On His Feet, On The Street

Less than two years after a sniper's bullet nearly tore off his leg, Detective Jeff Dauer is back on the Gang Squad, cruising Phoenix's toughest turf

The Gang Squad team members of Dauer and Puskar introduce themselves to the driver of an illegally parked car.

It's almost midnight on a humid Saturday in September, in the mazelike, crime-heavy southeast Phoenix subdivision known as the Townhouses. The cops step out of their car--a ratty-looking Chevy with 115,000 miles on it--and approach the other, equally battered vehicle.

Its driver, a 21-year-old man named Joseph, sets the tone for the encounter.
"All this crack over here, people dyin' every night, and you're gonna hassle us for this shit?" Joseph grunts, after the officers ask to see his driver's license and registration. "Go ahead, search us. We ain't got no fuckin' weapons. What the fuck you doin'?"

"I'm doin' police work," detective Jeff Dauer responds evenly. "You have a license or don't you?"

Joseph hems and haws, then says that some asshole judge suspended it a while back.

Detective Mike Puskar handcuffs Joseph and leads him to the unmarked police car. Joseph's attitude has earned him a free ride to the Madison Street Jail.

One of Joseph's passengers--a young woman holding her 10-day-old infant--complains loudly about the interruption of her evening's activities.

"You ain't calling the shots at the moment, ma'am," Puskar explains, with a hint of whimsy in his voice.

"You ain't either," the woman spits back.
"Apparently I am."
Dauer jumps in.
"You ever been a police officer in the city of Phoenix?" he asks the woman.
"No, but my cousin was."

"That doesn't count. Don't you go citing chapter and verse on the law, okay?"

"Sheeeeit," the woman concludes. "You can't be taking him to jail on this crap. You bein' pigs. That's why all them po-lice are gettin' shot at and killed. Know what I mean?"

Jeff Dauer knows exactly what she means.
On November 4, 1994, as Dauer made a routine traffic stop much like this one, a gangbanger named Benny "Big Face" Johnson aimed at him through the scope of a hunting rifle and fired once from about 100 yards.

The 30.06 slug shattered the officer's lower left leg, leaving it dangling by little more than a thread.

Dauer almost bled to death on the street near 19th Avenue and Broadway. The mutilated leg seemed destined for amputation below the knee. Doctors at Good Samaritan Hospital's emergency room delayed amputation only after Dauer implored them to spare his leg.

Dauer's stellar career as a field officer seemed over. Nobody would have blamed him if he'd taken medical retirement and moved to his life's next phase.

But Dauer had no intention of quitting the police force, at least not without a fight. Within a year or so, he'd undergo nine surgeries to repair the ruined leg; more physical therapy and more operations are likely.

Remarkably and without fanfare a few months ago, Dauer returned to the 29-member Gang Squad and to Phoenix's toughest streets.

Dauer doesn't like to talk much about his bum leg, preferring to describe it with painfully wry phrases such as, "I won't be dunking anytime soon."

Only when prodded will he admit: "Okay. It feels like I'm carrying a five-pound ankle weight at all times. I can move my foot about one inch, that's it. I wear a compression sock for swelling. It throbs a lot. It's always there."

Despite all that, Dauer walks with only a slight limp. If not for his specially constructed shoe, you wouldn't guess he's suffering anything worse than a twisted ankle.

"I know most people thought there was no way in hell I'd get back to the street," he says. "But I love it out there, love working to make things a little safer for the good people. I definitely have a stubborn streak in me. I'll hang it up when I want to hang it up."

Not many years ago, the top cops at the Phoenix Police Department wouldn't publicly acknowledge the existence of gangs in their fair city. That changed in the late 1980s, as gangbangers increasingly staked their claims in beleaguered Phoenix neighborhoods with repeated acts of violence and intimidation.

The Phoenix police formed its Gang Squad in 1990. It was designed to be passive yet visible: Its officers hover in unmarked cars, but also interact frequently with residents--suspected gang members and law-abiding citizens alike.

