh
Leighty notified incoming units of the situation from behind cover. As Westerville, Ohio and Columbus, Ohio units arrived, Leighty told them that he couldn’t see the driver and was concerned he may still be armed.

Once other officers were providing cover, Leighty was able to move from the light pole to his cruiser with the additional units to prepare a “felony approach.” The suspect was unresponsive and was lying outside the driver’s side door. His loaded weapon was found in his right hand under the vehicle. The officers secured the suspect and brought EMTs from the secured rendezvous point.

Facts & Training Points

  • The entire shooting incident lasted less than 10 seconds;
  • Officer Leighty fired 8 rounds striking the suspect six times;
  • The suspect had spent 19 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, which was originally a murder charge;
  • The suspect did not have any outstanding warrants and only had a suspended driver’s license;
  • The suspect had 10 live rounds including one in the chamber—he was unable to fire off any rounds;
  • The female had a “fake” gun in her jacket pocket that was lying on the floor of the vehicle;
  • The suspect tested positive for alcohol and cocaine; and
  • The female stated that she and the suspect had been smoking crack cocaine that evening and drinking.

Closing
Officer Leighty is alive today due to his warrior mindset and use of proper police tactics. He attributes the outcome to the reality-based training philosophy of the Westerville Division of Police. In his words, he had already experienced the scenario several times during live training exercises.

Remember: The body will not go where the mind has never been. Scenario training, viewing and discussing videos, dynamic tactical exercises—all will help the processing of an event when it happens on the street in real time. So evaluate now whether your training is preparing you for winning a deadly force encounter or whether it’s just fulfilling a basic skill requirement.

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Scott Hughes
Scott is a contributing writer and Instructor for Calibre Press. Chief Hughes has been recognized as a subject matter expert by the Ohio Peace Officer Training Commission in traffic stops. He is the creator and lead instructor of the course TNT: Tactics in Traffic. He also instructs the Street Survival Seminar and Warrior’s Edge programs with Calibre Press.