An Interview with Erick Gelhaus
Interview by Gila Hayes
In 2013, an on-duty shooting by a California sheriff’s deputy was sensationalized by news and social media to the extent that protestors blocked traffic on highways and a multi-year investigation and civil rights lawsuit against the deputy ensued. The same incident was simultaneously the subject of intense concern of another nature amongst armed citizens who participated on Internet forums. While armed citizens often follow police shooting cases, this case had a higher level of investment for most because Erick Gelhaus, the deputy involved, moderated and posted to firearms boards, wrote for gun magazines, taught at Gunsite and was respected for over two decades of law enforcement and military service.
While Erick Gelhaus’ story is compelling on its own, it contains lessons critical to armed citizens. Now that the civil case is settled, several federal agencies closed investigations, clearing him of wrongdoing and he has retired, he is free to discuss those lessons. We switch now to Q&A format to learn from Erick Gelhaus in his own words.
eJournal: Erick, I appreciate your willingness to talk with us and draw out lessons from what happened to you. Since your story evolves out of a police duty shooting that took place some years ago, our readers may not be familiar with the facts. Could we start with a briefing about what happened?
Gelhaus: It was the afternoon of Tuesday, October 22, 2013 in a neighborhood that, at the time, was our county’s highest crime area. Murders, attempted murders, stabbings, narcotics trafficking had all happened there. The year before, I had been involved in serving a 30-plus-location search warrant in that neighborhood. I had worked in the community-oriented policing program there and been a part time school resource officer at the elementary school that served that neighborhood. I knew the neighborhood really well.
It’s 3:15 P.M. A couple of hundred yards away, a continuation school (high school) is getting out and another high school about three quarters of a mile away and an elementary school are all getting out at roughly the same time.
A trainee, a lateral from another agency with about 10 years in the business, is with me. We are driving up to this neighborhood’s main North-South street when I see an individual wearing dark-colored clothes holding what appears to be an AK-47 in his left hand by the pistol grip. He is on the far side of the intersection, heading north, like us. I can see the wood stock by his arm and an AK standard capacity magazine coming out of the receiver; I can see the receiver, the wood forearm, the barrel and the gas system going out the front.
I get my trainee’s attention and I get on the radio to put out our location and a help call. My trainee hits the siren. The siren is clearly heard on the recorded radio traffic, but I never heard it. My attention is not on what my trainee is doing, it is on what is going on with that man and what was in his hand. That is one of the things that is applicable to everybody, not just cops.
eJournal: Absent experience with life-and-death dangers, few people have experienced the phenomenon known as auditory exclusion, yet it is a documented response when facing extreme danger. What happened next?
Gelhaus: The individual, identified afterwards as Andy Lopez, turns and looks at my trainee. I don’t see him turn and look over his shoulder. We pull through the intersection, stop, and ultimately end up about 23 yards away from him.
I bail out of the car and get in a kneeling position behind the car door, using the V of the car for cover. According to all the witnesses, I yell, “Drop the gun” twice. I only remember yelling it once, but everyone else remembers hearing it twice.
He responds by turning to his right, towards me, and as he turns, the gun in his left hand comes up. When he breaks 180 on the turn, and the gun is coming from pointing at the ground to rising upwards, I shift my focus to my sights and shoot eight rounds. There were seven hits.
I get on the radio quickly. I let dispatch know that we had a shooting, that we need other deputies and medical attention for the subject I shot. It probably takes about five minutes to get enough people there to do what we need to do, because it is the start of the afternoon commute.
When we approach Lopez, the AK-47 is at his feet and I want to move it so that we can handcuff and search him. I see that the bolt on the AK-47 is wrong, it’s too shiny. When I reach down to pick it up, it is too light. That’s when I realize it was not a real AK-47.
It was several hours into the night before I gave my interview, probably around 11:30 PM. They had interviewed my trainee about 30-45 minutes before. They asked me to describe the whole event, what I saw, and I described exactly what I saw, what I did, and why.
In my interview, I didn’t talk about seeing the front sight or the muzzle of the AK. It took me months to process why: my brain had not processed what I didn’t see. I did not see a front sight assembly and the muzzle, because they were not there. That was where the orange safety markings should have been, but they had been broken off.
