Written by: Greg Ellifritz
Last year, there was a high profile shooting outside of a juvenile courtroom in my county. While details are still somewhat sketchy, it seems that a deputy sheriff working security for the court was attacked by one of the juvenile offenders appearing in the courtroom. Members of the juvenile criminal’s family also participated in the attack.
Reports indicate that the deputy was beaten and taken to the ground. The deputy drew his gun and shot the 16-year old boy who was pummeling him.
There were some other factors involved. The deputy was fighting not only the juvenile offender, but the offender’s mother and grandmother as well. When two probation officers (who the deputy didn’t know) attempted to help the deputy, he thought those guys were attackers as well.
Despite these confounding factors, the primary reason that the deputy shot the juvenile was that the juvenile overpowered the deputy, took him to the ground, and began punching him in the head and face.
The deputy was not indicted by the grand jury for this shooting.
The sheriff’s department recently released the 800+ page investigation report on the incident and the local newspaper reported on it. The report was interesting and the Dispatch write up is worth your time to read.
Previously, the newspaper did a public records request on the deputy’s personnel file. They found that in spite of nearly two decades of experience as a deputy sheriff, this particular deputy had never been involved a single incident where he had to subdue an aggressive criminal suspect by himself. In every one of his previous use of force experiences, he had at least one other deputy with him when the fight kicked off.
The shooting was ruled “justified” by the Grand Jury. The sheriff’s department has not yet submitted the case to its own firearms review board for internal disciplinary action.
Being legally justified doesn’t mean that the use of the pistol was an optimal choice or a choice that the deputy could have avoided with better training and hiring selection.
This individual case isn’t really what is important here. The long term trend in police hiring practices and training is what matters more.
Although I know it isn’t possible in all cases, when a citizen calls an officer for help, I would generally feel more comfortable knowing that the officer could physically handle a 16-year old without using a gun.
The reality that many folks refuse to understand is that if you are a police officer, you will occasionally have to physically fight a criminal.
Many fights can be avoided through better planning, better tactics, and better verbalization. But no matter how hard you try to avoid the fight, occasionally you will meet a criminal who has only one goal…to hurt or kill you. Officers must be prepared for that eventuality.
The police agency will never give the officer enough training to win in a fight against someone younger, stronger, faster, and more violent. Learning how to prevail in that environment takes years of hard work, dedication, and pain. Very few officers are willing to undertake that journey.
If the police agency won’t train its officers up to this level and the officer won’t do the training on his own, what happens in a case like this?
The deputy likely tried to calm everyone down with his agency-approved verbal de-escalation techniques. It didn’t work. De-escalation requires the criminal’s cooperation. This criminal didn’t want to cooperate. Instead he wanted to beat the deputy’s ass.
A 16-year old criminal suspect threw down on the deputy and struck him in the face a few times (the article stated the deputy suffered a black eye and facial lacerations). The scrum of attackers and rescuers knocked the deputy to the ground. The deputy probably got scared. He had never been in a one-on-one fight with a criminal suspect in all of his years of law enforcement.
He’d likely never been punched hard in the face or taken to the ground. Even though the suspect was only 16, the deputy knew he couldn’t win the physical confrontation. The deputy shot and killed the boy.
This is a predictable outcome when police agencies try to hire deputies and officers who don’t appear “intimidating.” When departments purposely hire officers with no combat, fighting, or hard contact sports in their background in order to reduce “use of force” incidents, they end up with cases like this. Because the officer wasn’t a skilled fighter, he pulled his gun and killed a teenager.
What is telling to me is the deputy’s statement following the shooting. As quoted in the newspaper article above, he said:
“I was dizzy, slightly disoriented, and I was afraid that I was about to lose consciousness from the multiple head strikes, and that Haynes would get control of any one or more of my weapons,” Scarborough wrote in a statement for investigators. “It is at that moment that I quickly unholstered my gun and fired a single shot into Haynes’ left torso to stop the attack on me … I did not believe I had any other reasonable alternative to protect my life or the lives of those within the courthouse.”
I can tell you through experience that your perception of being “about to lose consciousness” changes following significant training when you are occasionally knocked out or choked unconscious.
The first couple times it happens, you get scared. After living through the experience a few times, you start to realize that just getting your bell rung by a hard punch may make you a bit dizzy for a few seconds, but you can fight through until the brain fog clears. In grappling matches, you learn just how far you can go when your opponent gets you in a choke. You learn that you may start feeling a little woozy and have your visual field narrowed, but you can continue to fight for another 10 seconds before the lights go out.
That’s an important perspective to have. Working the street after having been knocked out a few times in boxing matches gives me more confidence. I like knowing exactly when I’m going to lose consciousness while being choked. I only know that feeling because I’ve been choked out countless times in judo and jiu-jitsu training classes. That knowledge allows me to stay calmer in a fight. It allows me to better judge the difference between situations when I truly need to transition to lethal force and other spots when I may be taking a beating, but am still able to prevail physically.
I would guess fewer than 10% of working cops have the level of fighting experience to truly know when they are in danger. Many cops stumble through their entire careers without ever being tested. It’s harder for those folks to make an informed decision about when to use lethal force. They will almost always use lethal force faster than a similar officer with an adequate background in the fighting arts.
If society wants fewer unarmed citizen suspects killed by police, they should ensure that every police officer is capable enough to handle most situations physically. The department would also have to conduct much more defensive tactics training in both the initial academy and at least monthly as in-service training at the department. No city wants to fund such a massively expensive project.
Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways. If you want cops to avoid using their guns in physical confrontations, you’d better hire officers who can physically dominate a situation and then provide regular and continuing high quality defensive tactics training sessions for those officers. It isn’t going to happen
I predict that we will see an exponential increase in shootings like this in the coming years. Be careful what you wish for….