Analysis of the Oregon State Patrol shooting
Today I saw the Oregon State Patrol video of the traffic stop shooting between Trooper Matt Zistel and a driver named John Van Allen. It’s an interesting video, worth a quick analysis for lessons that can be applied both to law enforcement personnel and armed citizens.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened:
Trooper Zistel stops John Van Allen for speeding. Allen immediately exits his vehicle, wearing US Army fatigues, and puts his right hand behind his back while keeping his left hand at his waist. He ignores repeated orders to get back inside his vehicle and asks at least twice why he was stopped. Zistel is polite the entire time, even calling Allen “sir”. Allen walks toward the trooper, draws a weapon and opens fire. Zistel returns fire as Allen maneuvers around the hood of the patrol car. Allen is hit in the chest, Zistel in the side. Allen returns to his car and flees. He is found a short time later, dead from the chest wound. Three of Allen’s children were in the car when the shooting occurred.
Let me say two things up front: First, I ain’t no expert on nuthin’. I’ve been a cop 19 years, and most of that time was on night shift patrol in rough areas. I spent a few years as an assistant Active Shooter instructor. I’ve also been in the Marine Reserve and Army National Guard for 24 years, and have been in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That doesn’t make me master of all things tactical, but it does give me a good background to understand and explain the dynamics of this shootout.
Second, I am NOT in any way criticizing Trooper Zistel’s performance or judgement. He was there, not me. I am writing this to explain to the lay person how and why certain things happened, not to say that Zistel made any mistakes. Everything I’m about to write is from the perspective of an informed observer, not a direct participant. As always, I own any mistakes I make; if someone reads this and knows I’m factually wrong about something, please let me know.
The video I’ve linked is from someone who posts and critiques police videos. His commentary only lasts about 20 seconds. I chose this video because, for some reason, certain details are more visible here than in others I’ve seen. Please watch, it’s a very short video of a very fast incident.
Now, here are my observations.
1) Upon stopping, Allen immediately gets out of the car. In my experience, people who rush to get out of the car on a traffic stop are trying to keep attention away from what’s inside the car. The position of Allen’s car is also noteworthy. On a highway, with traffic flying by at high speed, most drivers know to pull well off the road, as far to the right on the shoulder as possible. Allen stops almost on the line. This could just mean he’s a bad driver, but it could mean he’s in such a rush to take whatever action he’s planning that he’s not paying attention. It could also mean he’s hoping the officer pulls over further to the right, which would give the suspect a good angle on the driver’s door of the patrol car. It would also allow the suspect to use his own trunk as partial cover/concealment.
But more importantly, 2) As soon as he was out of the car, Allen put his right hand behind his back. While some very unaware drivers can immediately reach for their wallet when they’re stopped, this looks very different. Allen stands very stiffly, head raised high, feet spread in almost a fighting stance. And instead of casually pulling a wallet from his pocket, he leaves his hand behind his back.
Also, watch his left hand. He moves it around by his hip, suggesting to me that he’s trying to find a position for it that looks casual. I’ve seen this before, and it’s hard to quantify and explain. But certain suspects will make an obvious attempt to look casual while they’re obviously doing something wrong. I’ve had stopped drivers try to casually smoke a cigarette while they’re kicking drugs under their seat, and had suspects act very friendly and wave with one hand while using the other to dig into their pockets for weapons or drugs.
In one hilarious robbery video I saw, the suspect walked up to a convenience store clerk, put a candy bar and milk on the table, then jumped the counter and started beating the clerk while ordering him to open the register. A minute later, a police officer walked into the convenience store. The robber immediately pretended to be a clerk, tried to look casual despite being obviously terrified, and pushed the milk and candy toward the officer as if the officer was about to buy them.
This is just my personal observation, so it’s only worth what you’re paying for it. But if you see someone whose overall demeanor suggests they’re extremely tense, yet they make some seemingly casual movement, they’re either doing something wrong or about to.
3) Next point: Allen demands, twice, for the officer to tell him why he’s been stopped. Yes, many drivers don’t like cops and immediately assume we stopped them for no reason. If Allen had been sitting in his car demanding it, I wouldn’t take it too seriously. But in this case, given Allen’s overall demeanor, it seems to me that Allen is trying to distract the officer with conversation. I arrested a guy for murder one night, and he tried the same thing; ignore my orders, keep talking, keep advancing toward me.
This doesn’t only apply to law enforcement. If an armed citizen is confronted by, say, a supposedly innocent stranger in a parking lot, watch out for repeated “innocent” questions.
“Hey man, you got a light?”
“No I don’t, sorry.”
“Hey man, I asked if you have a light.”
You already answered him. If he’s walking toward you while asking you a second time, in my opinion he’s probably using the question as a verbal distraction while he closes distance. Depending on the overall circumstances, an armed citizen might want to draw at this point.
4) At 1:04 Allen begins his draw.