The squad has faced occasional heat from community activists and some politicians, who say it unjustly targets minorities. It also must co-exist with Gang Intelligence and Team Enforcement Mission, a multiagency state antigang task force. GITEM agents are known to sweep into a gang-infested area for an evening or two, make highly publicized arrests (often on outstanding warrants) and then split for parts unknown to tote up impressive-sounding statistics.

The PPD Gang Squad takes the opposite approach: Its officers want everyone--good and bad guys--to understand that they're in the game for the long haul, night in and night out.

One neighborhood of its continued focus is bounded by 15th Avenue, 23rd Avenue, Southern Avenue, and Broadway Road. For years, according to the Gang Squad, that area has been dominated by a gang called the Lindo Park Crips.

It was in that neighborhood that Jeff Dauer and his then-partner Rob Handy were riding about 9:30 p.m., November 4, 1994. It was only Dauer's third shift with the Gang Squad after four years on patrol.

As they pulled over a brown Monte Carlo at 19th Avenue and Hidalgo to converse with some suspected gang members, the officers were wary. A month earlier, a sniper had shot Officer Bill Martin in the arm near 19th Avenue and Southern. Another gunshot that night had narrowly missed another officer.

Word on the street was that the cops could expect more sniper attacks.
Dauer and Handy were in an unmarked Chevy Caprice, dressed in customary autumn garb--sweat shirts emblazoned with bright letters front and back that said "GANG SQUAD."

Handy asked the Monte Carlo's driver if he could snap a Polaroid of him, a typical Gang Squad procedure. The driver consented, and walked to the rear of the Caprice to pose. Dauer chatted easily a few feet away with one of the car's passengers.

All in all, it looked like a forgettable stop on a forgettable night.
Then, a shot rang out. Everyone dropped to the ground.
Handy heard a "high-pitched shattering sound," which he believed was a car window. Actually, it was his partner's left leg that had exploded.

Dauer was lying on his back in the street holding the leg, which was bleeding profusely. He wouldn't budge when Handy attempted to tug him to safety.

Handy says Dauer told him, "'Don't move me. My leg will fall off.' That was the point at which the seriousness of the injury struck me."

It still eats at Handy--now a sergeant--that he couldn't return fire, couldn't do more to protect his pal. What he did do, however, was heroic.

First, he summoned help with a 999 radio call, police code for "Officer down." Then, not knowing if he would be the sniper's next victim, Handy used his sweat shirt to make a tourniquet below Dauer's knee.

But the blood continued to seep onto the street. Working instinctively, Handy grabbed Dauer's mangled leg with both hands, straddled it with his own two knees and squeezed for dear life.

Dauer recalls: "I thought the leg was already detached, but doing the job was still going on in my mind. I'm talking back and forth with Rob, trying to set up a perimeter to get the shooter. I was trying to control my breathing--calm myself down. I remember seeing a big chunk of bone and thinking, 'Someone ought to do something with that.' Weird stuff. Then things started getting blurry."

An army of officers began to assemble. By then, Dauer was on the verge of unconsciousness and feeling less and less pain--a sign of shock. Handy helped lift Dauer onto a gurney, and Phoenix firefighters sped off to Good Sam.

A few blocks away, a resident who had heard all the sirens looked outside and saw a white sports car pull up and park across the street. No one got out of the vehicle, and the resident called 911 to report it.

As a Phoenix patrolman approached the car, it took off, with the police in close pursuit. Several blocks away, the driver abandoned the car and fled on foot. Gang Squad members soon found Benjamin Lloyd Johnson cowering in a shed, and arrested him.

In his car, investigators found a 30.06 hunting rifle equipped with a telescopic sight. Testing later uncovered Johnson's fingerprints on the scope.

Johnson confessed to nothing, saying only: "You guys talking about a shooting or something? I been shooting all day at the range with my brothers. I got five witnesses."

