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Your Armed Response to the Late Night Knock at the Door Could Get You Killed

Your armed response to the knock on the door in the middle of the night should be well thought out beforehand.

I can think of several incidents where homeowners have been shot after being mistaken as the bad guy by responding officers. There is a recent case with good video and documentation so I chose it as an example of what can go wrong.

June 14, 2019, in Greenville, South Carolina

The incident begins just before midnight when the Sheriff's Department dispatch center gets a call from an alarm monitoring service. The representative of the monitoring service tells the call center that they received an activation inside a residence. There is some confusion as to the nature of the activation.

Initially, it is believed that it is some sort of panic or intrusion alarm. Later we find out it is an accidental medical-alert type, panic alarm activation from inside the residence.

Around midnight, a single officer arrives on the scene and heads up to the front door. The front porch is well lit and there are clear sidelight windows on either side of the front door. The officer rings the front doorbell and likely knocked on the door based on the homeowner's initial, spontaneous statement.

The officer is on the porch approximately 5 feet from the door when a figure is seen through the left sidelight window of the door. It is clear that the person inside has a firearm in their hand. At this point, the door is closed and there is no verbal communication between the deputy and the person inside the home.

This is a still shot from the deputy's body-worn camera of the home where the events took place.

Things Continue to Snowball in a Bad Way

The officer shines his flashlight at the person inside. The deputy says it is at this point the person inside points the gun at him. The officer draws his firearm, moves to the left side of the window seeking cover, as he fires two rounds at the person inside.

The video isn't completely clear on if the homeowner pointed the gun at the officer, but the homeowner doesn't seem to refute the officer when he says that he shot him because he [homeowner] pointed a gun at him.

After backing up to what the officer believes to be a safe place, he shouts commands at the homeowner. It is here where the officer finds out that the person he shot is the homeowner, and the homeowner finds out that the person he thought was a prowler, is a deputy.

The homeowner will survive his injuries and the deputy is cleared of violating any department policy or statutory law.

Please avoid the temptation of assigning ultimate blame to one party or the other. That has already been determined, and no amount of moral outrage heals gunshot wounds. The correct thing to do is to focus on what happened and what can be done better in the future.

We can't control what law enforcement learns from this incident, but as armed homeowners, we need to identify things that lessen the likelihood of this happening to us.

By using the flashlight, the officer made it more difficult for the homeowner to identify him.

What Can We Do About Our Response?

First, do you have a monitored alarm or medical alert system? If you do remember that an accidental activation can happen and law enforcement officers (LEO's) can be dispatched even if you haven't spoken with the monitoring service. Additionally, officers can go to the wrong address or can be dispatched to the home based on a neighbor's observations.

I can remember responding to several calls in the middle of the night from citizens who said their neighbor's door is wide open and they are concerned. So even if you don't have an alarm, don't rule out the fact that an officer has come to check on you.

In this case, the front porch was lit, but the homeowner still couldn't identify the deputy. The deputy's use of his flashlight likely made it difficult, if not impossible for the homeowner to identify him as a deputy. So it doesn't mean overhead lights on the porch ensure proper identification, but it's reasonable to conclude that they can help.

The homeowner came to the door with the gun exposed in his hand. This may seem like an appropriate way to approach the front door. Especially if you hear knocking or the doorbell rings in the dead of night. Even without sidelight windows around your door, LEO's still may see you walking to the door, a firearm in hand.

The LEO may not be on the porch, rather off to the side looking through a front window for movement. I am not blaming the homeowner for approaching the door this way, however, it factored into what ultimately happened.

Try to imagine what you look like from outside your home. This is a bad approach, putting you at a disadvantage to a criminal and complicates issues with law enforcement.

This is one of the reasons I do not advise sneaking around a dark house with a firearm. If you hear someone pounding on the door, your response probably doesn't have to be surreptitious. Having the firearm drawn and behind the back or in a holster is less likely to be perceived as a threat by an officer, and still provides a fast response if necessary.

Also, remember you don't have to go directly to the door. You can stay in a place of safety, observe the front door and communicate, which I'll cover below.

Lighting is your friend. Sure, turning on an inside light illuminates us, but I think in context it is a benefit. I have looked at hundreds of cases where guns were used in and around homes. What I have found is that absent something like premeditated murder, bad guy's don't knock on doors and then shoot people through the closed door or adjacent window. Gunfights that occur at the threshold are usually a result of the homeowner trying to close the door after initially opening it to see who was there.

On the flip-side, there far too many instances of people shooting family members accidentally.  The reason is almost always that they couldn't identify the person they were shooting at because it was too dark. We must identify what we are going to shoot at, and statistically, that person at your door is likely to be someone who doesn't need to be shot. It pays to give yourself time and light to decide who you're pulling the trigger on. Ideally, I have a lit hallway in front of my front door and I am observing it from a safe place. If someone does gain entry I can identify them as a bad guy, vs my child unexpectedly coming home to visit from college or getting home late or all the other reasons non-threats are shot.

