On January 28, police officer Jacob Costas was at gunpoint.
He remembers, vividly, how the man holding the gun acted. He was angry and sad at the same time.
Costas remembers how the man reached behind his back, into his waistband, and pulled out what looked like a revolver.
He recalls how the man lifted the gun and pointed it at him.
Costas remembers peering down the barrel of his own Glock 23, his finger tight against the trigger.
But he also remembers the look in the man’s eyes. It was a look — an unspoken connection — that gave Costas pause, a split second of hesitation that was the difference between life and death.
Costas trusted his intuition that the man on the other end of that gun didn’t want to shoot.
He bet his life on it, and he was right.
Answering the call
Shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 28, Costas, a six-year veteran of the DeWitt Police Department, was leaving a CPR training in DeWitt when a call came over the radio. His shift had just ended, but he listened anyway. He doesn’t turn his radio off until he walks into his house.
A domestic situation was unfolding in DeWitt, and the only officer on duty at the time was Sgt. Shawn Zeimet, who was waiting for a tow truck at a vehicle accident nearby.
Costas responded to dispatchers, latched on to the call, and was briefed over the air. An apparently intoxicated man was acting angrily and “waving a gun around.”
While Costas was en route, more information was relayed. The man could be heard by the dispatcher yelling in the background.
“He was saying something like, ‘if the police come I’m going to kill ‘em.’” Costas said. “He was mad.”
Costas arrived on the scene in DeWitt two minutes later and parked about 50 feet to the north so he could walk up on foot. It’s a strategy law enforcement officers use to approach at an appropriate angle and gain a tactical advantage.
But as Costas stepped out of his car, he heard a “pop.”
“I was in the middle of turning my radio on and opening and closing the door,” he said. “It was loud. I heard that and I felt like I needed to get up there quickly,” Costas said.
Costas ran from his vehicle to the property line only to find the noise he’d heard was the man slamming the door of his house.
In a matter of seconds, Costas found himself at the edge of the property with no cover.
“He hadn’t seen me yet, but we made contact once I ran up into the yard,” said Costas. He knew to be cautious after previous dealings with the man. The man had been suicidal in the past and was a known drug user, Costas said.
“We made contact right away. He was outside, I was kind of on the edge of his yard,” Costas said. “He caught me in a weird situation. You’re trained to find a good cover and use your angles to your advantage, but when he came out I was kind of out there in the open.”
Costas immediately began talking with the man.
“He was obviously amped up,” Costas said. “I tried to de-escalate the situation. First thing you want to do is make sure you can see his hands. I could only see one at the time. I said ‘hey man, let me see your hands.’”
“He said, ‘I ain’t got nothing.’”
Costas then confirmed both of the man’s hands were empty. He asked the man if he was armed.
“He initially said ‘yes,’” Costas said. “I explained to him what I was going to do. I wanted to keep him the least agitated as I could. I said ‘Hey man, I just want to pat you down for weapons, is that okay?’”
The man then told Costas he wasn’t armed after all. Costas, though, wanted to check for himself.
“I was like ‘okay, well, I want to check for myself. I want to verify for my safety and everyone else’s safety and then we can start talking,’” Costas said. “And that’s when he said ‘No, man, this is my house. It’s my house.’”
Costas tentatively approached until he was about 15 feet from the man. Then, things escalated.
The man reached behind his back into waistband of his jeans, Costas said.
“You know what that reach is for,” Costas said. “He’s not reaching to keep his pants from falling down. So, I draw my weapon and said ‘dude, don’t.’”
But it was to no avail. The man’s hand swung around with the gun in it. He originally pointed the it at the ground, Costas said.
“I’m trying to gauge the situation, and I can see in his eyes that he’s debating,” Costas remembered. “That’s when I started giving him verbal commands to drop the weapon. I said, ‘dude, come on, drop the weapon. Put it down.’”
The commands didn’t work.
“He said ‘F*** you. Kill me. Kill me.’” Costas recalled.
The man raised the gun and pointed it at Costas. Both men were at gunpoint.
“I’m trying to prevent (shooting him). That’s something no one wants to do,” Costas said. “At that point, that’s when I start my trigger press. There’s a lot of factors you want to consider before you shoot. Obviously, your own safety, if he’s pointing it at you, you’re more than justified to use deadly force. But you want to make sure of what’s behind him, see if there’s another officer. If I were to shoot and miss will it go into his house and hit his kids?”
But, in a quick reversal of fortune, the man threw the revolver on the ground.
At this point, Zeimet arrived on the scene and ran up to Costas’ location.
He and Costas secured the man and obtained the gun, which turned out to a realistic-looking BB gun.
“But, he didn’t know that (it was a BB gun),” Zeimet said. “And that dang thing look real. Even up close. You couldn’t tell up close really without examining it.”
Costas said from the time he left his car to the moment the man’s gun hit the ground, no more than 20 seconds had passed.
“It felt like forever,” he said.
Mind of an officer
Before Jan. 28, in his six years as an officer in DeWitt, Costas had never had a gun of any kind pointed at him.
