Split-second calls

Split-second calls

October 4th, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

Staff Photo by Lesley Onstott SWAT team members (from right) Sgt. Chad Sullivan, Sgt. Jeff Gaines and Sgt. Bakari Welles shoot at targets at the police firing range off Moccasin Bend Road.

First of two parts

Five police shootings in six months, leaving five dead.

Anger from the families and the public.

"I feel like these police are taking matters into their own hands," said Monica Dunn, whose 21-year-old brother Richard Dunn was shot to death in East Ridge in August. "They do what they want because they can."

Police offer a different perspective.

"People think that we're killers or something, that we're out there doing it every day," said Chattanooga Officer Jim Brock, who's been involved in three shootings, two of them fatal. "The truth is, most officers are never involved in a shooting."

Pulling a trigger takes only a split second, but police use of deadly force and its consequences can last a lifetime.

From March through August this year, five area law enforcement agencies had officers involved in fatal shootings of suspects. Two occurred in Chattanooga; one in Meigs County, Tenn.; one in East Ridge; and one in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

Four of the five fatal shootings remain under investigation. The June 24 shooting of John Curtis Coates in Fort Oglethorpe was ruled justifiable and the case is closed, records show.

While civilian deaths at the hands of police obviously affect the officers involved and the families of the victims, they also draw attention to police training and often lead to accusations of excessive force.

"Very few things in our society receive more scrutiny and investigation than officer-involved shootings," said Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a retired clinical and police psychologist in Tucson, Ariz.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Todd Royval said the public's reaction to shootings is almost more stressful than pulling the trigger.

"There's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking," said Sgt. Royval, who has been involved in four shootings, three of them fatal.

Video and Internet training company In the Line of Duty Learning will be in Fort Oglethorpe on Friday to begin interviews for a training film about the June shooting in that town. The company, based in St. Louis, will produce a video from real footage of the event and interviews with those involved.

"It allows the officers that do this for a living to see tactics employed in real-life situations," said Lt. Gary McConathy with the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department, which uses videos from the company for training. "You're not looking at it to critique it. You're seeing what you could use to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to you."

The aftermath

The circumstances surrounding the recent shootings varied, but some left residents pointing fingers and families grieving.

"It's still not really real," Ms. Dunn said. "For me, it's getting better a little bit every day, but not my Momma. She's still really torn apart."

An officer-involved shooting elicits strong emotions from the officers involved.

"You have nightmares about it," said Sgt. Royval, who noted he never second-guessed his shootings, which were ruled justifiable. "You have dreams about it. That's normal."

Even if officers don't second-guess themselves, they still live with the knowledge that they killed someone. That's why counseling and psychological evaluations are important, said Officer Brock.

"Even if it was a legitimate shooting, it would be tough for a guy to handle," he said.

In Chattanooga, officers involved in such shootings must take paid administrative leave and undergo psychological evaluations before returning to work. And state agencies such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation often review such cases.

"In the aftermath, we have the luxury of (reviewing the incidents)," Dr. Artwohl said. "The police officers do not have that luxury in the act itself. We have days, weeks, months, years to carefully review what happened."

TRAINING AND INSTINCT

Department policy dictates how police officers are supposed to act when using deadly force. When the life-or-death moment is right in front of them, officers rely on training.

"In those sudden life-threatening situations, they will do what they are trained to do, and training itself is based on logic and reason," Dr. Artwohl said. "The training gives them enough practice so that when they are confronted with a sudden situation, the subconscious will take over and do what they were trained to do."

In her research, Dr. Artwohl found that 74 percent of officers in officer-involved shootings gave little or no conscious thought to what they were doing. Such incidents typically happen "too quickly for any normal human brain to consciously process information and act on it," she said.

Officer Brock said he remembers having time to think during all three of his shootings, but that he acted on instinct to save his life and the lives of his fellow officers.

Things happened so quickly during one shooting that, although three rounds were fired by Officer Brock and another officer, those at the scene heard only one.

"Talk about fast - it was over lickety split," Officer Brock said. "Everybody there thought one round had been fired. There were three, but everyone heard one bang. But it just happened both at the same time, we decided to shoot. That right there tells you there was a perceived threat by both of us."

PDF: CPD policy manual - Use of force

Some local officer-involved shootings:

* Nov. 29, 2004 -- A Cleveland, Tenn., police officer shot two robbery suspects after he pursued them and they attempted to run him down in their vehicle.

* September 2004 -- A 48-year-old businessman was shot by federal authorities in the Sports Barn East parking lot after he brandished a loaded 10-gauge shotgun at them. Michael Kyle had made a videotape before the shooting talking about his failed business, the suicide of his wife and parole violations. Friends say he wanted officers to kill him.

* September 2004 -- Officers shot and killed James Lindsey Jr. of East Brainerd after SWAT team members were involved in a standoff and subsequent shootout with Mr. Lindsey. One officer's shield was struck by about nine pellets of buckshot fired by Mr. Lindsey.

* May 2003 -- Two Chattanooga officers fatally shot a man during a traffic stop when they believed he was reaching for a weapon. John E. Henderson had a bottle of perfume, a screwdriver and a box cutter in his vehicle, police said. The officers both perceived a threat, though only one fired a shot.

* Oct. 26, 2001 -- Chattanooga police officers shot a 22-year-old man after he allegedly shot his estranged wife. Ira Ishmael Muhammad was shot once in the chest.