All of these things are small things that, if done differently may have had a factor in producing a different ending.

A Simple and Effective Way This Could Have Ended Differently Would be to …

… communicate.

For the deputy, continuous announcements indicating he was an LEO may have caused a different response from the homeowner. This isn't to say that anyone pounding on your door and claiming to be an LEO should cause you to drop your guard. But if there was some confusion as to who was outside, 2 minutes and a 911 call would have likely done the trick.

The homeowner doesn't lose any tactical advantage by announcing loudly something like “I am the homeowner, I have a gun. I don't know who you are and I am calling 911. Don't come into my home.” He could do this from a position of cover inside the home and wait for any response from the person outside.

In this case, he had another person in the home who could be calling 911 while this unfolds. If you are the only one home, having 911 on the line while you're issuing commands can only help. Ultimately the verbal communication between the deputy and homeowner and identification should have occurred before the shooting, not after.

Our actions do not exist in a vacuum. What we do or don't do influence the final outcome. Being right doesn't take away the pain of being shot or keep you from being mistakenly killed.

Using Tech:

Don't forget that video doorbells/cameras are not expensive and are a great tool. Often you not only see what is going on outside your door but can communicate with anyone there. I use these and think they are invaluable.

Final Takeaways:

Again, this article isn't to assign blame here or there. And you may believe that you should be able to walk around inside your home with a firearm in any manner you so choose. You would be absolutely right, but it doesn't matter much to your family if you end up being shot and killed by mistake.

We can't control other people's actions, so we can't rely on everyone else to do what is right. We can control our own actions and do whatever we can to choose to do those things that are beneficial. Your armed response to that, middle of the night, knock at the door should be worked out now, and not when the incident presents itself.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can better defend yourself and your family inside your home, check out our Complete Home Defense course that is available for download or DVD.

I have decided to include the Critical Incident Community Briefing video which includes the video from the deputy's body-worn camera. Be advised that there are several instances of vulgar language and the homeowner's injuries appear on the video.

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16 Responses to Your Armed Response to the Late Night Knock at the Door Could Get You Killed

  1. John J Bebirian February 27, 2020 at 2:02 pm #

    Excellent article & analysis

    • Matthew Maruster February 27, 2020 at 4:33 pm #

      Thank you John glad you liked it.

    • Matt Kough February 28, 2020 at 4:16 am #

      SSt, I understand the point you’re making. However, I cannot hold the homeowner at fault if he did not want to silhouette himself against a light. As you and I both know from our training and time in the Marine Corps, that presents a juicy Target. And you never know who’s on the other side of the door if they haven’t announced themselves. Semper Fi

      • Matthew Maruster February 28, 2020 at 12:26 pm #

        I agree that we don’t want to silhouette ourselves but we have to think of the context. I study civilian and LEO uses of force and accidental shootings quite a bit. I have found there is a much higher frequency of instances where a homeowner doesn’t ID the person because of darkness and shoots them, only later to find out they were a family member. I can only think of 1 instance where a criminal knocked on a door and just shot the person inside the home because they could see them. Gunfights with criminals at the door usually take place when the homeowner opens the door and then realizes the person is there to harm them and then tries to close the door. I also mentioned that there is no need to go to the door and leave a position of advantage. So having the light on provides you the advantage of being able to see what is going on and from a place of advantage.

        Thanks for asking, and I updated the article to explain my rationale a little more clearly.

  2. cj charlton February 27, 2020 at 2:08 pm #

    Home owner should have told dep.hes lives there.And not open door.He should have called dept so they fan tell dept thwre on the phone wirh resident.

  3. James February 27, 2020 at 3:44 pm #

    It’s Not a Question of how “Much someone knows”!

  4. C.J. Pierce February 27, 2020 at 4:16 pm #

    Wow, I was all set to disagree with you regarding answering the door in the middle of the night while armed, bet then you got to the clear lack of communication on both sides of the door. I couldn’t agree more! That having been said, why do you advocate turning on the inside lights before verifying the name of Officer Friendly outside your door with 911?

    • Matthew Maruster February 27, 2020 at 4:33 pm #

      That is a really good question C.J. It’s my opinion that regardless of who is knocking on my door (LEO or criminal), I want them to know I am home and be able to have a clear and well-lit view of my front door. I say this because, through interviews, burglars have said they are less likely to enter a home if they know someone is home. Now granted a home invasion suspect may have different motives, but criminals sometimes knock on the door or ring a doorbell, just to see if anyone will come to the door. If no one comes or they hear nothing inside, they may feel more motivated to try and get in. I also want to be able to lite the area around my door. If the suspect does force his way in, I want to be able to identify whoever is forcing their way into my home, and see how many and where they may go if the rounds do not stop them immediately at the threshold. Additionally, I have seen stories of instances where a child comes home from college to surprise their parents at say 10PM. The parents hear knicking and maybe the child has a key. On the off chance that anything like this was to play out, I want to be able to clearly identify that this is indeed someone who I don’t know and needs to be shot. I recommend all this be done in conjunction with making announcements and calling 911 from a safe location. I hope that helps clear up my thought process on turning on the light.

