Learning From Mistakes

How training takes over when the ego has made a mess of things

By Michael Dale   |   Mar 28, 2017

Mistakes. We all make them. Some are minor and require little correction, while others can be career-changing. Following is an example of one of my mistakes, and how I used what I learned to positively effect the police department where I worked.

Say It Ain’t So

At the time, I was the detective commander and the range master simultaneously, and I took my firearms training seriously. I made weekend plans to go shooting with my father at our gun club.

At the range, I decided to work on three skills: speed, reloading, and movement. I put on my duty rig and began as I always do, slowly increasing speed while ensuring accuracy stayed the same. (For you gun folks out there, I was shooting an Ed Brown 1911)

Next, I switched to my detective gear: a pancake holster, mag pouch, and cuff case. I continued shooting for about 20 minutes, when my father took out a new Blackhawk! Serpa holster. I had never tried one but several of my subordinates carried them, so I asked if I could try it. I put it on, inserted my 1911, and tested the fit.

My first thought was that it was a little tight, and I asked my father if he had the Allen wrench to adjust it. He said it was in the car, which was a ways away, and I thought to myself, “Eh. I can work through this, no problem.”

I began my shooting drills again, and started thinking about the next course of fire for the upcoming qualification shoot at work. As I was shooting, the pistol was getting quite warm—I had already put about 400 rounds through it—and as a result, it was beginning to stick in the holster, becoming difficult to draw.

I stopped to load my magazines, loading some of my old duty ammunition, a combination of various hollow points, including some old Black Talon rounds. I made a point of loading each magazine with similar rounds and inserted the Black Talon mag into my pistol. At the line, I chambered a round, engaged the thumb safety, and holstered.

On the next draw, I had trouble pushing the button release of the Serpa holster, and I had to jerk my pistol out of the holster. The amount of strength each of these actions required resulted in a draw where my finger was on the trigger and I had dropped the thumb safety.

Naturally, the gun fired as soon as those conditions were met. The resultant draw put the muzzle in an awkward direction and the round entered my hip, just below my belt. It exited the inside of my thigh, three inches above the knee. I had just shot myself …

Now What?

I will tell you something about being shot. It doesn’t hurt. You think it should, and it does eventually, but at that moment, I only felt my leg jerk a bit and saw the blood from the exit wound. I will admit that I had a moment of shock where I considered my mortality. I knew the femoral artery was right where I shot myself. It was a lot of blood. Then my training took over.

I immediately took of my belt and applied it as a tourniquet. I was wearing shorts, and the exit wound was clearly visible, so I could see that the pressure from the belt worked. I was still very concerned about internal bleeding and whether or not I had hit the femoral artery, but with every minute that passed, I was more confident that I would survive my arrogance.

A quick helicopter ride to the hospital, some x-rays, and 16 hours of observation later, I was released with nothing more than a prescription for some painkillers and a week off of work to contemplate what had happened.

I already mentioned the word arrogance, and this is the sole reason why I shot myself. I was very good with a pistol and I knew it. I had trained myself to work through problems as they happened in the field and despite the warnings my brain gave me, I arrogantly chose to work through them. I paid the price for that mistake, too.

You might be wondering what the cost of this mistake was, and that is really the point of this story. The first cost incurred was to my ego. Apparently, I was not as awesome as I thought I was. The next was a $25,000 medical bill. Fortunately, we in the police department have very good insurance. The remaining costs all manifested on the job. Loss of respect? Ridicule? Lower performance? The phone call to your boss explaining why you’ll be off for a week? All of these were running rampant in my mind. While some of them materialized, others didn’t.

I have always been one to learn from my mistakes and try to turn them into positives. Sure, I took a lot of flack from my coworkers, especially one of my subordinates, who took every opportunity to come up with something funny: “Hey boss? If anyone ever asks if you have been shot, now you can say yes!” 10 minutes later: “Hey boss? If anyone ever asks if you shot anyone, you can say yes!” Three minutes later: “Hey Boss? If anyone ever asks did you shoot the guy that shot you, you can say yes!”

I can still hear the laughter. But, the positives I took away from this incident are as follows: I had a major ego check. You might not need one, but maybe you do. Don’t be arrogant. Even if you’re good, stuff happens. I learned that my training took over under stress and that it helped me survive. I learned that I could sustain a gunshot and keep thinking, even keep fighting if I had to. These are powerful things that every cop has thought about at some point in their career.

I ensured the department offered combat first aid training to every officer, and lastly, I provided onboard medical kits for all of the officers under my command. This eventually became standard issue for every officer with spare kits in our patrol cars.

The moral of the story is that if we learn from our mistakes, aren’t afraid to talk about them, and actively pursue solutions to the problems our mistakes present, we and our departments with us will continue to advance and improve—even if we take some ribbing from our friends.