* Dec. 14, 2000 -- Chattanooga police shot a man several times inside a home on Ely Road after responding to a domestic violence situation. The man was armed with a shotgun, several pistols and an assault rifle and was wearing heavy body armor, a gas mask and camouflage clothing. When police tried to talk to him, he became agitated. Officers backed away, and the man came toward the door carrying a rifle, at which time two SWAT officers shot him.

* April 9, 2000 -- Two Chattanooga officers shot and killed a burglary suspect when he tried to run them over with a pickup truck full of stolen merchandise.

* April 28, 1998 -- Mantrail Collins, 22, was shot and killed after he opened fire on police on West 21st Street.

* Nov. 6, 1998 -- A 28-year-old man was shot in the shoulder by a Chattanooga police officer. Robert Lee Edwards was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder for firing several times at police and for shooting a man on M.L. King Boulevard.

* May 6, 1998 -- Kevin Dewayne McCullough, 27, was shot and killed when he came at officers with a foot-long metal pry bar tipped with sharp prongs.

* Nov. 24, 1995 -- For the second time in less than a week, Chattanooga police officers were involved in a shooting during a narcotics operation. DEA agents and police narcotics detectives were attempting to serve search warrants and stepped inside the house when a man with a semiautomatic weapon attempted to shoot the officers. The pistol misfired, and an officer shot 26-year-old Christopher McDonald in the right thigh, causing the weapon to fall from his hands.

* Aug. 27, 1995 -- Dalton police shot 36-year-old Dwight Boyse Holman after responding to a domestic call at a hotel. They told Mr. Holman to drop his .357-caliber magnum revolver, but he shot at them once before the gun misfired. Officers returned fire, striking him several times.

* June 28, 1995 -- A Grundy County sheriff's deputy shot a Tracy City man after the man reportedly tried to shoot the deputy. The deputy was responding to a domestic call and ordered Robert Nunley, 25, to drop his .25-caliber automatic pistol. Mr. Nunley didn't and attempted to fire at the deputy, who shot Mr. Nunley in the left hip.

* Feb. 23, 1995 -- The son of businessman Robert E. Shaw was shot by Dalton police after he tried to assault his parents and authorities with a sword. Thomas Tripp Shaw, 33, tried to assault an officer responding to the domestic dispute, was shot once in the chest by an officer and then barricaded himself in a bathroom.

Source: Newspaper archives

According to many departments' policies, officers are trained to follow a progression of force, known as the use of force continuum. The continuum operates on the concept of increasing the police officer's level of control in response to the suspect's level of resistance.

If the level of resistance increases, an officer is justified in increasing the level of control, the policy states. The officer's responses are supposed to follow a prescribed manner: officer presence, verbal direction, chemical and electric weapons, intermediate weapons (including use of dogs) and deadly force.

When working with other officers, police are trained to act as back-up. If one officer is using a Taser, another officer should be ready with deadly force, said Fort Oglethorpe Officer Mitchell Moore. Officer Moore was shot twice by Mr. Coates, who himself was shot dead a second later by a Walker County sheriff's deputy.

"If it (nonlethal force) doesn't work, you have a fail safe and a back-up," Officer Moore said.

In the past five years, Chattanooga police have been involved in three fatal shootings. During the same time, officers responded to more than 1 million calls for service and arrested more than 75,000 suspects, Police Chief Freeman Cooper said.

"I believe that the facts support that CPD officers are very well trained and carry out their jobs giving the highest regard to the lives and safety of our citizens," he said in statement.

LITIGATION, CONCERNS

Families struggle not only with a loved one's death but with the perception that the police operate under a code of silence, policing themselves.

Ms. Dunn admits her brother wasn't perfect, but she doesn't think he deserved to die.

"My brother made mistakes - we all do - but he was not a thug," she said.

Mr. Dunn attempted to run over police officers after fleeing a Ringgold Road hotel in a stolen Mercedes-Benz, according to police. When officers attempted to remove him from his car, he put the vehicle in gear, almost striking officers.

Police also are affected by the perception among community members, who sometimes blame officers.

"No matter what the justificiation for a shooting, (residents are) going to want their pound of flesh," said Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical forensic and police psychologist in South Florida. "But there are so many judgment calls where officers resolve an incident without violence. That's part of their training that's underemphasized."

In most cases involving excessive force or death while in police custody, a court has ruled in favor of the city, police department and officers - both locally and nationwide, Dr. Artwohl said.

Since 1997, Chattanooga and its police officers have been named as defendants in six lawsuits involving shootings and/or wrongful deaths that involved officers pulling the trigger or someone dying in police custody, according to data from the city attorney's office. The suits do not include motor vehicle fatalities in which officers may have been involved.

In four of the Chattanooga lawsuits, a jury or judge ruled in favor of the city and officers or the case was dismissed.

In another, the family of Leslie Vaughn Prater, 37, who suffocated in January 2004 during a struggle with police, was awarded $1.5 million in a settlement.

Of the five recent area shootings, only one has resulted in a lawsuit so far. The family of Alonzo Heyward, who was shot at 59 times by six Chattanooga officers in July, has sued the city, the police department and the officers for an amount to be decided by a jury.

In the Aug. 8 shooting of Mr. Dunn, a preliminary investigation showed that East Ridge officers acted in accordance with policy, police said after the standoff, which took place behind Parkridge East Hospital.

"We've been talking with lawyers. They are conducting their own investigation," Ms. Dunn said. "I hope they (police) have to go to court."