  5. Mark Sorrels February 27, 2020 at 6:43 pm #

    Matthew, I can see your point on turning on a light before answering the door in the middle of the night, especially if you are armed and have no idea who is on the other side.
    It seems there were several things that could have been done different by both the homeowner and the deputy, but I wonder if the Sheriff’s department made changes so an incident such as this won’t happen again.
    Since the homeowner was only injured, I’m guessing if he was a licensed concealed carrier, he didn’t lose his gun or his license. Hopefully he also changes the way he answers the door in the middle of the night if it happens again.
    When you mention the possibility of kids coming home late at night, you bring back something that took place at our house several years ago.
    Our son had called his mom and said he wouldn’t be home till late because he was going to bale hay. As it turned out, three hours later, the hay got to tough so he and one of his friends came home, came into the house through the garage and walked into the house, without letting his mom know. She was the only one home, she heard several noises coming from the opposite end of the house, took her gun and stepped into a hallway and had it chambered and ready, when our son realized what was going on. He yelled mom it’s us, she was more scared of the fact she could have shot her own son and his friend, due to the simple fact of the lack of communication. They told her one thing, then instead of calling and telling her that they were coming home, they almost caused a family tragedy.

    • Matthew Maruster February 28, 2020 at 11:47 am #

      Yes Sir, these are the types of situations that caused me to determine that the light is our friend. They occur at a much higher frequency than burglars shooting at a homeowner through a closed door or window. Thanks for the feedback, much appreciated!

  6. LtCol Joe Sucha February 27, 2020 at 8:49 pm #

    I have one question. Under the circumstances described why didn’t the deputy turn on his cruiser’s lights when he pulled into the homeowners driveway (or front of home)? I have been on numerous “ride-a -longs” with a deputy friend. on theree occasions when we have been called to a domestic dispute or suspected home invasion he has always used his lights after stopping in position to observe the home entrance.

  7. Danny R Morrison February 28, 2020 at 9:38 am #

    To begin with, the officer should have been announcing who he was and like LtCol Joe Sucha said, the cruiser should have had the lights on. Having the lights on in your home is not a good idea. The owner knows his way around and doesn’t want the intruder to be able to take advantage of seeing his/her way through the house. If someone has to break in you can bet they don’t have good intentions, to start with. If this guy hadn’t had the lights on the officer wouldn’t have seen the gun and the guy, when he got to the door, could have seen it was the police. Since the was able to see the firearm, the officer should have taken cover until identifying himself. He should know that homeowners can be armed. The officer’s fault in my opinion.

    • Matthew Maruster February 28, 2020 at 12:36 pm #

      There are definitely things the officer could do differently, but I chose to address things the homeowner can control. I would disagree with your idea that you want to keep your house dark whether an intruder is inside or not. More family members are mistakenly shot because it was too dark to identify the person they were shooting. You should always try to be in a position of advantage if you suspect someone is inside your home. Being able to see inside your home and identify who you’re going to potentially kill is always a good thing. Turning on a light is preferable even to using a flashlight. I have cleared many houses and businesses. I learned quickly that sneaking around in the dark even with a flashlight and WML is just not the best way to operate. It is hard or impossible to see everything and much harder to identify people. I updated the article to better explain this rationale.

      Again I totally agree that the officer could have done things differently, but look at the ultimate outcome. Homeowner shot, officer’s use of force deemed justified. Could have easily been homeowner dead, officer’s force deemed justified. I am not counting on the other person, LEO or not to do the right thing.

      I appreciate the feedback and your thoughtful analysis.

  8. Bill Boltz February 28, 2020 at 1:38 pm #

    Excellent article and very helpful to us non-LEOs. I do believe the officer should ID himself to the person inside. That would give the homeowner some insight as to what is happening on the other side of the door. Thanks again for posting this information.

  9. Rahel March 1, 2020 at 8:58 pm #

    Both were in the wrong. The homeowner should have asked who was at his door in the middle of the night and the officer should have identified himself immediately. If both would have been done, the homeowner could have avoided being shot. Lessons learned.

  10. Stanley Jones March 9, 2020 at 6:12 pm #

    I’m a retired LEO….to me this is a case of POOR communication mainly on the deputy’s part… he should’ve identified himself after he ring the bell/ knocked on the door…he identified himself after he shot the homeowner…if he had forced his way into the home without identifying himself the homeowner probably would’ve shot him…communication is key…

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