Only months later was I able to understand why I saw what I saw, and why I did not see what I did not see.
It was not until the end of my interview, close to 1 o’clock in the morning, that I learned Lopez’s age – that he was 13.
So that is the event. I think what you are interested in for the members and readers is what came next.
eJournal: Yes, you are right, there is much to be learned from how your training and preparation guided your legal defense and ultimately led investigators, attorneys and the district attorney to recognize the deadly peril you perceived when the gun barrel began to come up toward you and the other officer. To better understand the ensuing aftermath, may I ask if you had previous experience with lethal force incidents?
Gelhaus: At that point, I had been in law enforcement for 23 years. I had been the use of force instructor for our office. I had deployed to Iraq in a leadership position as part of a ground combat element in 2005. This was my first domestic law enforcement shooting of another human being, but it was not the first shooting I had been in.
eJournal: You had other preparatory experience, as well.
Gelhaus: I had been on staff at Gunsite for about 12 years, taught for a couple of other organizations and I’d written for SWAT Magazine for seven or eight years and I was on another website blog after about 2010. I had been active on the Internet firearms boards since the late ’90s and I always posted under my real name. Things I said on that board and had written, especially an article I wrote about surviving ambushes, were used to attack me in both the media and during the legal process in the aftermath of the shooting.
eJournal: Sadly, that is not too surprising.
Gelhaus: But because I always posted under my real name, I made an effort not to post things that either I or others would consider questionable, yet things I had said were taken out of context and very definitely used against me.
eJournal: What was picked out and spun out of context?
Gelhaus: I had written that policing was a calling. I had also written that police work was a contact sport. In hindsight, that was not good, but it was common in the era in which I came up.
There had been a discussion on one board in 2005 about using lethal force then finding out that the person you shot had a BB gun. The discussion was still running in about 2007. I was a moderator on that board and I made the comment along the lines of, “Ultimately, it is going to come down to your ability to explain to the police and the courts why you did what you did. You are going to have to be able to articulate your reasons.” That was portrayed as premeditation.
eJournal: The sensationalized reports spread fairly quickly, as I recall.
Gelhaus: My name was leaked to the media two days after the shooting. They got my LinkedIn page, found my posts on The Firing Line, and all of my magazine articles. There was an article I’d written on surviving ambushes in which I had addressed the mind set to respond to and survive an ambush attack. I’d written nothing that was not said in the police academy nor in any other class.
The local paper had a large article that appeared the Monday after my shooting about what a horrible human being I was because I had written posts on this firearms board, I had written for gun magazines, I was a firearms instructor, and I was a combat veteran who had deployed to Iraq.
eJournal: That negative article quickly spread beyond your local community, did it not?
Gelhaus: First, it was in the local paper, and then it hit several online news sources. I could track how the story was moving around the country based on who was calling to check on me. I saw that even the BBC covered it.
eJournal: Well, if the Associated Press picked it up, then it went all over.
Gelhaus: Yes, it went all over. I get it! I was getting hammered because of the two things that I could not have known: his age and that it was a replica firearm. It was absolutely tragic that a 13-year old kid with very high levels of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in his system was now dead because he had made a poor decision.
It was difficult to process how the things that I had done that I thought were good were suddenly being portrayed as bad. Being in the military was bad; being a writer was bad; having been an instructor and trainer was bad. In the aftermath, all of these things were now bad.
eJournal: Is the alternative not sharing your knowledge and convictions with those who may benefit–even to the extent of helping others avoid being killed?
Gelhaus: When I go back over it now, I can’t see anything I wrote as inflammatory or negative. I mean, you could consider my characterization of police work as a contact sport a poor choice, but that was two or three out of about 5,000 posts I made on The Firing Line. So, I don’t think what I posted was that bad.
My participation on the Internet boards had given me access to a number of subject matter experts. One was Doug Mitchell in Kittitas County, WA. Doug is a former reserve police officer who has been a prosecutor for a number of years. He has been heavily involved in writing about Terry stop issues. Doug was a big help.
