Vargas: When the suspect turned on me, there was a knock-down, drag-out street fight


Behind the Badge reporter Lori Basheda and I recently observed the “Will to Survive” training exercises at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy. Watching the recruits go through the scenarios reminded me just how important mental and physical preparation can be. You just don’t know when or where the knock-down, drag-out confrontation is going to happen. But you always expect it might.

(Click on the video above to see a reenactment of Miami-Dade Police Officer Mario Guiterrez engaging in a knock-down, drag-out encounter he had with a suspect who stabbed him. He definitely had the will to survive.)

One of the most difficult situations an officer will ever encounter in the field is contacting someone who is bent on doing them harm.

I’m not talking about the guy who just doesn’t want to go to jail. It’s almost routine to run into someone who doesn’t want to put on handcuffs and struggles more to get away than to do you harm.

It takes a special level of crazy to attack an armed police officer. I doubt the average person could even think of a circumstance in which they would even consider it — or a situation where they’d be mad enough or even intoxicated enough to attack a cop.

Attacking a uniformed, armed police officer is not something a sane person does, but it happens.

Back in the early 1990s I was working the Street Crime Apprehension Team for the Anaheim Police Department. It was a time when street drug sales were rampant and certain neighborhoods were drive-through supermarkets for any kind of drug you craved.

Our job was to arrest dealers selling narcotics in the neighborhood. In this case, an undercover investigator had purchased narcotics from a dealer standing on a street corner.

The plan was after relaying the suspect description an arrest team would respond in a plain vehicle, contact the suspect and take him into custody.

It seemed like such a simple plan but as in most narcotics cases nothing ever goes according to plan. As we exited our vehicle the suspect took one look and decided to just beat feet and take off running.

Back then I was all of 5 feet 7 and 150 pounds. This made me the perfect person to give chase. Sort of like the designated runner in baseball.

I chased him over fences, through alleyways and ended up cornering him in a garage carport.

We had outrun my less fleet-of-feet comrades and it was just the two of us.

It was then he did the unexpected. He ran right at me all punches and kicks. I didn’t even have time to back up and pull out my gun. We ended up going toe-to-toe for what seemed like at least one 3-minute round. As I recall we were pretty evenly matched in weight class.

I have to admit he got in a few punches before I came at him with my own. At the time, I remember thinking he would have me if I dropped my guard and went for my gun. So hand-to-hand combat was my first option.

Like most street fights, we ended up on the ground wrestling rather than punching. The entire time as I hung on to him and attempted to get control all I kept thinking about was protecting my gun.

It had been drilled into me over and over again by my academy instructors, training officers and even my dad. If you lose your gun, you lose your life.

What I had going for me was training and mental preparation. At no point did I ever even begin to believe I would lose this fight. It wasn’t ego or pride but just that confidence that my will to survive was stronger than his.

It was when we had almost come to a standstill that the cavalry showed up. The bad guy surrendered immediately once he saw he was outnumbered.

Despite being in some of the best shape of my life I remember being exhausted and struggling for breath.

I felt not just relief but exhilaration. I’d won. Who wouldn’t be happy about that?

That wasn’t the end of the night, however. Besides some scrapes and bruises I noticed my right hand was really sore and looked funny. A few hours later I couldn’t even write my report it had swelled up so much.

A trip to the emergency room confirmed I had broken several of the bones in my right hand. I called my wife and assured her I was OK but I would be going into surgery that night. She was not happy.

I had my hand pinned back together and after some months was able to get back to work.

Every day across the country officers are going through similar scenarios and surviving. It is a testament to their training and mental preparation they survive and are able to return to families at the end of the night.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at