The movement of his right arm as he reaches under his uniform shirt is obvious from the camera angle, and I’d guess it would be even more obvious to the officer, standing outside the driver’s door. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that the officer didn’t fire at this point because Allen was wearing a US Army uniform. Most cops consider members of the military to be fellow “men of the cloth”, so to speak. That doesn’t mean we won’t treat them like criminals when they act like criminals, but it does mean cops generally are hesitant to fire on someone wearing an official good guy uniform. My gut feeling is that Trooper Zistel would have opened fire at this point if Allen hadn’t been in uniform.
5) At 1:06, a full two seconds from the time he first started drawing, Allen opens fire.
This was an extremely slow draw, giving Trooper Zistel plenty of advance notice. Most criminals don’t “train”; they might practice pulling their weapon from wherever they hide it, but they don’t train to develop muscle memory. To me, Allen appears to be an amateur with no appreciable pistol training. The majority of criminals are, like Allen, capable of not much more than operating a weapon. And despite comments from those who think anyone in uniform is a highly trained combat vet with PTSD, there is currently no reason to believe Allen ever did anything more than stateside military construction training. He served 3 years as a reserve construction engineer, and was discharged last year. No word yet on why Allen was in uniform.
6) At 1:07, one second into the gunfight, Trooper Zistel appears to have fired one round into the street in front of Allen. A puff of dust from a bullet impact is visible just in front of the car, near the left front bumper, where Allen had been standing a moment before.
It’s worth noting that Allen almost immediately moves sideways, off the initial line of fire. That could be instinctive, or could be the result of training. But it almost certainly isn’t the result of military training. Unless you’re lucky enough to get advanced weapons training, every time you fire a weapon in the Army you’re standing still and shooting at a stationary target. We have the same problem in law enforcement. Good officers have died because under stress they reverted to their training; stand in one spot, engage, holster. Allen’s movement seems to be instinct, not training.
Another item of interest in this frame is that Allen may have already been hit. For some reason, he has flexed his elbows and brought his weapon up near his head. This may be a flinch from being shot in the chest. On one web site where this incident is being discussed, a very uninformed but intelligent commenter said this:
“Is this normal? I mean, if someone gets shot in the chest, can they just keep moving as fast as he was? Or is this an indication of being on some sort of drug that keeps you going? Am I watching too many movies? I thought a bullet to the chest would at the very least make you wobbly and fall to your knees.”
This leads me to item 7), which is the major takeaway for both cops and armed citizens. The answer to the above question is, YES IT IS NORMAL FOR SOMEONE SHOT WITH A PISTOL TO CONTINUE FIGHTING!! Pistol rounds are inherently bad at killing people. Even when someone takes a life-ending hit, they can still present a lethal threat until the wound kills them. At the Miami FBI shootout, one of the suspects sustained a non-survivable wound in the first few seconds of the fight. He still managed to kill two FBI agents and wound several others. If someone actually is on drugs, they may take multiple rounds with no apparent effect.
If you think real life is like TV and everyone who gets shot drops dead immediately, you’re wrong. If you carry a “get off me” gun that you think will scare someone away even though it only carries a few small-caliber rounds, you’re probably wrong. If you carry a .45 because “Hell, even if you only hit someone in the pinky with a .45 it’ll still kill them,” you’re laughably wrong.
8) This is another interesting point. In combat, things go wrong and unexpected things happen. This wasn’t clear on other videos, but you can see it here. When Allen was (possibly) hit and jerked his weapon upward, the magazine fell out.
You can see it just below Allen’s right elbow. There are several reasons it could have fallen. Allen may have been gripping the pistol wrong and inadvertently depressed the magazine release when he was hit, or he may not have had it seated correctly in the first place (although if he hadn’t, it’s unlikely the weapon would have continued to fire). Maybe Zistel’s round even hit Allen’s weapon before entering Allen’s chest. Whatever the reason, Allen seems to be unaware that the round in the chamber is the only one he’s got.
After Allen moves off camera, one shot is fired (I think from Zistel), then two almost simultaneously (one from each of them). This would have been Allen’s last round fired; at this point, Allen apparently realizes he has an empty weapon. When he reappears on camera, he’s bent down frantically reaching for his magazine.
After he recovers and inserts his magazine, Allen appears to not rack the slide and chamber a round.
This goes along with my earlier comment, about most criminals barely being able to operate a weapon. With rounds in the magazine but an empty chamber, Allen then apparently tries to engage again. At this point, Zistel is already on the radio calling out “shots fired!”
Now Allen, maybe not understanding why his weapon isn’t firing, runs back to his car and speeds away. From the first round to the last, approximately 5 seconds passed. From the moment Allen drew his weapon to the time he got back into his car, ten seconds elapsed. If I’m not mistaken, eight rounds total were fired. Very brief, and very intense. Zistel sustained a non-life threatening wound and was released from the hospital the same day. Allen, of course, died from his injuries.
Bottom line here is that Trooper Zistel did a fantastic job. I’m proud we have police officers like him on the street. Allen may have been a good man at heart, and he may have had severe mental problems. We don’t know yet. I’m sorry his children had to watch him die. But that day, for whatever reason, he made Trooper Zistel kill him.
Filed under: Cops | 14 Comments
Tags: john van allen, Oregon state police, PTSD, veteran writers