Even When Necessary, Killing Isn’t Easy for Cops

On December 8, 2004, Nathan Gale entered Alrosa Villa, a heavy metal nightclub in Columbus, Ohio, climbed onto the stage and shot Pantera guitarist Darrel “Dimebag” Abbott, who was playing with Damageplan that night, three times in the head, killing him. 
Erin Halk, a club security guard, charged the gunman when he reloaded only to be shot six times.  Nathan Bray, a twenty-three year old audience member, was shot in the chest when he tried to intervene.  Jeff Thompson, a forty year old security worker for the band tried to protect Abbott.  He was shot three times and killed.  The gunman also shot and wounded a stage technician, John Brooks, and two others.  Gale took Brooks hostage.

A few blocks away, Columbus (OH) Police Officer James Niggemeyer was patrolling his beat when the radio broke squelch, and the dispatcher put out the call.  Like any brave cop, Niggemeyer rushed to the scene, grabbing his shotgun as stepped out of the cruiser.  As others fled the club in horror, Officer Niggemeyer went toward the danger, entering the club through the back door.  As he made his entry, he saw Nathan Gale with Brooks in a headlock, his 9mm pistol pressed against Brooks’s skull.  Niggemeyer took aim and fired one shot, striking Gale in the face from about twenty feet away.  Gale fell dead, and lives were saved.  Of the 400 heavy metal fans in the club, four people lay dead and three wounded.  Gale had thirty-five more rounds on him.

That night ten years ago, James Niggemeyer saved untold lives.  He faced the wolf in a fight to the death, and he won.  People called him a hero.  Awards began to pile up.  Heavy metal fans cheered him when the owner of the club pulled him on stage when the club reopened a month later.  It was a clean, justified shooting.  A textbook ending to an active shooter, there was no question he was cleared.

Niggermeyer returned to active duty, patrolling Columbus for another three years while battling the demons the shooting brought him.  He sought counseling.  He still does.  After a while, he was diagnosed with PTSD and severe anxiety disorder.  According to the Columbus Dispatch, doctors recommended that he be reassigned away from patrol.  They believed that he didn’t need to be a first responder anymore.  The department made him a robbery detective.

James continued to struggle with the aftermath of taking a life.  “I found out real quickly that you don’t have any control over your brain,” he said. “It’s going to do what it’s going to do,” he told the Columbus Dispatch.  “Cops are regular human beings. Things affect us the same way they affect everyday citizens. We relive it and have to deal with the aftermath.”

James took a non-police job with the city in 2011.  Of the shooting, James said, “[It] changed my career path — not for the better, certainly,” he said. “I’m happy to have been able to end the situation with no further tragedies after I arrived, but it certainly hasn’t made my life any better.”

This is not a cautionary tale.  It is not meant as a “don’t let this happen to you” story.  His reaction to killing is what it is.  He could no more prevent it than he could have prevented the shooting.  Killing a person affects us all differently.  You don’t know how you will react until it happens. James’s story is one that can be repeated over and over again.  Contrary to the Hollywood view of LEOs, police officers suffer an extreme emotional toll when they kill, even when it was the right thing to do.  Even when their community supports them.  Even when they saved lives.  It is the enigma of the sheepdog mentality.  We are capable of killing when many people are not, but our compassion, though, is what separates us from the wolf.  We feel it when we kill.  And, that’s a good thing.

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