I knew Dr. Gary Roberts very well because of my involvement on some of those Internet boards. Gary had previously invited me to ballistics testing and body armor testing. Through those contacts I had been exposed to armor and wound ballistics concerns well beyond the knowledge of most cops.
Having deployed to Iraq, I understood very well what centerfire rifle ammunition would and would not do to vehicles and body armor. It is going to go right through soft armor. It is going to go right through car doors. Besides, soft armor only covers so much of you, and that was an issue at one point in the District Attorney’s review of the case. People asked, “Well, he was wearing a vest. Why was he scared of being shot?” There is a whole lot of you a vest doesn’t cover!
eJournal: Besides, the type of ammunition common to the AK-47 is much more penetrative than the more common 5.56x45mm.
Gelhaus: That is something we were able to get into my initial statement the night of the shooting in the interview, but it still became an issue later and we had to show what I knew through my training and experience.
Investigations, Charges and Lawsuits
eJournal: What was the process to decide if you should face criminal charges?
Gelhaus: The shooting took place toward the end of October and the agency that investigated it finished their investigation and submitted it to the District Attorney’s Office, our county prosecutor, right about the end of January. I have no complaints about how the investigative agency handled it. The agency’s investigator had just come back from a Force Science class only days before the shooting. This may have been the first case for Force Science Institute where both the cop and the investigator were graduates.
The District Attorney decided to have her office re-investigate the case. I think that was because of local politics and the media spin. She assigned a prosecutor who had come from Southern California, and a district attorney’s office investigator who had done a number of officer-involved shootings over the years for another agency in another county. The two of them worked on the case for several months, basically re-investigating everything.
They requested my training records and we had no problem turning those over. The one request I fought was for my military medical records. We all thought they were hunting for a PTSD diagnosis from my time in Iraq. While I knew there was nothing like that in my records, I didn’t like setting a precedent it was okay to treat veterans differently. Ultimately, I gave them my Veterans Administration records, showing compensation for orthopedic and other injuries.
eJournal: While you were the subject of not one but two criminal investigations, were you concurrently being investigated for violation of civil rights? Were you fighting multiple legal battles simultaneously?
Gelhaus: The shooting happened on Tuesday. The family’s attorney filed a federal [civil rights violation] lawsuit the following Wednesday. The civil suit was stayed while the investigation went forward. Ultimately, July 7, 2014, the district attorney came out and announced that she was not charging me and laid why she was not charging me. She then sent the police department’s investigation as well as her agency’s investigation to both the California Attorney General’s Office and to the FBI.
The FBI had gotten involved within a few days of the shooting and announced they were investigating me for federal civil rights violations. They said they had received a call requesting that investigation, but later backed off from that claim and said, “No, we are just going to help the local agency.” I did not know that both the FBI and the Department of Justice civil rights division had taken it upon themselves from mid-2014 to mid-2015 to investigate me. Until I got the clearance letters, I did not know that was going on.
eJournal: For clarity, let’s acknowledge that as a law enforcement officer, the legal processes used against you after use of force were considerably different than a private citizen’s defense against criminal charges and the threat of a lawsuit seeking damages.
Gelhaus: I don’t know how much you know about a USC § 1983 action.
eJournal: Only enough to know that the question was whether you had deprived a person of their civil rights under color of law. While the same situation or circumstances could certainly befall a private citizen, the legal fallout is different, but because it’s the setting for how your training and expert knowledge served your defense, let’s take a few minutes to learn what happened in the civil rights case. What happened next?
Gelhaus: The expert witness reports came in, and my attorneys were starting to prepare for the court hearing to ask for summary judgment and qualified immunity, but they did not depose the plaintiff’s use of force expert. A number of things in his expert witness report were not factual. Going through his deposition about eight months later, I was able to piece together that he had not been given all of the information by plaintiff’s counsel, so he “supposed” things.
He said there had never been an incident involving an AK-47 in my county, therefore I had no reason to be fearful of an AK. He had not received the deposition from one of our gang experts about the number of AKs and other firearms I had seized in that neighborhood, and a local shooting the summer before in which several ICE agents were shot by gang members with AKs.
eJournal: Were his statements treated by the court as authoritative? Did his assertions become part of the legal record?
eJournal: What happened when the court had to decide?