Training, along with stints overseas in the Army, had prepared him for the situation.
While driving to the scene, Costas tried to prepare his mind the best he could. When responding to a call, previous knowledge of the subject can be both a blessing and a curse, he said. It’s important to use previous encounters as a resource, but not become jaded by them.
“You can compare it to a similar situation,” Costas said. “But every situation is dynamic and there are intricacies and aspects that can change the whole scenario. You tell yourself to take it as it comes. Don’t automatically assume that you’re about to go shoot somebody.”
In other words, expect nothing and everything.
That’s why, when Costas heard the initial “pop,” he sprang into action. However, in this case, it backfired. He was caught in the open, completely exposed.
“You always want to put yourself in a tactical situation that’s to your advantage,” said DeWitt Chief of Police Dave Porter. “That’s why when you see cops in restaurants, we sit in a corner with our backs to the corner. We can see what’s going on. It’s tactical, I guess that’s how we are wired.”
Costas knew he was at a disadvantage. De-escalation was the best tactic at that point, he figured.
But then, the man reached.
“I thought, ‘Man, don’t make me do it,’” he recalls. “In this political climate — and it shouldn’t — but the thought does cross your mind: Am I going to get in trouble?”
The moment the man pointed the gun at Costas, instincts — and his experience overseas — kicked in.
“Does he really want to shoot me or does he just want me to kill him?” Costas said. “I think you have to go based off your instincts.”
Costas is a firearms instructor. He knows the tactical lessons that are instilled in his students.
On Jan. 28, he went against what he teaches. He didn’t shoot.
“I never want to hurt someone, and as it turns out my intuition was correct,” Costas said. “The guy was suicidal, but he didn’t want to do it himself. He wanted me to kill him. And that’s the sense I got when I looked in his eyes. It was a reaching-out-for help-type thing.”
In that moment of realization — as both guns were aloft — time stood still.
“It just happened so quick, but at the same time it seems like in those situations time slows down. You’re having a physiological response. You brain focuses just on that subject and blocks everything else out. I would say you get the sense that time kind of stands still.
“But, I would have told any officer in my position ‘you probably should have shot him.’”
For his calm demeanor and de-escalation tactics used that evening, Costas was awarded a Meritorious Service Award, the department’s second-highest honor. It is given to an officer who performs an act to help another person while putting their own life in jeopardy.
Costas was given the award for his effort at the May 18 DeWitt City Council meeting.
The man was taken to jail and charged with assault on a peace officer and possession of ammunition by a prohibited person.
Healing in the aftermath
There were times when Costas second-guessed his hesitation.
“If it turned out he did want to harm me, action beats reaction. If he wanted to shoot me, he would have,” Costas said. “I can’t wait until he pulls the trigger. That’s not how it works. In that situation, before that barrel is pointed at you, you need to know what to do.
“I struggle with it. I didn’t want to (shoot him), but I probably should have. Is there something in me that didn’t let me shoot?” he wonders. “Honestly, I revert back to that intuition. I’ve seen hostile people in my time overseas who have that look in their eyes that they want to kill you. You get that sense, and the hair on your neck stands up, and you aren’t taking any chances. And you need to shoot.
“In this situation, the totality and circumstances and taking everything in account — including my previous reactions with him … my senses at the time told me that he was looking to get killed rather than wanting to kill me.”
Officers involved in calls like the one on Jan. 28 can seek counseling if they need it. For Costas, the best medicine to help quell his doubts was conversation with his peers. He expressed feelings for the way he handled the call.
“The fact that I allowed him to get it to where it’s pointed at me …. it’s like … I would have told any officer, ‘man, you need to shoot that guy. You waited too long.’
“And I struggle with that after the fact. I mean, it ended well, and I’m glad it did.”
Costas confided in his brothers and dad — all members of the law enforcement community. The support was palpable.
“I expected them to say, ‘yeah, you should have shot him,’ Costas said. “But not a single one of them did. They said ‘you made the right decision. You did the right thing.’”
“Things like that can really mess with an officer, especially if he had pulled that trigger,” Zeimet said, “Listening to him talk, I have no reason to doubt (his choice). I saw that gun. Had I been there, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have shot (the man).”
That kind of emotional support is something relatively new in law enforcement, Porter says.
Peer support used to be rare. But over the past 10 years, the dynamic has changed.
“Officers used to keep all that in, and it bottles up,” he said. “It’s PTSD and stress and years and years responding to calls. You see death and everything that goes along with that, and how mean society can be. But you can’t think that way about mankind. It’s a small segment that’s bad.”
In the past, officers who expressed their feelings were considered inferior. It was discouraged.
“You were (considered) weak if you talked about it,” Porter said. “It wasn’t okay to share your feelings. That’s how it used to be. It’s changing for the good now. It’s okay to feel that way.”
On Jan. 28, Costas fought a personal battle between his tactical training and his humanity.
“I was more concerned with him at a human level,” he said. “I think we connected, briefly, on a human level outside of that law enforcer/subject mentality. We were human to human.”
And life, for both, goes on.