In a society where guilt by association seems to be de rigueur, law enforcement agencies all over the country are most likely taking a hit today because of the actions of five Memphis police officers in the beating death of a Memphis man earlier this month.
The five Black officers were fired for violating departmental policies and on Thursday were charged with second-degree murder and booked into jail. The violent incident has drawn condemnation from the likes of President Joe Biden, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Antonio Romanucci, an attorney for the family of victim Tyre Nichols, also Black, who died three days after the Jan. 7 incident, said Nichols was subject to "unadulterated, unabashed, nonstop beating" for three minutes by police officers.
While law enforcement critics undoubtedly are rounding up incidents of previous injuries and deaths at the hands of officers in various cities across the country, it's heartening to learn about a life-saving encounter involving local officers in their successful negotiation with a young man who had threatened to jump off a Signal Mountain cliff on Thursday.
"A lot of our interactions -- about 90% -- are positive and sometimes life-changing," Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett told this page Friday. "Most of the public never hears about the life-saving measures we take."
In this case, Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Josh Winters, a school resource officer at Lookout Valley Middle/High School, had been monitoring the department's computer-aided dispatch and heard about the man threatening to jump.
As a member of the department's Hostage and Negotiation Team (HNT), he knew it was possible his team could be called out, so he got some civilian clothes from his office at the school -- just in case. When the team was called to respond and he arrived at the Falling Water Falls State Natural Area, he changed into those clothes because the man had threatened to jump if he saw law enforcement officers.
Winters said his original thought was to approach the man like he was just another hiker in the woods, but the noise of the falls made that impossible. Ultimately, he had to get the man's attention and open up a conversation.
At that point, "you fall back on your training," the deputy said.
Winters said he had become a member of the HNT team in April 2021 following an interview and a weeklong class taught by the FBI. The class included both lectures and role-playing scenarios where class members use their skill sets to resolve various situations. One of the scenarios, he said, involved a jumper.
The unit trains once a month, so his actions were "force of habit," he said.
Back on the mountain, the man was able to see uniformed officers at times, so he moved closer to the ledge.
"I had to reel him back in a couple of times," Winters said.
Ultimately, according to the sheriff's office, the man was convinced to move away from the cliff to be able to hear HNT members over the roar of the falls. Within "eight or nine minutes," the situation was de-escalated and the man was convinced to leave the woods for a mental evaluation.
The deputy said a fall from the cliff would have been about 150 to 200 feet.
If the man had jumped, there was no doubt he would have died, he said.
Garrett said as sheriff he is focused on providing "absolutely the best services we can offer," especially those involving the specialized mental health aspects of law enforcement.
What the hostage and negotiating team did, he said, took quick thinking, and Winters' job "is not something everybody can do. I'm glad they were able to use their training."
In a news release Thursday, the sheriff added, "With an increase in mental health related calls for service across our community, HNT deputies, along with their counterparts in our Crisis Intervention Team, support our patrol deputies on a daily basis. Today's incident highlights the need for these specially trained deputies, and I am proud of their ability to de-escalate this potentially life-threatening situation."
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Department has not been free of deputies whose actions have been criticized sharply, nor likely has any other law enforcement office in the country.
But day in and day out, county deputies, city officers and those on the forces of area municipalities take steps, make decisions, calm threats and assist citizens with problems large and small, and no one ever learns about it.
So in the coming days when you hear about how corrupt and in need of reform all law enforcement agencies are, think of Winters and a young man on Signal Mountain whose life may now take a turn for the better. And give thanks for those who are willing to put themselves out there.