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Wednesday, 15 February 2006 00:00

Waiting for the smoke to clear: Officers deal with the professional and emotional aftermath of using a gun in the line of duty

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Law enforcement officers might spend their entire careers without ever firing their gun in the line of duty. It is a distinction most wear like a badge of honor.

For those officers who are not so lucky, the experience leaves an indelible mark that may carry through their professional and personal lives. Such was the case for Sgt. Jonathan Phillips, a Macon County Sheriff’s Deputy, when he and fellow officers became involved in an arrest gone awry in April 2004.

As a Franklin police officer was serving a warrant for a probation violation, the man to be arrested put up a fight. The officer tried to subdue the man, but he continued to resist, made it to his car and fled the scene.

The Franklin officer picked up pursuit, chasing the man outside town limits into the county. The officer radioed for assistance. Phillips and two fellow deputies were having lunch together when dispatchers sent out the call.

The three deputies, the Franklin officer and a State Highway Patrol trooper chased the man for less than 10 minutes, ending up on a small rural road. The suspect attempted to evade officers by turning up a side road where he ran up against a chain blocking the roadway. Officers assumed the suspect would bail out and take off on foot, so they began running up the side road.

The suspect, however, had other plans. He threw the car in reverse, backing down the side road and nearly running over officers in the process. As he neared the larger rural road he could have made a sharp left and gotten out, instead he found himself surrounded by officers with their guns drawn.

Phillips was standing near the front right wheel of one of his fellow deputy’s cars when he and the suspect locked eyes.

“He just looked straight at me,” Phillips said.

The suspect punched the gas and headed straight for Phillips. As he tried to jump out of the way, Phillips fired four shots. One bullet hit the suspect in the shoulder, two hit his side and one grazed his arm. The impact was just enough to set the driver off course.

“All he had to do was just barely turn the wheel and he would have crushed me,” Phillips said.

The man survived the shooting and was later found guilty of five counts of assault with a deadly weapon on law enforcement and assault with intent to kill for his attempt to run over Phillips. A habitual felon in his mid-30s, the suspect was sentenced to 66 years in prison.

“I’ll never forget the look in his eyes,” Phillips said.

 

Red line to red tape

There is no state policy on what happens when officers fire their weapons in the line of duty. Individual departments create their own policies. After using their weapons while on the job, officers are often placed on administrative leave and an investigation is done to determine whether all procedures were followed correctly.

The problem with the system is that the public may perceive it as a near reversal of our judicial system — instead of being innocent until proven guilty, the public may believe officers are guilty of wrongdoing until proven otherwise. Granted, investigations help ensure officers do not abuse their power, but they also place officers under the microscope during what personally may be a trying time.

“The tough thing for an officer is after an incident like that occurs, a lot of people second guess the decision you made. They say ‘He didn’t even have a gun and you shot him,’” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. “It is really hard on the officers when they go around and get shunned. Plus, you put them on leave until completion of the investigation and that makes them feel like, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

Though administrative leave is not a suspension or probation, officers are often relieved of their uniform, badge and gun and put behind a desk pushing paper. Also, as a matter of routine, the State Bureau of Investigation is usually called in when deadly force is used or an officer has been injured.

“There is an implied punishment or criticism in this,” said Dr. Peter J. Smith of Chapel Hill, a clinical psychologist, volunteer and clinical director for the state’s central Critical Incident Stress Management team, who has been working with officers since 1985.

For example, the SBI is still investigating a deadly shooting that happened in Jackson County in November 2005 when sheriff’s deputies raided a Cullowhee apartment to serve an outstanding warrant and question the apartment’s resident, Dewann Christopher McCollum.

Deputies suspected that McCollum, who was wanted on a felony drug charge and had been arrested five times since 1999 on charges including drug trafficking and distributing cocaine, was involved in a violent robbery at China Dragon restaurant the night before that left three restaurant employees hospitalized after being shot.

Deputies stormed McCollum’s apartment complex, finding him in a unit that was not his own. When deputies broke into the apartment, McCollum lunged at them with a knife and deputies fired. McCollum was killed.

“It’s his fault,” said one of the deputies involved in the shooting. “I don’t feel at fault or any blame or any remorse. It sucks that it happened that way, but he made the choices that dictated that action.”

The deputy, who has been on the force for 15 years, said that the shooting was the first time he had used his weapon in the line of duty but that he wouldn’t have done anything differently. It was action taken to protect himself, his team and the general public, the deputy said.

“I don’t want to go out looking for a fight, but if the same things happens again, I’ll do the exact same thing,” the deputy said.

“I’ll do whatever I need to do to go home at the end of my shift,” he said.

Three officers were placed on administrative leave following the shooting. An inter-departmental investigation found there was no wrongdoing on the officers’ behalf.

“It was determined that there were no violations in policy and procedure,” said Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe, who in his 25 years in law enforcement has never fired his weapon in the line of duty.

However, the SBI has yet to close its case and McCollum’s family members have questioned the necessity of the shooting. Such questioning is easier for those who weren’t involved in a situation where time is measured in split seconds.

“One of the challenges that happens afterwards is sometimes, especially if the outcome is kind of messy, politically or otherwise, there’s lots of second-guessing by those who have 20/20 hindsight and weren’t in it at the moment,” Smith said.

In such a situation, Smith advocated a more sensitive approach. Even though an officer may know and follow the book by heart, being involved in a shooting and subsequent investigation can become intensely personal. Unless there is immediate evidence of an officer having clearly and overtly broken the law, the system should look out for its own, Smith said.

