Are they ready to shoot?

BY DANZA JOHNSON

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Three shootings in March involving officers from Tupelo, Houston and Lafayette County have raised questions about whether law enforcers are ready to use their firearms.

City police officials say their training leaves them prepared. But a national police consultant said that when officers face a wide range of variables in the field, it's scary to hear how unprepared some police are to fire their guns.

“It's hard for an officer to train for a real life-and-death situation,” said Thomas Aveni, a consultant and police trainer with The Police Policies Studies Council of Stofford, N.H. “Officers go to the range once or twice a year and fire into a paper target in broad daylight, no stress involved. In the real world they will have to work under a great deal of stress and very poor lighting.”

Aveni has been in law enforcement almost 30 years and still is a police officer in New Hampshire. He's been a police trainer since 1983 and was police training coordinator with the Smith & Wesson Academy, where he helped train more than 12,000 police and military personnel.

Lt. Marvis Bostick is in charge of the Tupelo Police Academy, and it's his job to prepare officers to properly use their firearms. He said he understands officers will face stressful and different situations in the field. The Tupelo Police Academy tries to prepare them for that.

“Not every shooting situation occurs when the target is standing right in front of you,” Bostick said. “We try to train our cadets from many different positions. They have to shoot in different environments – nighttime, while in the car and many other situations that they may face in the field.”

Live' action

He says they train for “live” action – using their regular weapons with rounds that are similar to paintballs. “We try to give them the mental and physical tools to win those situations,” he noted.

Ten-year Tupelo police Sgt. James Hood said the scenario training really helps on the streets.

“One reason we train is to get used to the stuff we're going to see on the streets,” Hood said. “We go over it so much that when it happens you just see it and react, no second guessing. It's almost like second nature.

“We know the procedure and the situation because we've been trained to identify what to do. Our training is as close to real life as you can get.”

Bostick said Tupelo officers must have several hours of firearms training initially, and throughout their careers they go through monthly refresher training.

The Daily Journal couldn't find an officer willing to talk about his or her personal experience in shooting a suspect.

Mental side effects

Shooting a suspect is only half the problem officers face. The mental effects can be long lasting, according to a police psychiatrist with The Police Policies Studies Council.

“The mental state of an officer involved in a shooting depends heavily on the training they've had in situations where they are likely to be shot,” said the psychiatrist, who didn't want to be identified because of his involvement in pending cases involving police shootings. “These men and women often are not trained to handle the mental stress of shooting and killing someone.”

The most important factor in the mental impact on an officer who has shot someone is whether his department supports the officer in the use of force. Even after a shooting is ruled justifiable, officers involved in shootings are never the same, the psychiatrist noted.

“When these guys go back on the streets, they often can't perform their jobs the way they did before the shooting,” he said. “They start second-guessing themselves about should they use force or not, which can be very dangerous to the police and the public.

“A lot of them just keep playing it over in their head and asking why did they shoot the person. They really beat themselves up over it because they've taken the life of another human being,” he said.

“I've seen a lot of cases where they have nightmares about it, and it weighs heavily on their souls,” he continued. “Television shows these guys going on with their lives and jobs like nothing happened, but that's not true. Even under the best-case scenarios an officer hasn't glorified what they did. It really affects them.”

Tupelo Police Chief Harold Chaffin said when an officer is involved in any stressful situation, it's departmental policy for them to seek counseling to make sure they can continue to perform their job.

“We have to make sure that officer can continue to do their job,” Chaffin said. “That's important to ensure the safety of the public.”

When a stressful situation like a shooting occurs, officers go through the city's Employee Assistance Program.

Deputy Chief Robert Hall said the March shooting was the first officer-involved death in Tupelo in 20 years, although suspects have been shot without being fatal.

Delores Lewis, assistant director of public affairs for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, said shooting statistics aren't kept on the state level.

Recent shootings

• Tupelo – March 18, police got a call at about 2 a.m. that Domino’s Pizza on South Gloster Street had been robbed at gunpoint. Police spotted a suspect that met the robber’s description about a block from the restaurant. Capt. Bart Aguirre said when the two officers approached the man, he fired at both. The officers then returned fire, killing the man. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations is still investigating the case.

• Houston – The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations is investigating a shooting that allegedly involved a police officer and a robbery suspect. The incident happened in March, and Houston police have declined to talk about the case nor will they confirm an officer was involved.

• Lafayette County – March 17, a Lafayette County deputy shot a suspect after allegedly being dragged by the suspect’s car. Officers were responding to a drug call at an Oxford hotel when the incident occurred. The shooting is still under investigation by the MBI.

Contact Danza Johnson at 678-1583 or e-mail danza.johnson@djournal.com

Click video to hear audio