When Moments of Sheer Terror Arise, Are You prepared?
I’ve been blessed to teach a one-day Blue Courage class with Michael at Florida International University for FIU and Miami-Dade police officers. Training the officers has spanned over six weeks. FIU has been a gracious host - namely the training sergeant, Jose Ramirez. He has gone out of his way to ensure we have everything we need for our training endeavors. He has provided one thing in particular that I didn’t realize I needed. On the first day we arrived, we kicked off the eight-hour class and were met with a piping hot Cuban coffee delivery. Sgt. Ramirez handed me a tiny cup the size of a shot glass, and my first thought was, “Is that all?” I am a coffee fanatic and can put away a venti-sized java, so this felt (dare I say) amateurish. I kept these thoughts to myself and graciously accepted the swallow of coffee as a gracious guest in their police department.
Many misunderstandings stem from misplaced expectations and assumptions in life, and Cuban coffee in a thimble is one of them.
It’s jet fuel. Literally.
I’m notoriously known as a fast talker — especially when I’m passionate about a topic. Training cops about cop things is my passion, so I was already energized before the Cuban coffee. I finished the first 8-hour training class in 2 hours. Not actually, but you get the point. As if that weren’t enough, Sgt. Ramirez takes his sustenance very seriously, so on the first day of training, he took us to an excellent Cuban restaurant in Miami-Dade during our lunch break. We assumed that was a stand-alone event, but we dined on Cuban cuisine each day of training. I am now in a Pavlovian ritual where I associate Cuban coffee and cooking with FIU. It’s not a bad problem to have.
Our fourth training session was underway, and I was in the middle of teaching the “resilience” portion of the curriculum when Sgt. Ramirez poked his head in the classroom. I knew what that meant, and I glanced at my watch to verify. It was 11:30 AM, and it was time. I stopped mid-sentence and declared “LUNCH,” and dismissed the officers.
Michael and I jumped into Sgt. Ramirez’s squad car and we were off on another Cuban cuisine adventure. The radio chirped only seconds into our journey, and I heard garbled screaming that I couldn’t make out. “An officer has been shot,” Ramirez stoically reported. The words hung in the car for me similarly when I heard those exact words in my own city in 2019 during an active shooter situation. It was eerily familiar, and I had a moment where I was catapulted back to the day that five of my officers were shot. I snapped back into the present moment and paid close attention to the radio traffic. We learned another officer was hit. Michael was in the front seat, and I could tell he was also transported back to his days in uniform and that familiar adrenaline dump when responding to a dire incident.
I focused on the radio traffic as Sgt. Ramirez calmly and skillfully ran lights and siren to the scene. We discovered that the officers were shot right in front of the Miami-Dade police department, so we initially deducted it was an ambush on the officers. As we arrived on the scene, it became clear that was not the case based on the placement of the shooter’s vehicle in relation to the squad car. I noted the sea of uniforms that responded to the scene. Again, the similarity of the incident in my city was prevalent. When there is an active shooter or an officer hit, first responders go. I was in a juxtaposition because my instinct was to jump out of the car and start looking for the shooter, who was still at large. Yet, the reality struck that I am no longer a cop. I retired just two months earlier and the void where my badge used to be was gaping. Furthermore, this was not my city, and the last thing I wanted was to be in the way. Michael and I shared a look that communicated that he felt the same, and we took a step back so the officers could do their job. And they did. Shortly after our arrival, we heard, “SHOOTER IS DOWN.” I breathed the same sigh of relief I did when I heard similar words declared when the man who shot my officers was down.
As a spectator, I was focused on the squad car that was streaked with the officer’s blood. Both officers were transported to the hospital, and we learned that they were going to survive. This wasn’t my city, and these weren’t my cops. But they are my tribe. My family.
Just before we left for lunch, I was lecturing on preparation to the officers. I talked about the fact that policing is made up of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. I preached about how these moments that arise had better find them prepared to respond to that which would be the most significant of their lives. When they are called upon to stop a violent act or to protect themselves or others from harm, they must be ready to answer that call. As Churchill eloquently stated, “what a tragedy should that moment find them unprepared..”
Moments later, the words would manifest into reality.
Officer Daniel Vilarchao and Officer Johnny Beutelus were prepared. A bulletproof vest spared Beutelus from getting shot in the chest, but he was shot in the leg and the arm. He still needs surgery since there is a bullet still lodged in his arm, but he will survive. Vilarchao was injured in the face during the shooting.
Officer Vilarchao, the rookie of the two, chased the offender and returned fire, killing him. Whether you have 6 months on the job or 16 years, these moments require clear thinking and tactical precision — all of what we teach at Blue Courage.
We never made it to that Cuban restaurant as Sgt. Ramirez intended, but we stopped to grab a cup of Cuban coffee on our way back to the PD and raised the tiny (but powerful) cup to the officers.
Chief of Police (Ret.)
Blue Courage Educator
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