Analysis of the Oregon State Patrol shooting

05Oct13

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 20 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 25 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 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.

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 work 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 something he learned in the military. 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.

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http://www.amazon.com/Proof-Our-Resolve-Chris-Hernandez-ebook/dp/B0099XMR1E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1398105777&sr=1-1&keywords=proof+of+our+resolve

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18 Responses to “Analysis of the Oregon State Patrol shooting”

  1. I agree with your analysis, Chris, especially about when the person engages in distraction through questions and movements designed to keep your mind off of what they are fixing to do to you.
    I still get the hair raised on the back of my neck remembering an incident with a stolen vehicle in a lonely stretch of road and the suspect looking at me with death in his eyes trying to get me to close with him. That God given spidey sense saved my butt that day and many other times for that matter!
    This video is an excellent opportunity to study those “distracting” techniques, as well as excellent motivation for being ready for it hitting the fan.
    One other point is that the suspect being supercharged with adrenalin and whatever else meant he didn’t realize he’d been hit or at least not hit as bad as it turned out to be. Being prepared for that along with using our own adrenalin to our own advantage is quite helpful in not just giving into our own wounds.
    The trooper stayed in the fight and that’s what it’s all about. I don’t see anything he could have done differently given what unfolded in a very short time, not even backing up in the cruiser which risked being hit inside the vehicle.

    • Juli,

      The memories that scare me are of the suspects who actually did trick me, and I didn’t figure it out until later. Remember the old “Street Survival” textbooks? Inside the back cover of one it had this quote: “The question isn’t ‘did you make it home at the end of your shift?’ The question is, ‘how many people could have taken me today if they’d really wanted to?'”

      I tried to keep that one in mind on patrol. But even with that, I know that some suspects let me get away with making stupid mistakes.

  2. Saw this video before, when he would not show his hand ,red flag went up, you just knew SHTF was about to happen. Was never able to see him flinch or any thing to show reaction to being shot.

    • Yeah, when he stuck his hand behind his back and left it there, I thought this would be another “officer gets killed” video. I’m pretty sure Allen was hit when his arms flexed, hopefully I can find some confirmation on that.

  3. 5 Angela

    Exactly how I thought it played out. Good work.

  4. A couple of things come to mind here.
    First, none of the officers I’ve known well enough to discuss this kind of thing with would have been so nice to someone who got out of their car at a traffic stop. Doubly so if the subject’s palms weren’t visible. In fact, if someone got out of the car on them they would likely draw their weapon to low ready and tell the driver to get back in their car.
    Second, the distraction strategy is common. An aggressive homeless person, wearing a sweatshirt in the summer with his hand in his sweatshirt pocket, possibly looking to mug a group I was with tried this on us in a parking lot as we walked back to our cars. He was about 25 feet away and kept saying excuse me, I need help. My first I’m sorry sir, we can’t help you, didn’t send him on his way. When he closed the distance to 15 feet or so, I took a step away from the group I was with, pulled my cover shirt away from my body with my support hand and slid my strong hand onto the grip of my pistol and told him very loudly that we couldn’t help him and he needed to move along.
    He couldn’t have seen my gun because my shirt was still covering it but I suspect very much that he knew what I was grabbing for because he immediately raised his hands, turned and ran. What a person is doing with their hands can tell a lot about what they are intending to do.

    • The better part of 15 years in big-city ER, and hundreds of GSW patients says this:

      People shot with pistols, as a rule, survive.
      People shot with rifles, as a rule, don’t.

      The primary modifier on the above is the same as it is for real estate: location, location, location.

      If Trooper Zistel’s shot placement had been wanting, rather than in prime real estate, Allen would likely be awaiting trial in a jail ward. Kudos for Zistel’s marksmanship excellence under high stress (and probably viewing the situation through two paper-towel tubes of tunnel vision, sound muffled, and in s-l-o-o-o-w motion, to boot).

      And if anyone expects people who are shot – even non-survivably – to magically and immediately fall down, they’re going to be severely disappointed one day, and perhaps terminally so.
      If someone needing shooting is still on their feet, keep shooting.

      The laws of physics and physiology don’t watch TV.

      Great review, Chris.

      • That’s a good rule of thumb, I think. “If you hit the bad guy with a pistol shot, you should expect him to stay up and fighting.” Thanks Aesop.