Gelhaus: They had the hearing for qualified immunity and summary judgment. While the trial judge granted partial summary judgment on some of the issues, we did not get it on everything, nor did we receive qualified immunity. She did not believe the muzzle of the AK had risen far enough for me to have considered it a lethal force threat.
We appealed to the 9th Circuit Court and got a three-judge panel where one of the judges said on the record that he was sick and tired of cops shooting kids with toy guns. It was pretty easy to figure out which way he was going to go. Another judge asked plaintiff’s counsel if they should consider the number of AKs I had seized in that neighborhood and plaintiff’s counsel said no, they should not.
We lost our appeal to the 9th Circuit and appealed to the US Supreme Court. After four weeks in that process, they denied our petition for certiorari. We asked, “Well, what are we going to do?”
Doug Mitchell came to California for a week. He and I went through the entire case and wrote a detailed critique of how it had been handled. I don’t think any of our attorneys had ever seen a client do that. We talked about things like the use of force training perspective, how plaintiff’s experts should have been attacked, and how the case needed to proceed.
In December 2018, while we were getting ready to go to trial, we had a final mediation session. We were $2 million apart at the end of it. It looked like it was going to go to trial. Two days later, the attorneys reached a settlement and the day after that I got a phone call telling me that the county and the Lopez family had settled.
Interaction with Attorneys
eJournal: In light of the report you and Mr. Mitchell wrote, we need to ask how well were you able to work with your county-provided attorneys and what would have made it better.
Gelhaus: There were times that I think–no, I know–that I was a real pain for my attorneys. None of the four attorneys that I had were prior cops; only one had handled police use of force issues.
The lead was a really good, local civil defense attorney, and he was willing to listen to me. He had done shooting cases, but never one at this level. He was willing to listen, but I know there were times I was a pain when I was really hammering on getting him better educated on some things.
eJournal: Seriously, how receptive are attorneys to a client trying to redirect their attention to critical facts?
Gelhaus: Steve, my original attorney, was receptive. His office was between my house and the law-enforcement agency I worked for, so I was able to stop by any time something came up in the case. Generally, we interacted really well. We didn’t always agree on things, and there were times that we kind of slammed heads together, but we could talk. Unfortunately, he died two years into the case. The attorneys who took over for him were not local to me and we never developed anything close to a similar relationship.
eJournal: Oh no! That’s a stumbling block no one could have predicted. Were the attorneys defending you assigned by your law enforcement agency? Did you have control over attorney selection?
Gelhaus: They were selected by the county. I had no say in attorney selection. I asked for certain expert witnesses and was in essence told “you won’t get them.” I knew the type of experts I wanted from taking classes: current use of force instructors and trainers and officers at sergeant level. I wanted people who had been on the street recently who were current on their training and experience and knew what was going on. I did not get them.
I asked for a couple of sergeants who were supervising use of force training programs in large urban agencies, but what I got was a retired chief who had been a defensive tactics instructor early on in his career. He had been in administrative positions and removed from the street for the last 10 or 15 years. If the question was, “When was the last time you encountered an armed subject while you were driving a patrol car?” I don’t know how he could’ve answered. It would have been quite a few years back.
eJournal: I’m a little surprised that a large California sheriff’s department wouldn’t have more experienced legal counsel available.
Gelhaus: My initial legal defense fund attorney is a very nice human being, but not someone I consider competent in use of force matters like this one. After my shooting, they handled two other cases in our agency, one in which I was primarily involved and one to which I was peripheral. I was under-whelmed by that attorney. That just has to do with the perspective that the attorney brought to the event.
Kicking it around with Doug Mitchell, my civil attorneys, and some other cops around the country, we think at best there are maybe 1,000 attorneys, that actually understand use of deadly force issues. That may be overbroad. I am sure if you looked in some city and county attorney’s offices, you’d find people who understand use of deadly force at least from an LE perspective. I do not know how many understand it from the citizen’s side.
eJournal: There just isn’t that much experience in the criminal bar defending innocent people.
