Being a law enforcement officer is a dangerous occupation by nature, but following recent attacks on officers, simply going to work is becoming more of an emotional challenge.
In the past few weeks, police have been attacked by shooters who appear to have singled out law enforcement officers as targets. Five were killed in Dallas; three were killed in Baton Rouge and isolated incidents of shots fired at police have been reported across the nation.
Statesboro and Bulloch County do not have a high crime rate compared to some cities, and there is a degree of positive community interaction between agencies and the public. While police-related shootings such as those that occurred in Dallas and Baton Rouge, as well as closer to home in Valdosta, are unlikely here, local law enforcement officers say they must prepare for the worst.
“All it takes is one” person to decide to launch an attack against officers, said Bulloch County Chief Deputy Jared Akins.
Considering Statesboro and Bulloch County both have had officer-related shootings, such an incident in today’s atmosphere could prove volatile.
Bulloch County Sheriff’s Sgt. Wilbur Berry was killed and Deputy Bill Black was injured in 2001 when a suspect being apprehended grabbed a deputy’s gun and opened fire. The suspect was killed.
In 2010, Statesboro police officer Charles Brown was shot and injured by a suspect, Eric Pringle, who fired several shots in a Rucker Lane apartment complex. Responding to a call for backup, Bulloch County Sheriff’s Deputy Rey Rodriguez encountered Pringle, and when Pringle took aim at him, fired deadly shots that ended the suspect’s life.
In October, 2013, George Pryor was shot and killed by police when he opened fire as police tried to handle an order from city code enforcement officers to remove a disabled van from his property, as it was against city ordinance. Two Statesboro police officers were involved; neither were injured.
Investigations cleared officers of any wrong doing and no charges were filed in the incidents.
Fear of being targeted
Putting on the uniform and badge each day has always meant the day could be dangerous, but the recent reports of officers being intentionally targeted drives the reality home.
“My faith is strong. It’s written in the Book of Life when I’m going to go. I can’t let fear affect me. I stay prayed up,” said Brooklet Police Sgt. Tracy Atkinson. “I’ve got to push that fear to the back and bring that courage forward. Yes, I am afraid.”
Statesboro Police Sgt. Patrick Webb said “It takes a toll. We train (for violent and active shooter) situations and keep on going.”
Fear isn’t a major factor when it comes to doing the job, but it is present.
“It has always been a risk, and we are sometimes fearful to come to work,” said Statesboro-Bulloch County Crime Suppression Team Capt. Jason Kearney. But, “We are always going to do our job. This is a calling.”
Akins said Bulloch County is no different from other places in that the possibility of an attack on officers is possible.
“It absolutely can happen – we have had several officer involved shootings in Bulloch County,” he said. “Use of deadly force has happened here. We can be just as affected as Dallas or Baton Rouge, but we try to prepare our guys.”
As a deputy, Rodriguez knows better than most how easy it can be for a situation to escalate into a shooting where both officers and suspects can be injured or killed.
Currently, “We are more cautious, a bit more on your toes,” he said. When a call comes over the radio, “You don’t know if it is an actual call or someone wanting to do you harm.”
Could the increased danger and officers being targeted affect how law enforcement agencies are able to protect the public? Will the intentional targeting of police affect the profession?
“It makes me think about my mortality,” Atkinson said. “I have been in law enforcement since 1989 and I have never seen it like this. I sometimes have second thoughts – now more than ever.”
As for officers leaving the profession, if the targeting of police continues, “We will start to see officers leave,” Kearney said. “It is hard enough to get good officers.”
Bad cops and media
While social media and major news outlets focus on reports of police brutality and a movement to protest such, the reality is that while police brutality exists, most officers are not rogue cops who misuse force, Atkinson said.
“We just want people to realize not every cop is a bad cop,” she said. “Social media and the news highlight the bad, exploit it, and makes it hard (to be an officer of the law). We tend to believe what we see, take it and run with it when we don’t know all the details.”
Kearney agreed. “I wish the public would listen to us,” he said. “We’re not the enemy. Ninety-nine percent of our people are great and I wish the public would see that.”
Social media as well as national news outlets are so quick to report, details are rarely included to show the whole picture, he said.
When a report comes as “breaking news” and only gives the bare bones initial report, important facts are often not disclosed until later, he said.
"The press, the public needs to take a break and wait for the facts. People rush to make judgment.” This breeds negativity, he said. “I wish people would be patient.”
