--It is horrible to think about in any business but for law enforcement it is especially difficult to consider. But, we are no different than any other person.--
Thursday, September 18, 2014
What started out as a late afternoon meeting on Feb. 16, 2012, at the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Long Beach, Calif., field office, with his supervisor and one of his employees, ended in gunfire, death and heroism for HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Perry Woo. Deputy Special Agent in Charge (DSAC) Kevin Kozak, a 30-year veteran of Customs and HSI, was shot seven times in his office by HSI Supervisory Special Agent Ezequiel “Zeke” Garcia.
Woo shot Garcia as a last resort in Kozak’s office in the Glenn M. Anderson Federal Building. In the end, Kozak survived his wounds, Garcia died at the scene and Woo came away from the event knowing that his training and his will to survive made the difference in a tragic situation.
Woo told his story of survival, involving “blue on blue” workplace violence—when a law enforcement officer is the perpetrator—in August 2013 at the annual conference for the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP), in Anaheim, Calif. He called it “A Day I Could Have Died.” Woo, with 20 years of law enforcement experience as a police officer and special agent, previously received several commendations for his federal undercover work and his expertise in child exploitation crimes in Southeast Asia with the U.S. Customs Service. This was all prior to this agency being consolidated into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the time of the incident, Kozak was one of two DSACs in charge for the HSI Los Angeles field office. Woo worked for Kozak for six years. Garcia had worked for Kozak for six years and Woo for six months. Garcia had worked for the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service since 1988 and this agency was also consolidated into DHS. Woo had been a fellow group supervisor with Garcia prior to his own promotion and both had a good working relationship. He had tried to help Garcia cope with several on- and off-the-job stressors for several months, even just two days before the meeting that ended in gunfire. Although Garcia was facing a number of issues, both personally and professionally, he gave no indication to Woo or Kozak that he was targeting Kozak for an attack.
This parallels workplace violence and assassination research from the U.S. Secret Service’s 1998 study on Protective Intelligence and Threat Assessment Investigations, as part of its Exceptional Case Study Project, written by USSS psychologist Dr. Robert Fein and USSS SSA Bryan Vossekuil: Perpetrators who want to carry out their attacks don’t warn the target directly. If they do make threats, they are said to a third-party, like a family member, a friend or a co-worker. There is no evidence that Garcia voiced any threats to his colleagues about shooting Kozak.
Further, in cases of blue on blue violence, where a law enforcement officer plans to kill other armed colleagues, there is often extraordinary vigilance on the part of the perpetrator not to reveal any part of his plan, so they are less likely to be stopped. Just like few law enforcement officers warn their family or co-workers prior to their suicides, workplace violence perpetrators who happen to be cops know they can be foiled if they discuss their plans. (Police suicides are more common than we like to believe—more than 180 per year—which poses the disturbing question, “How many police suicides could have actually started as a workplace violence incident at the police station?”)
Just two days before the shooting—Valentine’s Day—Woo spent several hours in his office with Garcia, offering him support and giving him options for his career. Garcia gave no warning signs to Woo about his intentions; in fact, both left the office at 7:30 p.m. and ended their meeting with a friendly handshake.
Woo asked Kozak to help with a coaching meeting with Garcia on February 16. While seated in front of Kozak’s desk, a verbal confrontation quickly erupted between Kozak and Garcia. Garcia then pulled his service handgun from his waistband holster and fired multiple rounds at Kozak, striking him in the arms, legs and torso. Woo immediately wrestled with Garcia for control of his handgun, but Garcia continued shooting erratically at Kozak. Woo gained control of the barrel of Garcia’s handgun and told Garcia to stop, but Garcia muttered, “It’s too late” and attempted to grab Woo’s holstered handgun.
Woo defended his weapon and as a last resort, fired on Garcia, ending the threat to him and his boss. “I reverted to my training,” he said. “I holstered my weapon, secured Garcia’s handgun and rendered first-aid to Mr. Kozak by wrapping his injured hand and back with gym clothing laying nearby. Then I opened the office door so first responders could help.”
The Long Beach Police Department, along with Los Angeles police officers and HSI agents already inside the building, responded to the scene. As soon as medical and police help arrived, Woo said he relinquished scene command, knowing he was in a crime scene, and went into an adjoining conference room to prepare himself for post critical incident procedures.
His entry into the difficult world of an officer-involved shooting began.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the shooting, classifying it as an incident of workplace violence. After a year-long inquiry, they cleared Woo in the incident, saying his actions were justified based on the dangerousness of Garcia’s actions toward Kozak and himself.
Kozak continues to recover from his gunshot wounds, as does Woo, who injured his shoulder and tore ligaments in his knee during his fight with Garcia. “I drew my firearm when Garcia failed to surrender his handgun—clearly he was not going to stop. I was not going to die that day and I was not going to let Mr. Kozak die that day either.”
Woo discussed some of the aspects of his continuing post-traumatic stress about the incident with the ATAP conference audience, saying he still has some continuing symptoms and is saddened anytime a mass shooting erupts, being reminded of what happened based on seeing people, items or places associated with his incident.
Woo credits his family, friends, therapists, HSI leadership and his police colleagues for their continuing emotional support. He said that one of the factors in his shooting that served as an obstacle to his recovery was the relentless media coverage of the event, especially in southern California. While he understood that the media had its job to do, in this era of nonstop coverage and critiques of events where they have little information and few of the facts, their immediate assessment was often harsh, one-sided or plain wrong.
The influence of social media was a factor in his case, as well. The public, and people inside DHS in particular, made a number of comments on Internet sites. This barrage of feedback in these types of events–both positive and negative–can interfere with survivors' abilities to cope with the trauma of their situations.
"Some people blogged that I either shot too soon or not soon enough, Woo said. The reality was that I tried to save both of them and it was hand-to-hand combat to the death. I dealt with a deadly situation that I didn’t cause, and I was forced to shoot a fellow special agent in order to save another special agent, which ultimately prevented further deaths in the office.”
Today, Woo is on detail at HSI headquarters in Washington, D.C., as the Supervisory Special Agent for International Operations.
As a survivor of a critical incident, a psychologically traumatic event and a workplace violence shooting involving a fellow special agent he knew, Woo feels he is in a unique position to write policy and provide assistance and support to others at his agency, the DHS and other federal law enforcement agencies. He is a strong believer and is active in his agency’s programs in workplace violence, peer support, critical incident planning, effective media management and the treatment and care for agents who have been in shootings.
While this event was horrific, it was also very unique. While incidents of workplace violence involving current or former employees make the news with alarming frequency today, those involving law enforcement officers are still quite rare. But the impact of that day will affect Woo and Kozak for the rest of their lives.
NOTE: The views in this article do not represent the views or policy of DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), HSI or any part of the Federal government.