published Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Split-second calls

by Jacqueline Koch
Audio clip

Jim Brock

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Lesley Onstott SWAT team members (from right) Sgt. Chad Sullivan, Sgt. Jeff Gaines and Sgt. Bakari Welles shoot at targets at the police firing range off Moccasin Bend Road.

First of two parts

Five police shootings in six months, leaving five dead.

Anger from the families and the public.

“I feel like these police are taking matters into their own hands,” said Monica Dunn, whose 21-year-old brother Richard Dunn was shot to death in East Ridge in August. “They do what they want because they can.”

Police offer a different perspective.

“People think that we’re killers or something, that we’re out there doing it every day,” said Chattanooga Officer Jim Brock, who’s been involved in three shootings, two of them fatal. “The truth is, most officers are never involved in a shooting.”

Pulling a trigger takes only a split second, but police use of deadly force and its consequences can last a lifetime.

From March through August this year, five area law enforcement agencies had officers involved in fatal shootings of suspects. Two occurred in Chattanooga; one in Meigs County, Tenn.; one in East Ridge; and one in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

Four of the five fatal shootings remain under investigation. The June 24 shooting of John Curtis Coates in Fort Oglethorpe was ruled justifiable and the case is closed, records show.

While civilian deaths at the hands of police obviously affect the officers involved and the families of the victims, they also draw attention to police training and often lead to accusations of excessive force.

“Very few things in our society receive more scrutiny and investigation than officer-involved shootings,” said Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a retired clinical and police psychologist in Tucson, Ariz.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Todd Royval said the public’s reaction to shootings is almost more stressful than pulling the trigger.

“There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Sgt. Royval, who has been involved in four shootings, three of them fatal.

Video and Internet training company In the Line of Duty Learning will be in Fort Oglethorpe on Friday to begin interviews for a training film about the June shooting in that town. The company, based in St. Louis, will produce a video from real footage of the event and interviews with those involved.

“It allows the officers that do this for a living to see tactics employed in real-life situations,” said Lt. Gary McConathy with the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department, which uses videos from the company for training. “You’re not looking at it to critique it. You’re seeing what you could use to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.”

The aftermath

The circumstances surrounding the recent shootings varied, but some left residents pointing fingers and families grieving.

“It’s still not really real,” Ms. Dunn said. “For me, it’s getting better a little bit every day, but not my Momma. She’s still really torn apart.”

An officer-involved shooting elicits strong emotions from the officers involved.

“You have nightmares about it,” said Sgt. Royval, who noted he never second-guessed his shootings, which were ruled justifiable. “You have dreams about it. That’s normal.”

Even if officers don’t second-guess themselves, they still live with the knowledge that they killed someone. That’s why counseling and psychological evaluations are important, said Officer Brock.

“Even if it was a legitimate shooting, it would be tough for a guy to handle,” he said.

In Chattanooga, officers involved in such shootings must take paid administrative leave and undergo psychological evaluations before returning to work. And state agencies such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation often review such cases.

“In the aftermath, we have the luxury of (reviewing the incidents),” Dr. Artwohl said. “The police officers do not have that luxury in the act itself. We have days, weeks, months, years to carefully review what happened.”


Department policy dictates how police officers are supposed to act when using deadly force. When the life-or-death moment is right in front of them, officers rely on training.

“In those sudden life-threatening situations, they will do what they are trained to do, and training itself is based on logic and reason,” Dr. Artwohl said. “The training gives them enough practice so that when they are confronted with a sudden situation, the subconscious will take over and do what they were trained to do.”

In her research, Dr. Artwohl found that 74 percent of officers in officer-involved shootings gave little or no conscious thought to what they were doing. Such incidents typically happen “too quickly for any normal human brain to consciously process information and act on it,” she said.

Officer Brock said he remembers having time to think during all three of his shootings, but that he acted on instinct to save his life and the lives of his fellow officers.

Things happened so quickly during one shooting that, although three rounds were fired by Officer Brock and another officer, those at the scene heard only one.

“Talk about fast — it was over lickety split,” Officer Brock said. “Everybody there thought one round had been fired. There were three, but everyone heard one bang. But it just happened both at the same time, we decided to shoot. That right there tells you there was a perceived threat by both of us.”