“The standard procedure should be to come to the officer in a sense of support,” he said.

 

Gathering all the evidence

Following traumatic incidents, law enforcement officers and those in the public service field such as Emergency Medical Service or bank workers who have been involved in a robbery may participate in critical incident stress debriefing.

In the debriefing session, persons involved in the incident come together to discuss their experiences and piece together exactly what happened from all angles. A Baltimore area paramedic, Jeff Mitchell, developed the model for emergency service personnel more than 20 years ago.

Officers involved in critical debriefings often describe the event as having an element of being in a time warp or seen through tunnel vision. Such was the case when Phillips compared what he’d seen in person, with what was caught on one of the officer’s vehiccle cameras when the suspect in Franklin tried to run him over.

“It did seem longer and more drawn out replaying it in my mind that what was on the camera,” said Phillips, who has been on the force for nine years.

Replaying an incident and analyzing its every angle is typical of a Type A personality — people who tend to be perfectionists and often find their way into high-stress professions such as law enforcement, Smith said.

When Sylva Police officer Shannon Ashe was shot in the line of duty, critical incident debriefing helped him cope with his feelings regarding the event better than department ordered psychiatric visits, he said.

On Oct. 18, 2003, at about 6:10 p.m. — not that he remembers — Ashe responded to a “shots fired” call on Magnolia Street in Sylva. When Ashe arrived on the scene, he found Harold Leo McVay standing on the porch.

“When I got out of my car he turned and looked at me,” Ashe said.

McVay turned around and kept his back toward Ashe. Ashe repeatedly asked McVay to show his hands, but the suspect refused. Ashe began moving toward cover.

Before he could get there, McVay turned and fired, a single shot, hitting Ashe on his left side, just above his liver. Luckily for him, Ashe was wearing a bulletproof vest, a department policy.

“When he turned and fired, of course I felt it, and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Ashe said.

Having returned fire Ashe retreated again, attempting to keep shots from crossing the roadway, which was still open to traffic. Ashe called for backup. McVay escaped to the house next door until Jackson County sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene.

Deputies negotiated with McVay for 45 minutes to an hour, during which time he became more aggressive and agitated. Ashe stayed on the scene, his vest generating so much heat from stopping the bullet that would have pierced his abdomen that his skin was burned.

Finally, when McVay made a threatening move toward officers with his semiautomatic handgun, deputies fired. The shooting is still under investigation, and District Attorney Mike Bonfoey has yet to release the weapons used in the incident.

McVay survived and was convicted of three counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a law enforcement officer and one count of attempted murder in the first degree. He was sentenced to 23 to 30 years in prison, which he is currently serving at the Alexander County Correctional Institute.

 

Recoil

For Ashe, one of the hardest things to face about the incident was that he missed. By not taking McVay down, Ashe felt he had forced other officers’ hands.

“I was having to weigh a lot of things,” Ashe said. “It was a lot on me, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself that if I had shot him, they wouldn’t have had to.”

After the incident, Ashe, who had spent six years on the force, began think about leaving.

“I’m not going to lie, yeah, I thought about it, but I wasn’t going to let him take my career away,” Ashe said.

Phillips shared similar reservations after the shooting in Macon County.

“Not only did I have to shoot somebody, but I myself was almost killed,” Phillips said. “That sets in, and I guess weighs on you, the fact that you were almost killed in this line of work.”

Both Phillips and Ashe say that they wouldn’t have done anything differently, and perhaps proving themselves worthy of their weapons, don’t hold any grudges.

“Even though he’d shot me, I didn’t really want to kill him,” Ashe said.

“I’m glad that I didn’t kill him because all I was trying to do was defend myself,” Phillips said.

Such responses are more common than one might think, said Smith, who in preparation for his psychological work spent two years interning with a police department outside Boston.

“It is very, very rare that I have spoken to an officer with any sort of callousness, ‘That son of gun had it coming,’” Smith said.

However, after 32 years on the force, Cherokee Deputy Marshall Eric Pritchett said that officers often develop what some may consider a weird sense of humor in order to cope, not just with a shooting, but with day-to-day life.

“Policemen see things that people just shouldn’t have to see over and over again,” Pritchett said.

Pritchett formerly worked in Memphis, Tenn., where shootouts were more common.

“I’ve been around officers who have killed several in the line of duty,” he said.

Learning how to handle such situations is just a part of the job, Pritchett said. Officers have to be prepared, physically and psychologically, to fire at any time, he said.

“That’s why we have such intensive training, so that when it happens, you act instinctively,” Pritchett said.

But instinct doesn’t always account for a criminal’s prior-preparation. Ranger Joseph D. Kolodski was on patrol in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when a report of a drunken man staggering around and waving a riffle at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles outside Cherokee came over park dispatch.

When Kolodski got to the overlook and stepped out of the car, the man shot him. The bullet hit Kolodski in the armpit, an area unprotected by his bulletproof vest. Kolodski was killed instantly.

“By all indications, he had hoped to chat with the guy and diffuse the situation without resorting to a shoot out,” Bob Miller, spokesman for the Smokies, recalled of the incident.

The shooter, a Cherokee man, is serving life in prison.

Consequently, two words ring clear when officers are asked about a shooting — reality check. Phillips said that officers might grow too comfortable with themselves and the situations they encounter.

“The first couple years you worry, then you get a little more complacent,” he said.

It takes something happening to snap the target back into focus.

“This is no game,” Ashe said.

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