Being a cop is not a particularly easy job, nor is it a very safe one. It is a fortunate person indeed who stumbles onto a robbery, gets shot in the head and lives to tell about it.
Just such an incident won Officer Charles W. Arnett of the Forest Heights police department the 1982 officer of the year award from the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 9, which represents most municipal, sheriff and fire investigators in Prince George's County.
The drama began just before 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 11. Arnett, 31, was off duty and was taking his daughter, Laurie, 10, to eat at Gino's on Indian Head Highway, not far from the Forest Heights police station.
Arnett said that as he pulled into a parking space he saw through the windows that a robbery was in progress. He saw a man jump across the counter of the fast-food restaurant.
The two robbers rushed toward the doors with their cash booty, and Arnett met them in the vestibule. Yelling to his daughter to go back to the car, he pulled out his gun, shouting, "Freeze. Get your hands up."
Arnett grabbed the left arm of one suspect, later identified as Leroy W. Coates, and tried to keep his eye on the second man, Don E. Minor, who was edging his way towards the exit.
Arnett did not see Coates' gun, and in a split second Coates reached for his gun with his right hand and fired. The bullet struck the officer at the base of his skull, behind his left ear.
Both men spun around to face each other. Coates squeezed the trigger again but his gun misfired, county police said. Arnett shot him in the stomach; Coates fell to the floor, firing once more and hitting a window, police said.
Arnett recalled that the second man was "making beat feet out the door -- that was all right with me." The second suspect was apprehended later.
Arnett picked up Coates' gun and walked into the restaurant, holding the back of his head with his hand in an attempt to stop the bleeding. He told the manager he had been shot and asked her to get his daughter. "I wanted my daughter taken care of because I thought I was going to die," he said.
Moments later, police from Forest Heights and Prince George's County converged on the scene. One of the first to arrive was Arnett's best friend, Chuck (Charles) Pembleton, a county police officer. Pembleton put him in his cruiser and whisked him to Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
As it turned out, the bullet had gone through his scalp and out again without damaging anything. After a few days of rest, Arnett was sent home.
"I couldn't believe my escape," Arnett said, still in awe. "I know I was rewarded that day for my faith in God."
The two suspects were both convicted of armed robbery at a trial in Upper Marlboro. armed robbery and Coates was also convicted of assault with intent to murder.
Arnett, a slightly built man, is bullish about being a police officer. The incident does not seem to have shaken his conviction. "I have always wanted to be a policeman because of the way I feel inside about protecting people," he said.
He said his decision was not influenced by the fact that his father, Charles S. Arnett, is a lieutenant on the Hyattsville police force.
Arnett, who began his career as a University Park officer, has been on the five-member Forest Heights department for three years. He is the first officer in the small department's 28-year history to be shot during a crime.
The incident at Gino's, plus Arnett's capture of several other robbery suspects during the year, won him an award from the police department as well as a gold medal of honor from the town, several citations from state delegates, and a new coat from Gino's to replace the one "I bled all over."
Although Arnett said his daughter tried to convince him after the shooting he should quit his job, he said he wants to put in 20 years in service and then will retire to be creative. He is an accomplished cabinetmaker.