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Show me your hands

Jo Sweet, Community Voices • Sep 29, 2019 at 8:00 AM

My partner and I approached the car we had just signaled to stop, she on the driver’s side and I on the passenger side. All we knew was the driver had ignored a stop sign. As we approached the vehicle there were two adult male occupants, both of whom appeared to be intoxicated as evidenced by their loud and slurred speech. As I assessed the occupants through the passenger’s window, I spotted a large knife on the seat between them. I shouted “KNIFE” to my partner and, following our training, we each drew our pistols.

As we pointed our weapons at the occupants I shouted instructions to “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS.” Any threats to our lives would be by a weapon in one of their hands. I felt intense stress. My heart pounded. My concern was focused on the passenger. Although he apparently was drunk, would he suddenly produce a handgun and shoot me? I continued to shout instructions to place his hands in view and keep them where I could see them and then exit the car. He delayed and my stress continued unabated. I did not want to shoot a drunk, but I also didn’t want to become the victim of a sudden action on his part to shoot me. I realized my decision to shoot, if necessary, would be made in a fraction of a second.

He eventually rolled down the window and crawled out of the car onto the ground where I handcuffed him. I then joined my partner who was still trying to control the driver. He was clearly drunk and trying to flirt with my partner with phrases like “Hi baby.” He finally surrendered and opened the door while both of us continued to train our pistols on him until he was handcuffed. He ultimately confessed that he had a pistol stashed in his door and intended to shoot my partner, being deterred only because he forgot there was a knife on the seat that resulted in our gaining the advantage by having our weapons aimed at him.

The above incident actually occurred. However additional information includes the facts that: my wife and I were participants in an exercise in the Knox County Sheriff’s citizens’ academy; the perpetrators were officers in that department; all weapons were made of plastic; and to “shoot” I would just have to say “bang.” However my anxiety over the dilemma of whether I would shoot or not, based on an instantaneous decision, was very real.

Two lessons from that experience have remained with me. First, if I am ever stopped by an officer while driving I will roll down my window, turn on the interior lights if it is dark, keep my hands in plain view, and try to avoid any words or actions the officer might view as threatening. I will avoid suddenly reaching for anything and will inform the officer of any weapon I might have in the car.

Second, when officer-related shootings are reported in the press I will refrain from rushing to judgment regarding any guilt on the part of the officer until all pertinent facts are known. A recent news report confirmed that through Sept. 16 of this year there have been 34 officer-related shootings in Tennessee, seven of which have been in Northeast Tennessee. Usually the officer has clearly been justified in using deadly force, such as when he or she is being threatened with a firearm. However, I realize that when a physician makes an error a patient may die; when an airline pilot makes an error many passengers may die; and when an officer making an instantaneous decision makes a mistake an innocent person may die. All of these deaths are tragic.

Following an officer-involved shooting a comprehensive review will occur. Witnesses will be interviewed; video, if available will be studied; and the officer will be interviewed. If the incident is determined to be an error on the part of the officer corrective action will be taken, possibly even resulting in criminal prosecution of the officer. However based on my simulated experience I am going to refrain from forming an opinion on such incidents when they are reported in the media until the investigation is finished. I believed that is only fair to the officers whose lives may be threatened in even the most innocuous appearing traffic stop or “routine” assignment.

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