Published June 16, 2016
By Todd Bensman
I enjoyed the honor of nominating Garland Police Department Officer Gregory Stevens for the Texas Department of Public Safety’s “Director’s Award,” the agency’s highest for non-DPS personnel, for his heroic actions of May 3, 2015 and then the satisfaction of witnessing his receipt of it to a crowded, standing ovation. It happened at DPS headquarters this week in front of a star-struck Public Safety Commission, which was holding its monthly meeting.
A little more than a year ago, Officer Stevens stood his ground when ISIS-inspired terrorists Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi jumped out of their car with a plan to murder everyone they could at the constitutionally protected free-speech event, the”Draw the Prophet Mohammed” cartoon contest in Garland. But with AR-15 rifles, body armor, and a thousand rounds of ammunition, Soofi and Simpson attacked the very wrong cop first. Gregory Stevens was the only armed officer guarding this particular entrance to the Garland Independent School District’s Curtis Caldwell Center grounds where the free-speech cartoon contest event was wrapping up. Rather than to take cover when Soofi and Simpson opened fire on him, the highly outgunned 38-year veteran, who was 59 at the time, drew his service weapon – a Glock .45 (which he still carries and showed to me). Under fire, he proceeded to systematically unleash that Glock on both attackers while advancing all the way to within five yards of the dead or dying terrorists.
This selfless bravery saved the lives of countless citizens and officers – and left the world better off with two fewer ISIS-loving crazies who would slaughter people over drawings and frighten the rest of us from the First Amendment. Simpson and Soofi are two dead illiberal losers. But Officer Stevens emerged from the fray a living national hero, and after the award ceremony, I got to break bread with him away from the crowd for a couple of hours and hear the whole story, one on one.
I drove out with Officer Stevens and his immediate family to a small catfish diner in the Austin suburb of Phlugerville. He agreed to this meal with me, knowing I was going to ask him for every detail of a story that remained largely under wraps until very recently, due to security concerns that kept him out of any limelight. He graciously talked away, putting technicolor to a story I’d wanted to hear for more than a year. He even drew it out for me on a table napkin so that I could understand the shooting angles. All told, Officer Stevens emptied one magazine that held 13 rounds, plus a 14th in the chamber, dropped the empty and snapped another one in to fire one last round, which was to make one of the downed terrorists stop “wriggling around.”
He feels justifiably proud of what he did that day, as am I, saying he knew it could have just as easily been him they had killed. Officer Stevens told me he believed his God was with him that evening. I believe their God abandoned them.
Officer Stevens grew up in Austin but, interestingly, was born in Canada and retains dual citizenship. He can be forgiven the Canadian thing. He wanted to be a cop since he was a small boy and has no interest in retiring after four decades in the game. He had never been in a shooting scrape until this. Also, he wasn’t particularly a marksman or gun enthusiast, just regularly trained as any officer, dutifully attending mandatory qualifiers. He did go through basic SWAT training 11 years ago but only to be a SWAT team hostage negotiator, not a SWAT operator. In the case of Simpson and Soofi, Officer Stevens quipped that sometimes negotiation is not the right option.
I won’t spoil his story here, except to say that after he gunned down the terrorists, a SWAT team rolled up with an armored vehicle. He was told to move away from the bodies and to take cover behind the armored vehicle. Then, snipers made single head shots at each body to, as Officer Stevens put it, “make sure.” Worried that other attackers were coming, site commanders ordered Officer Stevens and some other officers to man a different perimeter on the other side of the complex. One SWAT officer tossed him an extra magazine to replace the empty he’d left at the battle. It wasn’t until much later that they pulled him off the line and let him rest and be interviewed inside a command motor vehicle.
For a long time, he had to remain anonymous, his story untold, for security reasons. If the bad guys knew who he was, they’d come after him. But then there was a federal trial in Phoenix in March, and Officer Stevens was called as the prosecution’s top witness. That outed him, so that’s when I checked to see if it was ok to nominate him for the Director’s Award.
President Obama beat us to the punch. Before we could get to him, just last month, the President bestowed upon Officer Stevens the Law Enforcement Medal of Valor, #104.
He happened to have the medal in the car, to show Austin relatives, and he went out to get it for me to see. He described his private meeting with the President, for whom he had not voted, and said he had been mightily impressed by Obama’s kind words and genuinely expressed appreciation for his deed.
Officer Stevens is genuinely touched by the attention he is receiving. His own department secretly bestowed a beautiful Medal of Valor and quietly declared him “Officer of the Year.” When describing a different award he recently received from the Sons of the American Revolution, he could not refrain from watering up, daubing at a tear with the napkin on which he had diagrammed his battle.
Officer Stevens is still on his job as a traffic cop. Security concerns remain, so his chain of command still prohibits him from doing interviews in major media outlets, all of which are lined up. He dreads the thought of retiring because he’d lose the community of law enforcement and purpose that has sustained him happily as a working street cop all these years. And we’d lose one of the best traffic cops the country has ever known.
His signed photo will always remain on my office walls, to remind me of why I do this job.