    • Peter,

      I remember in the first police academy I went to, an instructor asked a cadet, “When you’ve got a suspect stopped, what do you watch?” The cadet answered, “His eyes.” The instructor responded, “No, you watch his hands. His eyes can’t kill you.” Looking back, that seems like such obvious truth, but so many people don’t know it.

      Generally speaking, if I was dealing with a suspect and he didn’t immediately show me his hands, my weapon came out. It may not have been pointed at him and he may have never known it was out, but it came out.

      • 11 MAL

        Have you seen this?

        I have no idea of this is the same guy but it is from 2011 (quoting in case it gets removed from FB).

        ” My name John van Allen II and the purpose for me posting for on your wall is to get some help, I have a Court order from The Hon. Judge Manning to order the BradDock to to return my weapon when the pulled me over and tried to trump up charges on me on the 25th day on Feb. 2011. My Att. Fred Rannner ask them to provide Evidence of their Allegations they did not there for all charges was dismissed and withdrawen. And they still have not returned one of my weapons they took without just cause. I am seeking help from all of you local news stations to put a spot light on this so this police misconduct can be stopped and so it may not happen to anyone else.”

        • I hadn’t seen it, but it sounds right. Van Allen could have been one of those “They’re out to get me” guys, which might explain why he almost immediately resorted to lethal force over a simple traffic stop. I know Van Allen had some previous legal issues, and I still don’t know why he was discharged from the Army Reserved after only three years. Maybe it was due to mental issues?

          Thanks for that, even though we can’t confirm it it’s still an interesting piece of possible evidence.

  5. 13 Don Davis

    Watching this video gives me the creepy-crawls each time. The OSP trooper had his brain in gear, thankfully. Many things went right for him that day. I witnessed a shooter take a load of 00buck in the center mass, and he managed to get a round off before kneeling down to die. Thehuman body is a strange invention.

    • Don,

      I’ll never forget walking up to a car where a guy had been shot in the head from close range with a .38. About a third of his skull above his ears missing, pieces of head all over the place, and the guy was conscious and aware. Freaked me out. People can be hard to kill.

  6. 15 thefoolserrand

    Chris, has it been established that he was in the military? I noted as well from watching the video that is seemed like he assumed the position of parade rest, possibly with the intent of giving the perception of compliance while positioning his dominant hand to grab his pistol. The dead giveaway was the beginning of his move toward the officer while still at parade rest.

    Thanks for the assessment! Particularly liked the observation of military and police training regarding firing from a static position. It’s time our military and law enforcement train as they fight by expanding this concept down to tier II and tier III combat elements regarding tactical weapons qualification. I trained both of my sons and son-in-law prior to their combat deployments with a focus on training as you fight until they had developed muscle memory and instinct. I am no master, but these wars have gone on so long that they have spanned two generations, me being retired after my tours and two of my sons now being deployed.

    Regarding armed civilians, I find it critical to also instruct the armed civilian on actions to take after a legal self defense shooting. I found some that defend themselves legally have ended up almost shot by the police responding to the incident because they were in shock and found it difficult to impossible to follow instructions, gun still in hand and waiving it around. Train, train, train.

    -Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

    -Lance Heckerman

    Combat Leader

    SFC, US Army, Retired

    • Lance,

      I’ve read in several places that he was in the Army Reserve from 09-12. No mention of a deployment. Several articles about the shooting have pictures of him in uniform, and in one he’s holding a SAW. I’m convinced he was in the Army, although I’d be surprised to find out he deployed, In an interview with his close friend on Oregon Live, the friend said nothing about Allen deploying.

      Regarding training, I absolutely agree that both military and armed civilian training needs a huge amount of added realism. I discovered real training after I came home from Iraq, and since then I’m pretty disgusted with the drivel we get from the military sometimes.

      Thanks for your service, and best of luck to your sons. I have a Marine son-in-law, and I’m sure he’ll be making a trip overseas before too long.

  7. 17 S. Smith

    Excellent post, Mr. Hernandez, which I just now ran across. As I watched the video full-screen, one tangential question occured to me: Why on earth, do you suppose, was Mr. van Allen wearing a dark balaclava helmet? No heater in the car? Something more sinister?

    Best regards,
    Seldom Seen Smith


  1. 1 Self Defense Ammo - Good Read - Page 2 - SIG Talk

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