The tendency for media to latch onto bad news creates chaos, Akins said. “Through the media we constantly hear the bad and it certainly affects our guys over time.”
Positive local support
In spite of media attention to the protest rallies and reports of shots fired across the nation, on a local level, citizens have shown an outpouring of support for the men and women wearing badges.
Since the recent officer-targeted shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere, “I have seen more people come out, acknowledge what we do, and tell us thanks,” Atkinson said. “I don’t see anyone being hostile.”
The Statesboro Police Department even posted a public “thank you” on its Facebook page, showing photographs of gifts of food and drawings by area children.
“Support from the community has been overwhelming,” said Statesboro Police Sgt. Jake Saxon. “People stop and give thanks. People want to shake your hand or pray for you. It is amazing. I have been in law enforcement for years and have never experienced that. For all the negative, we have a lot of positive things locally.”
People are talking about policing more and paying more attention, said Webb. “The (police shooting incidents) have opened up conversations.”
Kearney agreed. ““We know there are people who support us. It is just a small element that do not.”
Training and compliance
Even more today than ever before, law enforcement officers are ready for the danger.
As a rule, “Violence is not a problem in our community but we do prepare for it,” Webb said.
The danger of being shot is a constant concern.
“It could be any crazy person – every day we have that mindset,” he said. “We try to learn and take from (national incidents). I am proud of the Statesboro Police Department. We train, keep open communications with the community and still have open relationships.”
Officers must say vigilant and ready for danger regardless of the call, even if it appears to be a simple call, Akins said.
“We have to handle every single call with the same amount of attention we would handle a hot call,” he said. “But you cannot be so guarded you can’t function. We’ve known this profession is dangerous for years but we’re guarded. Yes this is a bad time…but law enforcement has been through bad times before.”
All officers interviewed said if suspects would comply with officers’ orders, the likelihood of injury or death is far less.
“Instead of resistance, let’s preach compliance,” Kearney suggested. “Make a formal complaint (if you disagree with the officer) but don’t resist arrest even when you are right. That (being combative or noncompliant) is crazy. No police officer wants to go out and shoot anybody.”
Taking someone’s life
Six years ago, Rodriguez took the life of a man who had shot another officer, fired shots in a heavily-populated apartment complex, and took aim at him when he ordered the suspect to drop his gun.
“Eric Pringle would probably be alive if he had complied with orders,” he said.
Rodriguez was at a community policing event at Ogeechee Technical College when he heard Statesboro Police Officer Charles Brown call for help, having been shot by a suspect.
Brown had responded to a call about loud music, not knowing he would be facing a man Rodriguez said suffered mental issues and was angry over having been evicted from his apartment.
“I didn’t know all that led to the events until after the investigation,” Rodriguez said.
Pringle, like both Rodriguez and Brown, was former military, but Pringle suffered from “mental problems, paranoid schizophrenia, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), was drinking and playing his music loud.”
Sitting in his car and playing loud music was reportedly how Pringle handled stress, and he had just found an eviction notice on his apartment door. Neighbors saw him circling the parking lot, playing his car stereo loudly, and called police.
Rodriguez said it is believed Pringle planned to target the apartment manager. Instead, not finding her, he shot her car.
When Brown approached him, he shot Brown. As other officers rushed to the scene, Pringle reportedly was on the phone with a 911 operator, claiming he was in his apartment, but Rodriguez found him in some nearby woods.
“I encountered him, but instead of complying he pointed a gun at me,” he said. “I have looked at the car video a thousand times over. People don’t understand how quickly things escalate.”
The entire incident took less than four minutes, he said. “One minute you are laughing and joking – and then this.”
Rodriguez knows he had to fire to save his own life, yet the memory haunts him daily.
“It is a thousand times easier to comply even if you are right,” he said. “If you comply, you may walkout with only a citation.”
“Society puts too much responsibility on police officers,” he said. “It is the hardest job in the country right now. We have to be marriage counselor, drive like Mario Andretti, be juvenile counselors, shoot with precision, and deal with one of the biggest problems – the mentally ill. There is a lot of confusion and it is sad you had to take someone’s life. Shock is better word to describe it. No officer comes to work and says ‘today I want to shoot somebody.'"
And, many fail to remember that law enforcement officers face the possibility of being involved in shootings on a daily basis, Rodriguez said.
“When you leave your house in the morning, you expect come home. I don’t have that guarantee. Tomorrow is not promised to law enforcement officers.”
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.