Gelhaus: I would not turn to a criminal defense attorney who’s used to defending criminals. I have really offended a couple attorneys when I’ve commented, “You guys are really good at plea bargaining. I don’t say this to make you mad, but how many times do you actually go to trial to defend your client instead of pleading him out?” Plea bargaining is not what a decent, normal human being needs when they have tried to save their life, or the life of a loved one.
eJournal: The need goes beyond attorneys who understand justifiable use of force; the legal team needs expert witnesses to explain, as you have identified, elements like auditory exclusion or how the human brain identifies information gathered visually.
Gelhaus: I think law-enforcement has the experts; I just don’t know if they are the right experts for decent, normal human beings. I am surprised I have not seen greater use of the human factors material by Force Science Institute and similar entities used in civilian defense. What scares me is that the criminal defense bar will figure out the human factors stuff and start to use it to defend their suspects. I do not know how we get one in without risking the other. I am hoping that kind of support could be out there for the public.
eJournal: For many years Force Science Institute was completely closed to the private citizen, and only recently have students from the private sector been allowed in their classes. That expertise, however, is only one factor, the larger being minimal motivation for defense attorneys because most deadly force litigation does not involve innocent people.
Gelhaus: Do you take someone from the law enforcement world and try to get them to think “decent, normal human?” Who is out there has the subject matter expertise to understand the legal issues, the human factors, the training?
eJournal: The good news is that much of the LE-private citizen cross over talent is represented on the Network’s Advisory Board, and your comments underscore just how much we appreciate them because they are, indeed, uncommon. Another issue that doesn’t come up in this story because you did not have to go to trial, although you came close: judges have control over whether an expert is recognized and whether their expert knowledge will be allowed in trial. As vital as having the right experts can be, as you wrote in that Firing Line post all those years ago, ultimately, your legal survival comes down to being able to explain why you did what you did.
Gelhaus: It was frustrating, because my attorney would say, “Hey, look, you can’t be the expert on this case.” I would say, “I get it! I can’t be the guy giving expert testimony, but I am telling you who you need to go talk to and why you need to listen to them.” Sometimes, the attorney and I would see things in completely different ways because of our perspectives and our experiences. As the guy it was happening to, the way I looked at it was completely different from the view of the attorney who was strategizing about how he was going to defend the case.
eJournal: Being lied about and publicly accused of planning murder is an emotional burden that has to be acknowledged.
Gelhaus: I could not speak for myself publicly. Anything I said to the media was never going to be conveyed in context. I had to sit there and take the punches. I knew that whatever I wanted to do or say, I would not be allowed to respond. I only could fight it through my attorneys, to the extent they did.
Defendant’s Experience and Training
eJournal: Your extensive training explained the decisions you made during the incident and guided your actions both during and afterwards. This is one aspect of your experience that can and frankly should be mirrored by armed private citizens. How did your own expertise help you and how did you help your legal team understand its importance?
Gelhaus: I had trained extensively with Gunsite, Louis Awerbuck, Bill Jeans, Pat Rogers, Scotty Reitz and others multiple times before my shooting. I was teaching at Gunsite. Fortunately, I had been to enough classes, that I understood the mechanics of shooting. Additionally, just the year before, I had been through the full 40-hour Force Science Institute class, so I understood all the human factors involved.
I understood ballistics. I knew what bullets really do when they hit things; what does and what does not stop rounds. I understood body armor pretty well; not so much from having worn it, but from having been involved in several issues that had come up over time where I had to take deep dives into learning what armor really did and how it did it. That served me well.
Ultimately, my attorneys realized that they did not know what I was trying to tell them. That led to the attorneys and experts in the case going to the range. In the court documents we have video of them shooting up a car with body armor on a stand behind the car door. In the video, there are rounds going through the car door, through the vest, and exiting the vest’s back panel.
eJournal: You were well prepared and hadn’t just said, “The agency will take care of me.” You had rigorously pursued your own training and taken it so seriously that when the success of your legal defense depended on identifying issues that had to be explained, you compensated for your legal team’s failure to see details from your shooting that absolutely had to be addressed.