PDF: CPD policy manual - Use of force

Some local officer-involved shootings:

* Nov. 29, 2004 -- A Cleveland, Tenn., police officer shot two robbery suspects after he pursued them and they attempted to run him down in their vehicle.

* September 2004 -- A 48-year-old businessman was shot by federal authorities in the Sports Barn East parking lot after he brandished a loaded 10-gauge shotgun at them. Michael Kyle had made a videotape before the shooting talking about his failed business, the suicide of his wife and parole violations. Friends say he wanted officers to kill him.

* September 2004 -- Officers shot and killed James Lindsey Jr. of East Brainerd after SWAT team members were involved in a standoff and subsequent shootout with Mr. Lindsey. One officer's shield was struck by about nine pellets of buckshot fired by Mr. Lindsey.

* May 2003 -- Two Chattanooga officers fatally shot a man during a traffic stop when they believed he was reaching for a weapon. John E. Henderson had a bottle of perfume, a screwdriver and a box cutter in his vehicle, police said. The officers both perceived a threat, though only one fired a shot.

* Oct. 26, 2001 -- Chattanooga police officers shot a 22-year-old man after he allegedly shot his estranged wife. Ira Ishmael Muhammad was shot once in the chest.

* Dec. 14, 2000 -- Chattanooga police shot a man several times inside a home on Ely Road after responding to a domestic violence situation. The man was armed with a shotgun, several pistols and an assault rifle and was wearing heavy body armor, a gas mask and camouflage clothing. When police tried to talk to him, he became agitated. Officers backed away, and the man came toward the door carrying a rifle, at which time two SWAT officers shot him.

* April 9, 2000 -- Two Chattanooga officers shot and killed a burglary suspect when he tried to run them over with a pickup truck full of stolen merchandise.

* April 28, 1998 -- Mantrail Collins, 22, was shot and killed after he opened fire on police on West 21st Street.

* Nov. 6, 1998 -- A 28-year-old man was shot in the shoulder by a Chattanooga police officer. Robert Lee Edwards was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder for firing several times at police and for shooting a man on M.L. King Boulevard.

* May 6, 1998 -- Kevin Dewayne McCullough, 27, was shot and killed when he came at officers with a foot-long metal pry bar tipped with sharp prongs.

* Nov. 24, 1995 -- For the second time in less than a week, Chattanooga police officers were involved in a shooting during a narcotics operation. DEA agents and police narcotics detectives were attempting to serve search warrants and stepped inside the house when a man with a semiautomatic weapon attempted to shoot the officers. The pistol misfired, and an officer shot 26-year-old Christopher McDonald in the right thigh, causing the weapon to fall from his hands.

* Aug. 27, 1995 -- Dalton police shot 36-year-old Dwight Boyse Holman after responding to a domestic call at a hotel. They told Mr. Holman to drop his .357-caliber magnum revolver, but he shot at them once before the gun misfired. Officers returned fire, striking him several times.

* June 28, 1995 -- A Grundy County sheriff's deputy shot a Tracy City man after the man reportedly tried to shoot the deputy. The deputy was responding to a domestic call and ordered Robert Nunley, 25, to drop his .25-caliber automatic pistol. Mr. Nunley didn't and attempted to fire at the deputy, who shot Mr. Nunley in the left hip.

* Feb. 23, 1995 -- The son of businessman Robert E. Shaw was shot by Dalton police after he tried to assault his parents and authorities with a sword. Thomas Tripp Shaw, 33, tried to assault an officer responding to the domestic dispute, was shot once in the chest by an officer and then barricaded himself in a bathroom.

Source: Newspaper archives

According to many departments’ policies, officers are trained to follow a progression of force, known as the use of force continuum. The continuum operates on the concept of increasing the police officer’s level of control in response to the suspect’s level of resistance.

If the level of resistance increases, an officer is justified in increasing the level of control, the policy states. The officer’s responses are supposed to follow a prescribed manner: officer presence, verbal direction, chemical and electric weapons, intermediate weapons (including use of dogs) and deadly force.

When working with other officers, police are trained to act as back-up. If one officer is using a Taser, another officer should be ready with deadly force, said Fort Oglethorpe Officer Mitchell Moore. Officer Moore was shot twice by Mr. Coates, who himself was shot dead a second later by a Walker County sheriff’s deputy.