The Gang Squad knew Johnson well. He'd been known for years as a leader of the Lindo Park Crips, and long had expressed an antipathy toward police officers. In return, they stopped him often, mostly just to let him know they were around.

Two weeks earlier, Phoenix police had had a shootout with Johnson's cousin Melvin Robertson during a crack-cocaine-fueled clash in South Phoenix. Robertson, a Lindo Park Crip, wounded two officers and fatally shot a police dog before police shot and killed him.

During the hours-long stand-off, an officer who knew Johnson warned him to stay cool. Dauer, who was in training for the Gang Squad, stood by as the other cop conversed with Johnson. He recalls the moment as his lone contact with the man who shot him.

Within days after the shootout, the cops heard rumors that "Big Face" was talking about avenging his late cousin. At the time, he may have been feeling a bit invincible.

In 1992, Johnson had beaten raps in separate aggravated-assault cases--one by acquittal at trial and the other when prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges. (A defense attorney in the earlier trial listed Charles Barkley as a "character" witness. Sir Charles wasn't called to testify, and his connection to Johnson, if any, is unknown.)

As November 1994 dragged past, detectives patched together a sound circumstantial case against Johnson.

Jeff Dauer, meanwhile, lay in a bed at Good Sam, wondering if he was going to lose his leg and, with it, his career as a street cop.

Doctors at first reckoned that Jeff Dauer's leg was beyond salvaging.
"I'm in the ER and I overhear a doc say, 'Let's prepare him for amputation,'" he says. "I told him, 'Don't take it, don't take it. Please. Give it a chance.' I was thinking about science and the things they might be able to do in five or ten years. I was thinking there was no way the department would let a one-legged guy back on the street."

Dr. Michael Lucero--the cousin of a Phoenix cop--inserted a steel rod into Dauer's shredded leg that long night at Good Sam. Doctors John Corey and Vincent Russo agreed to perform the skin/muscle grafts and the bone work, respectively, during the months ahead, but made no guarantees.

"It was almost harder after the initial touch-and-go part," Dauer says. "The doctors told me that six months could go by and they'd have to take the leg if things didn't go right."

Dr. Russo, one of the state's foremost practitioners of bone-lengthening and regeneration, explains:"His tibia bone was totally smashed, with just a little bone left on top and bottom. What I did was slowly move the remaining bone together--regenerating it, actually--in a very intensive treatment."

Russo says that complications during the regeneration process--especially infection--are commonplace.

"It's not for everybody," he says. "You almost have to be someone of Jeff Dauer's personality profile, a real go-getter. He didn't utilize pain medication during this, and he kept a great attitude. But I still never anticipated he'd be able to return to his previous work."

During his rehabilitation, Dauer had a rare opportunity to reflect on where he'd been and where he wanted to go.

Police work hadn't been inevitable. He grew up in Winchester, Indiana, a town of 5,000 about an hour northeast of Indianapolis. His father was an auto mechanic, his mother a factory clerk. He has one sibling, an older sister.

Dauer describes himself as a typical Hoosier--a sports fanatic who sees a ball field or a basketball court as heaven. He wasn't keen on studying, and after his graduation from high school in 1982, Dauer worked for a few years as a machine operator at the factory that employed his mother.

He enrolled at Ball State University in nearby Muncie, but dropped out during his sophomore year. Dauer moved to North Carolina with his first wife in the late 1980s, where he toiled, among other places, in a sheet-metal factory.

Still seeking direction in his life, Dauer in 1990 migrated to Arizona from North Carolina, where his in-laws lived. He learned that the Phoenix Police Department was hiring. The job interested him.

"Becoming an officer wasn't an obsession with me," he recalls, "but I'm not the kind of guy who likes to sit in the office and punch a clock. I get bored real easy. It just started to sound like a cool possibility."