Realistically, I don’t know how many private citizens can achieve your level of preparation, but I do believe some will face serious problems like mistaken identity shootings, or other hard-to-explain facts like shots in the back that happen in fast-moving defense situations and will have to explain why force used in self defense is reasonable.
Gelhaus: Your training will help you explain why you did what you did. To me as an instructor, that means that while I understand the cop world really well, and I have been teaching decent, normal human beings at Gunsite for quite a few years, too, now, I am really making an effort to understand more of these things from the citizens’ context. For example, Graham v. Connor is great when you need to explain to cops how to evaluate when to use force. Cops initiate or respond to events, trying to get to the result of a person being arrested and going to jail. Decent, normal human beings do not have to close the distance and take folks to jail.
As an instructor, I am now paying more attention to that realm. I would urge people to pay attention to the things Claude Werner is writing; pay attention to the people who have a more normal, decent human being-centric view. There is a big difference between being in the military doing stuff overseas, being a cop doing stuff domestically, and being a decent, normal human who is just trying to break contact and get away. Some things carry across, but they are more of the mechanical skill set, not necessarily the legal side.
In cop classes I teach, I really emphasize case law. Now, as I am developing classes for decent, normal human beings, for citizens, I am including the criminal code citations and the jury instructions in the class and talking about the case law of justifiable homicide by a citizen, not just by police. We have to have more instructors who understand that view.
eJournal: Your point is well taken and suggests that we include understanding case law and jury instructions in the criteria by which we select our instructors.
eJournal: It is impossible to tell this story without touching on the personal aspects of what was done to you. Your agency’s administrators were unsupportive, which is ironic, because you wouldn’t have been in the shooting had you not been working for your agency that day. What happened at work as the legal process unfolded?
Gelhaus: My co-workers were very supportive; the elected head of the office was not. The county’s board of supervisors was openly hostile, but very supportive of defending the case behind closed doors. While a couple of the supervisors publicly wanted me fired or kept off of patrol; they would ask about my well-being.
I had come out number one on the list for promotion to sergeant the day of the shooting. The admin captain spoke to me a few days afterwards and asked me to withdraw from the promotion process. He said, “Hey, we can’t promote you right now, so why don’t you just pull out of it?”
Hold on; wait a minute! I am being destroyed by the media, I am having to take my wife and move out of my house and go into hiding because of the death threats, and you want me to walk away from trying to get promoted at work? It took another 2½ years to get promoted. I had internal support, but not support from the boss, who seemed to base his decisions not on whether it was right or wrong, but on the political ramifications and fallout.
I was stuck there for the duration of the lawsuit, so I re-applied for promotion.
eJournal: Of course, they wanted you to just go away, but with the lawsuit unresolved, you couldn’t go anywhere else! I think part of the damage, though, is having to keep going to work knowing that the administration wished for nothing more than your departure. How does one deal with that kind of abandonment?
Gelhaus: Leaving would have made them ecstatic. I decided early on that no matter how dark it got, “They” were not going to win. I will not say that there weren’t some dark nights, dark weeks, dark months for me. I saw a counselor on and off throughout most of it.
After we settled the lawsuit, I did a residential post-traumatic stress treatment program for public safety to deal with the aftermath. The event was tragic, but what I had to deal with was everything that happened afterwards.
Early on, my doc, Joel, recognized that I knew how to communicate. I had been a trainer for several years; I had been a published writer. He was not trying to pile extra bricks in my backpack, but Joel made it very clear to me that if I got through this, on the other end I would have the ability to talk to others about it. One of my goals became getting to the point of being able to communicate about what happened to practitioners, other officers, and to decent, normal human beings.
eJournal: You mentioned those very black times when it must have seemed that before you could recover from one blow, you were hit with something else. What carried you through?
Gelhaus: First, I knew I had not done anything wrong. I had dealt with the situation as best as I could. The things that made it tragic were things that I could not have known until afterwards. I could not have known it was a replica firearm. I couldn’t know his age or that his THC levels were off the charts from smoking marijuana several times that day. Again, I did not know any of that ahead of time.