“If it (nonlethal force) doesn’t work, you have a fail safe and a back-up,” Officer Moore said.

In the past five years, Chattanooga police have been involved in three fatal shootings. During the same time, officers responded to more than 1 million calls for service and arrested more than 75,000 suspects, Police Chief Freeman Cooper said.

“I believe that the facts support that CPD officers are very well trained and carry out their jobs giving the highest regard to the lives and safety of our citizens,” he said in statement.


Families struggle not only with a loved one’s death but with the perception that the police operate under a code of silence, policing themselves.

Ms. Dunn admits her brother wasn’t perfect, but she doesn’t think he deserved to die.

“My brother made mistakes — we all do — but he was not a thug,” she said.

Mr. Dunn attempted to run over police officers after fleeing a Ringgold Road hotel in a stolen Mercedes-Benz, according to police. When officers attempted to remove him from his car, he put the vehicle in gear, almost striking officers.

Police also are affected by the perception among community members, who sometimes blame officers.

“No matter what the justificiation for a shooting, (residents are) going to want their pound of flesh,” said Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical forensic and police psychologist in South Florida. “But there are so many judgment calls where officers resolve an incident without violence. That’s part of their training that’s underemphasized.”

In most cases involving excessive force or death while in police custody, a court has ruled in favor of the city, police department and officers — both locally and nationwide, Dr. Artwohl said.

Since 1997, Chattanooga and its police officers have been named as defendants in six lawsuits involving shootings and/or wrongful deaths that involved officers pulling the trigger or someone dying in police custody, according to data from the city attorney’s office. The suits do not include motor vehicle fatalities in which officers may have been involved.

In four of the Chattanooga lawsuits, a jury or judge ruled in favor of the city and officers or the case was dismissed.

In another, the family of Leslie Vaughn Prater, 37, who suffocated in January 2004 during a struggle with police, was awarded $1.5 million in a settlement.

Of the five recent area shootings, only one has resulted in a lawsuit so far. The family of Alonzo Heyward, who was shot at 59 times by six Chattanooga officers in July, has sued the city, the police department and the officers for an amount to be decided by a jury.

In the Aug. 8 shooting of Mr. Dunn, a preliminary investigation showed that East Ridge officers acted in accordance with policy, police said after the standoff, which took place behind Parkridge East Hospital.

“We’ve been talking with lawyers. They are conducting their own investigation,” Ms. Dunn said. “I hope they (police) have to go to court.”

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namvet047 said...

if you run from the police, then you are guilty of something, if you point a gun at anyone, you should be shot. if you point a gun at me and i have a gun then i will try to shoot you what is the big deal. don't point a gun at anyone unless you are going ro pull the trigger.

October 4, 2009 at 12:47 a.m.
namvet047 said...

if you run from the police, then you are guilty of something, if you point a gun at anyone, you should be shot. if you point a gun at me and i have a gun then i will try to shoot you what is the big deal. don't point a gun at anyone unless you are going ro pull the trigger. funerals are cheaper than keeping people in prison for life. then if the parents think it is to harsh for their son, let the parent go and serve the time.

October 4, 2009 at 12:50 a.m.
bell_fighter said...

namve047 would you be saying that if a white man got shot over 43 times by 6 black cops?I think NOT!Police are humans just like the rest of us and YES they make mistakes too.That incident involving that young man shot all those times was ridiculous and not called for.To believe every thing a cop say I think not!That incident reminded me of the 1960s having police hanging a black man and then shooting his private areas repeatedly.God sits high and looks low,and no matter what we do in this world we All will have to answer to him for our actions,so his brutal death will not be in vain.To all the families god bless you and help you to cope no matter the ugly things people say because WHAT COMES AROUND GOES AROUND!GOD bless.

October 4, 2009 at 3:55 a.m.
Tax_Payer said...

It does not surprise me that a color coded comment followed this article.

A BLACK police Chief backed up his white subordinates, then when the black community whined its old story, a BLACK police SGT. went to deal with it diplomatically after the NAACP stirred up its' same old strife.

Color gets nowhere. The problem is that there is a great need to respect the law, love your neighbor, and help your fellow man so these things cease to happen.

Lastly, raise them kids to be law abiding citizens.

