Voices echoed loudly, music blared from a truck radio and, suddenly, the sound of gunfire pierced the night air Tuesday as a crowd gathered in the Bulloch County Jail parking lot.
Bodies lay on the cold pavement, but several deputies, investigators and other people just stood there, talking and laughing as the “use of force” training exercises unfolded.
The “live action” scenarios where volunteers pretended to be responding law enforcement officers and real-life lawmen acted out the roles of drunken partiers and volatile gunmen was part of a training exercise that was meant to reinforce deputies’ mandatory use-of-force training. The exercises also offered the public a realistic view of what law enforcement officers face on a daily basis, said Bulloch County Chief Deputy Jared Akins.
Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Mashburn led the course, which began with a discussion about use of force and viewing several videos of police stops in which gunfire was involved or that showed dangerous situations encountered by law enforcement agents.
One of the first questions Mashburn asked was, “What percentage of calls answered by deputies involve a firearm?” After several guesses, with no one stating the correct answer, he said “100 percent.” Responding officers carry guns.
Armed law enforcement officers carrying guns can find themselves in situations in which an offender can grab the firearm, Mashburn said, citing a case several years ago when a veteran Bulloch County sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed by a fugitive who grabbed his service revolver and fired.
The offender, who had been hiding in a house, killed one deputy and injured a second before a third responding deputy shot and killed the offender.
The use-of-force training encourages law enforcement officers to be vigilant. Georgia law allows officers and residents to use deadly force when they feel their safety is threatened, he said.
However, proper response to dangerous situations is also a factor taught in the training courses, and officers are trained to use other methods such as Tasers, pepper spray, and batons if possible, Mashburn said.
Keeping would-be assailants at least two arms’ lengths away is advisable, but sometimes that’s not possible, and the distance isn’t safe when a gun is involved, he said.
In addition to law enforcement officers from various divisions, Tuesday’s exercise included representatives from Georgia Southern University student groups including the university branch of the NAACP, Bulloch County NAACP, Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office and local media.
The event was to help the public better understand the dangers of law enforcement as well as the difficulty officers encounter when having to make split-second decisions when faced with immediate danger, Akins said.
“There’s not always time to call for help,” he said. And, when confronted by an intoxicated, angry and unstable person, “action is always faster than reaction.”
Deputies and other officers are trained to respond with firm politeness and to increase force as the situation requires.
“We will be as nice as you allow us to be,” Akins said.
The use-of-force training is conducted annually, ands Tuesday’s program was only a supplement to the officers’ mandatory training, he said. Tuesday’s exercise was in line with the national focus on police use of force, highlighted by events across the country that involved either police fatalities at the hands of civilians or civilian deaths caused by police shootings.
One of the most recent officer-involved shootings was that of a 12-year-old boy with an air pellet gun in a park in Cleveland. The issue first came to intense public focus when Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a police officer last year in Ferguson, Missouri.
Mashburn told the group that, often, noncompliance is a major factor in an encounter gone wrong. Civilians may not understand why officers ask or command that they do certain things, and when they argue, tempers flare and a situation can quickly get out of control.
Law enforcement officers do not want to fight, he said.
However, many civilians misinterpret officers’ stern demeanor and friction begins. The public may not understand why an officer asks and does certain things during a traffic stop or field interview but, most of the time, an officer’s commands are part of safety protocol or may be a reaction to signs he sees, as a trained officer, that indicate possible infractions.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, there is no need to shake” and act nervous, Mashburn said.
Even what may seem to be the most innocent of calls could turn out deadly, he said.
Mashburn referred to a double shooting five years ago in which a Statesboro police officer responded to a call about a man in a car playing loud music. When he confronted the offender to ask him to quiet down, the offender opened fire and shot the officer.
The suspect fired shots at an apartment complex manager and other law enforcement before Bulloch County sheriff’s Sgt. Rey Rodriguez fired back and killed him.
Rodriguez also spoke to the group, answering a question of how many times an officer should fire at a suspect.
“I didn’t know how many rounds I shot,” he said. “I had no clue. You’re just trying to neutralize the threat until it no longer exists.”
It is nearly impossible, when faced with a suspect threatening your life or safety, to gauge the number of times you fire, he said.
“Our training is to shoot and stop the threat,” Mashburn said. “Think about the most terrified you’ve ever been in your life and multiply that 10 times more.”
Law enforcement officers are trained to do what it takes to keep the pubic safe, even the offenders, he said. However, officers are still human.
“We make mistakes,” Mashburn said. “We’ll be the first to tell you not everything we do is right. We do the best we can.”
Rodriguez said he was with other officers at Ogeechee Technical College after responding to another incident when the call about shots fired came in. He and other deputies were having a jovial conversation when “three minutes later, I was taking someone’s life.”
Mashburn said no officer goes to work with the expectation he will encounter a deadly situation.
“It’s not our goal at any time to go out and shoot,” he said.
When force is justified
During the class, he discussed using hands, physical strength, control tactics and other weapons if possible, instead of firearms. However, sometimes guns are necessary, he said.
“If an officer is in fear of his life, use of force is justified,” Mashburn said.
He showed the video of a traffic stop in Laurens County a few years ago in which a deputy was killed by an armed man. In this case, the deputy did not fire, instead yelling repeatedly to the offender to “get back.”
The deputy’s car camera captured the incident and showed the offender loading a gun, firing and reloading. The armed deputy never fired, and during his hesitation, the offender killed him.
“It’s not about race, not about gender, not about religion,” Mashburn said.
Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Michael Muldrew, who attended the training, said if people would comply with law enforcement officers, there would be fewer violent outcomes.
“If an officer asks you to do something, you do it,” he said.
If you disagree with what the officer commands, the time to challenge his actions is later.
“You’re not going to win a court case on the side of the road,” Muldrew said.
After the discussion and videos, volunteers from the class took turns re-enacting shooting scenarios, such as a lone deputy responding to a loud party call or deputies responding to a fight.
The exercise helps others learn what it is like to encounter life-threatening situations, Akins said.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.