By Lieutenant Robert Settembre
September 3rd, 2002 was a very special day for Officer Tommy Janssen, serial #2998. Officer Janssen and his family went to the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix to attend the Phoenix Police Department’s quarterly award ceremony. It was also the first time he has worn his police uniform since January 15, 1977. Officer Janssen was going to the awards ceremony to receive the Distinguished Service Award for an incident, which occurred over twenty-five years earlier. Some traditions of the award ceremony were broken on this special night as Officer Janssen was scheduled as the last officer in the program to receive his award. (Traditionally that honor is saved for the Medal of Valor) Tommy nervously waited to be called as the night unfolded as the descriptions of the heroic actions of officers were announced. Finally, at the end of the program it was Officer Janssen’s turn to take the center stage. The emcee read, “You are commended for exceptionally courageous actions on January 15, 1977 as you conducted a traffic stop in the area of 20th Avenue and Roeser Road, Phoenix, Arizona. Although you were critically wounded during the struggle, you continued to subdue the suspect and render him unconscious as backup arrived.” As the circumstances surrounding this award were announced, Officer Janssen’s heroism became evident, as he was the only officer to receive a standing ovation that night.
The emcee gave a brief description of the tragedy and triumph that began on January 15th, 1977. Officer Janssen was the kind of officer that loved doing his job. When he wasn’t busy answering his radio, he was doing on-view police work. On this fateful night, he made a traffic stop of a car occupied by two males. The driver immediately exited the vehicle while Officer Janssen noticed the passenger acting very nervously. He took a closer look and found that the passenger was trying to conceal a baggie of narcotics. The passenger exited the vehicle and tried to swallow the baggie. Tommy began struggling with the suspect and was winning the fight. However, the driver, now able to arm himself with a handgun, shot Officer Janssen in the head, critically wounding him. The shooter then fled the scene.
The first officer to respond to the scene, now retired Sergeant Chuck Copenhaver, was sitting in the audience no doubt recounting this eventful day. He had found Tommy slumped over the suspect he fought with. Officer Janssen was still holding onto the unconscious suspect. Chuck quickly provided lifesaving aid to his brother officer and took the suspect into custody.
Tommy came on the department at 24 years old. He was married for only a year to his wife, Kristi. They had met in college. The first of his four children was only 13 months old at the time of the shooting. Kristi still remembers the knock on the door that night, uniformed officers were at the door an hour after the shooting. Kristi was just grateful that Tommy was alive. She had her sister come over to watch her son while officers sped her off to St. Joseph’s Hospital to be at her husband’s side. Miraculously, Tommy survived the severe injuries from the shooting. Officer Janssen will tell you how lucky he is by comparing his story to that of his friend, Officer Ignachio Conchos, whom along with Detective John Davis were shot to death by a bank robber in 1982. Officer Conchos’ wife was tragically killed in car accident a few months after her husband’s death.
Officer Janssen’s recovery was long and complicated. He was in and out of the hospital for the following year. To make matters more complicated, he the suspects trial was taking place at the same time. Tommy testified at the trial with the help of a departmental hypnotist. The suspect is still doing time and every once in a while, Tommy ends up at his parole hearing.
Officer Janssen returned to work in a light duty capacity in March of 1978. He has served at the South Mountain Precinct his whole career. After the shooting, he and Kristi had many discussions about whether he would stay a police officer. They jointly decided that he would stay on the job. Officer Janssen still reflects on the events surrounding the night of the shooting. His injuries left him partially blind in his left eye and placed him in permanent light-duty position. In spite of it all, Tommy has no regrets about becoming a police officer. He realized that if not him, one his brother officers would have had to face the dangerous criminals, the same type of criminals that officers deal with on a daily basis. Despite his injury, Tommy still qualifies with his service weapon every year. He enjoys going on patrol ride-a-longs, even though he is limited to being an observer. He actually misses his days in patrol.
Tommy and Kristi went to have three additional children after the shooting. Tommy says he is very lucky to have Kristi in his life and he is grateful to her and his children for always being there for his support. He is always talking about how proud he is of his family. Kristi, on the other hand, will tell you how Tommy is a wonderful husband and father.
In the 27 years since the incident, Officer Janssen has continued serve the Phoenix Police Department with dignity and pride and have been an inspiration to all who know and respect him. In all those years, Officer Janssen demonstrated a highly motivated and positive work ethic that served as inspiration to all that serve with him.
Is spite of all the pain, and drastic changes caused by the shooting, Tommy will still tell you, “Everyday is a good day.”