After successfully completing the police academy, Dauer became a Phoenix patrolman in December 1990. He requested and received an assignment in the often rough-and-tumble South Mountain Precinct.

"I heard it had the most action and it was the place to be if you're eager to learn things quickly," Dauer says. "You just ride the radio, waitin' for something to happen, which it always does. I saw so many dead bodies in such a short period of time. It was a lot of growing up in a hurry."

Dauer's small-town, white-bread upbringing was the antithesis of the urban multicultural milieu that confronted him. He listened as other officers--many of them Valley natives--talked the street talk of their clientele.

But as he gained experience, Dauer learned that just being himself was his best bet.

"I like to laugh whenever I can," he says, "try to keep things as light as possible on the street. At the same time, I always show respect to those who show some to me. That's not too much to ask, is it? But there also comes a time when you have to be tough and hold your ground. It's a balancing act."

After almost four years in patrol, his supervisors encouraged him to apply for the highly competitive Gang Squad.

"The most important thing I look for is maturity," says Phoenix police commander Ralph Griffith, "and Jeff has that, along with lots of experience. You're dealing with gangbangers all night, situation after situation. All the good work we do can be destroyed in one evening if someone does something stupid."

Dauer says he wasn't sure he wanted to leave his patrol beat, but tested for the squad and aced it.

"Going into Gangs," he says, "I said to myself, 'If it doesn't work out for some reason and my uniform still fits, I'll go back to patrol in a second.' Then I got shot, just when I was getting my feet wet. I figured I owed it to myself and everyone to try to get back out there."

Doctors allowed Dauer to go home two weeks after Benny Johnson shot him. Recently divorced, he spent hour after hour listening to his police scanner. As he was forced to return to the hospital repeatedly for surgeries, he sometimes wondered if it was worth it.

"It's impossible to be up all the time," Dauer says. "Whenever I headed toward the dumps, I made myself think of why I was doing this, my goal, which was to do what I had been doing when the guy got me."

Commander Griffith--who heads the department's organized-crime unit--had visited Dauer at the hospital on the night of the shooting. He says he never suspected the injured officer would return to the streets.

"Even with Jeff's tenacity," Griffith says, "I personally felt he wouldn't ever be walking again, much less doing police work. It says a lot about a person that he set a goal and fought through the pain and frustration to achieve that goal, whatever it took."

Dauer got an unexpected boost about four months after the shooting when his supervisors asked him if he'd sit for an interview with a Phoenix Fire Department employee named Rebecca Fenimore. The subject was police- and fire-personnel interaction during crises. Dauer and Fenimore clicked, and Dauer called to reserve a copy of the final product.

"She suggested that we have lunch before that," he deadpans.
The couple was married last January.
Dauer returned to work in July 1995, with four halos and 12 pins holding his leg together. He did busy work and computer research for several months, happy for once with a desk job.

But Dauer longed to be back outside on the street, longed for the banter with his fellow Gang Squad members. Last May 13, he finally got the go-ahead to return to full duty.

At first, Dauer says, some peers treated him with kid gloves. He didn't like it, but understood.

"It's normal to tell your injured friend not to do too much, not to go too fast," Dauer says. "But I already knew I have limitations, and I'm not macho enough to try to do things--like chase someone for 100 yards--that I can't do. I want to be treated like everyone else, because I pretty much am."

That his comrades have started to needle him again delights Dauer. A recent example, courtesy of current partner Mike Puskar: "You're slow and white and used to have an uncanny shooting touch. Now you're just slow."

Dauer breaks into a huge grin at mention of the friendly jibe.
"I made my peace with what happened to me a long time ago," he says. "It happened, and I'm glad it was me getting shot instead of Rob. I don't understand what drove Benny to shoot me, but I don't really hate him. He's ultimately just a stupid, violent coward. I guess I'm just more aware now that there are a lot of things out there that can go bump in the night."

On September 26, a Maricopa County jury convicted Benny Johnson of attempted murder and other charges.

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