Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.
Josh Hilling, a police officer in Glendale, Ohio, a small town near Cincinnati, shot a man in the stomach on March 29. Hilling, 30, spotted Javier Pablo Aleman, 46, walking on the side of the highway and stopped to ask him for ID. During a pat down, Aleman pulled out a knife, and Hilling responded by firing one shot. Despite the wound, Aleman chased Hilling while shouting, "Kill me. Kill me."
Hilling did not fire a second round, though, and Aleman survived. The cop's body camera recorded the confrontation, and the video received tens of thousands of hits, getting picked up by a number of news outlets.
Hilling later learned that Aleman was wanted for murder; the man was accused of stabbing his landlord in Baltimore. Hilling had only been a full-time cop with the department for under three months when the shooting took place. This is the story of that day.
I was doing my usual patrol. It was lunchtime, about 1:30, so I decided to grab something to eat. When I was on southbound I-75, looking for a little fast-food joint, I noticed a guy walking on the side of the highway. I got on my police radio and let my partner know I was pulling over to make contact with the man. My original thought was to stop, see where this guy was headed, and figure out what I could do to help him. It's not safe for him to be up there walking on the highway, and it's not safe for drivers, either.
I got out of my cruiser with the lights on, approached him, and started asking the typical police questions: What's your name? Where you from? Where you heading? What brings you up here on the highway? We began to have what I would consider a normal conversation; he didn't seem excited—he didn't seem anxious, even.
But after starting to give me a name, he stopped, and then started giving a different name. I asked if he had any ID on him; he said no. I asked him if he had a social security number; he said no. At this point, I just felt something was a little off. I feel uncomfortable when I don't have something in my hand that tells me who somebody is.
He had a large backpack on, so I asked him if there was anything in there I needed to know about. He said no—just some dirty clothes—and handed it over to me. I got on our county radio to inform all of the surrounding agencies where I was and what I was doing. That's when the gentleman stuck his hands in his pockets, and I asked him to remove them. He did, voluntarily, with no problem. After that, I went ahead and decided that I was going to pat him down for officer safety. I asked him to approach the back of my cruiser and put his hands on the vehicle. I wanted to make sure that he didn't have a gun, a knife, a needle, weapons of mass destruction—anything that could be harmful to me or himself or others.
I was going to put him into my cruiser and give him a ride. But once he's in my cruiser, he becomes my responsibility and has access to me. So I need to be safe about it. He wouldn't have been under arrest; he wasn't going to be detained. I was simply going to give him a lift.
He wasn't putting his hands up when I approached him for the pat down, so I went to put my hand on his shoulder. He turned and pulled away. Suddenly he grabbed a large knife out of his waistband and started coming at me. I drew my weapon and pointed it at him. Once I was able to focus and notice that he had a knife in his hand, I fired one round, striking him in his abdomen. He immediately went down. I continued to keep my gun on him, backing up to create more distance. I also got on the radio and asked for help.
There were two moments during that three minutes and 20 some-odd seconds that I will never forget. They will stay with me the rest of my life.
The first is when I put it together that he had a knife, and he was going to try to harm me. My adrenaline went through the roof; I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was scared for my life.
The second moment is right after I pulled that trigger. There was something that came over me that made me stop and think, instead of just reacting. What do I do next?The first thing that popped into my head was: Create distance between you and this person—who is trying to hurt you—and get help.
He continuously yelled, "Kill me. Kill me. Kill me." He also screamed, "I'm going to kill you." My main focus was not only him, but the traffic. Cars slowed down, and I continued to give him verbal commands to drop the knife, to stay down. But he kept coming.
My backup arrived shortly after, which obviously drew his focus. I continued to give verbal commands, and so did my immediate partner. At that point, officers from other agencies were in play. We shut down the highway and kept giving him commands, but he still wasn't listening. Eventually, an officer from another police department Tased him, and he went down. That's when we took him into custody.
There was an investigation, and I had to turn in my body cam for evidence, along with my duty weapon to be logged. They asked me if I would be willing to make a statement about what happened, but I didn't do that immediately. I went back in the next day, when I was able to decompress and calm down and take in the gravity of the situation. They advised me that the man was wanted in Baltimore County, Maryland, for homicide.
I had no idea who this guy was. I didn't comprehend or understand why the situation went the way that it did. I had no idea who I shot and why it came to this.
I had worked really hard to get a full-time job to support my family. I didn't want anything taken from me—our livelihood, how we live. We're comfortable, and we're happy. I didn't want to see all that disappear overnight, even though I believed I did everything in my power the right way.
When something like this happens, it affects everybody you're in touch with: my friends, family, everyone. A week later after the shooting, a press conference was scheduled, and my body cam footage was released. It was stressful waiting for it, because that press conference was either going to be: I did something wrong, or I'm cleared of any wrongdoing.
When the footage came out, it went viral, garnering thousands of hits on YouTube and national attention. That was really hard for me to stomach: I didn't like my name and my face being out everywhere.
The fact is you have no clue how you're going to react until you're in that situation. I've watched many videos where officers do shoot more than once. I can't Monday-morning quarterback what they did, but I can understand the stress level they were under.
But to this day, I still have to live with the fact that I shot someone. If I had killed him, I would have to live with the fact that I had taken someone's life.
This is something that will never go away. It's always going to be part of my identity. Twenty years from now, my name could be brought up, or Glendale Police Department could be brought up, and someone might be like, "Oh, didn't they have an officer who shot someone? Were you there when that happened?"
"Was that you?"
Illustration by John Lee