I did know that I’d done nothing wrong; based on all of my training, I responded correctly and reasonably to the situation that I encountered.
Next, I decided, “You guys are not going to get a win. I am not going to give you a win by hitting the ‘eject’ button.” Although I had no intentions to, the thoughts in my head were, how would that be portrayed if I were to go down that road? How would that be portrayed and reported for months and years to come? What would my wife, my family and my friends have to deal with? My touchstone was, “I cannot let them go through even more.”
Oh, there were bad times! I can remember one night early on, walking up and down a ridgeline, just looking out across the valley and thinking, “I can’t take anymore. I cannot take another hit.” I wasn’t thinking, “What am I going to do if that happens?” I just thought, “I can’t take any more. My reserves are gone.” Well, the sun came up the next morning, and with the exception of during the 2017 wildland fires here, the sun has come up every morning after that.
One thing we have not mentioned is the expense. I was represented by our state law enforcement association legal defense fund. I have seen some of the bills and they were large. That was all paid for by the association’s legal defense fund and the county and its insurance carrier.
eJournal: What goals and aspirations emerged intact after your ordeal?
Gelhaus: I am very fortunate that Gunsite kept me on staff and continued to let me teach. Some doors that I had hoped would be open to me, are closed in retirement. I have a graduate degree and I wanted to teach in the academic world. That does not look like it will happen. I’m blackballed at the local academies; I can’t teach at either of them. Now, my goal is to teach in other venues to be able to share some of this information.
While I haven’t resumed writing again for magazines, I did a research paper that is being used in training programs across the country. It does not have anything to do with my shooting; it has to do with vehicle stops.
I have made presentations to both agency peer counseling programs and administrator groups. I’ve spoken about how an agency deals with the guy or gal who is going through this and how to deal with their partners. I have been able to help in those realms.
I’ve talked openly about what happened to me, without trying to eviscerate my former boss. He was not cut out for the position in which he found himself. It took me years to process that. We are never going to break bread together, but I don’t hate him anymore. That was a significant emotional step.
eJournal: What a burden that must have lifted from your shoulders.
Gelhaus: [sighs] It took a while. A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk to a cop who has been in a similar situation. When we were done talking, he called the doc who had reached out to ask me to talk to him, and he said, “Man, if he can get through all that, then I can get through this.”
eJournal: We can all learn from your strength and resilience, because your ordeal was about as grim as it gets.
Gelhaus: Yeah, it was. Looking back, there were times that I don’t think I realized just how really bad it was! I am thankful for the things that I get to teach. I have my own training company and there is a local training company that has contracted me to do a number of classes teaching both low-light and CCW related classes. I am grateful to be doing lesson plan development for agencies, too.
What I think is important for the people reading this, though, is: don’t just focus on how to use whatever tool you are going to use. If you are going to use OC [pepper spray], learn the laws about using OC. If you are going to use a firearm, learn the laws that relate to using a firearm. Learn the laws so you know what you can and cannot do and when.
I have used the phrase, “You are probably going to need to be your own expert.” I am not talking about testifying, but you are going to have to be able to explain why you did what you did, not just to the cops, but there is a really good chance that you are going to have to explain to both criminal defense counsel and a civil defense attorney, why what you did is reasonable and why it is within your state’s standard and the national standard.
Understand that you may very well have to go talk to counselors afterwards, not because of the event, but because of the aftermath of the event. I didn’t have problems with the shooting itself. I found out in the residential treatment I did afterward, that I had a pretty bad moral injury from the aftermath over who I ended up shooting. So, just accept that you may need counseling. Not everybody who uses force needs counseling but be accepting of help if you need it.
Know as much as you can know about what you plan to use to defend yourself, not just the mechanics of it, but also the legalities. Know that you may have to be your own expert to explain why and how you did what you were trained to do and why that was reasonable under the circumstances. Help your attorneys know what experts they may have to go get to help.
eJournal: Those are powerful lessons, and all the stronger for coming in the words of the man who went through it and came out the other side. Thank you for your candor and generosity in sharing these lessons.
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