October 4, 2009 at 7:25 a.m.
xyzyra said...

Be it the average street criminal or one in uniform, you have to understand that not everyone feels remorse over taking the life of another. For some it is a badge of honor, finally belonging to an exclusive club having bagged their first kill. In fact, it wasn't all that long ago that cops were actually bragging and making crude remarks on a discussion forum about their victims they'd either killed or beat up. Then someone must have informed them their remarks could be made a case against them at some point that the remarks finally somewhat subsided.

October 4, 2009 at 10:28 a.m.
RockDaHouse85 said...

I personally don't understand why there is so much angst about the shootings mentioned above. In all of the cases an individual was threatening the safety of the police officers, and in many of the cases the suspect was brandishing a firearm or even shooting at police. What are the officers supposed to do? Stand there while they're being shot at and ask nicely for the suspect to put down the gun? TO be fair, there are cases where the police have overreacted and shot someone when they probably didn't need to, and there are even cases where they have shot an innocent civilian. But we the citizens need to keep in mind that they work in a very stressful, dangerous occupation. They put their lives on the line in order to keep us safe. They are not perfect, but why should we expect them to react any differently than they did when their lives are in danger? Cops get shot and killed too. Do we go after the criminals who killed them and demand justice the same way we do when a cop shoots and kills someone? To me the bottom line is this: if you are a law-abiding citizen, you don't have to worry too much about being shot by the police. If, however, you are a lawbreaker, then you should expect the police to do their job and arrest you. If you point guns at them and start shooting, they will shoot back. It's very simple. From what I can tell by reading the above descriptions of the shootings, none of these people would have been in danger of being shot by the police if they had been obeying the law. I'm in favor of investigating police shootings to make sure the police were justified in their actions, but I think we need to stop defending criminals for their actions.

October 4, 2009 at 1:06 p.m.
bell_fighter said...

It doesn't surprise me that alot of ignorant people call other people criminals when they were not present for and of these killings.YES a gun involved some of these cases but how they were handled is what is being questioned.ARE you supposed to so call commit suicide with a water gun?Anyway that was a JUDGEMENT call,where was the negotiator?Some people need HELP instead of DEATH by arrogant people holding a gun.The cops didn't just shoot that man they OVER-KILLED him and to think those people are still policing black neighborhoods with that type of mentality is unbelievable.To everyone with a comment about shooting people fist and all that crap.HELL is hott,do you think you can take your guns with you?GOD BLESS.

October 4, 2009 at 11:25 p.m.
RockDaHouse85 said...

bell_fighter, I'm guessing you are referring to that case where the man was shot multiple times by the police. But that one case does not mean that every police shooting is automatically an unjustified overreaction. Furthermore, what would you do if you were a police officer being shot at? Would you say, "Hey guys, no one shoot back. We need to call for a negotiator." Negotiators have their place, but once shots are being fired, all bets are off. I still maintain that if these people were obeying the law, most likely they would not have been shot at by the police. (Yes, I am aware that there are unjustified police shootings; I am merely arguing that it is a tough call to make and in some cases, police shootings are justified.) You yourself admitted that a gun was involved in some of the cases, but you say how they were being handled is the question. Well, here's my question: did those people who possessed firearms possess them legally or illegally?

October 5, 2009 at 11:59 p.m.
Komboa said...

Special Litigation Section U.S. Department of Justice 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. PHB 5034 Washington, D.C.20530

September 21, 2009

                    Re: Complaint Against The Chattanooga Police Department, Request for the Filing of  Pattern and Practices Police Misconduct lawsuit pursuant to, sec. 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

MS. Cutlar:

We are activists seeking to deal with a long history of 30 years (1978-2009) of police brutality by the continual use of deadly force by police agencies in the Chattanooga, Tennessee metropolitan area. Over 58 persons have died in local police custody or by police officers effecting an arrest using an excessive amount of force. These include shooting victims, persons choked to death, run over by police cruisers, and other forms of unjustified deadly police violence. Such violent arrests and unrestricted use of deadly force, on a systematic basis, deprived such individuals of their constitutional rights to equal justice. The majority of the deaths (70%) are of African Americans and clearly many occurred in instances where they were victims of officer misconduct and deadly force because of their race, social class, ethnic heritage. This includes the shooting of a least five persons over 20 times, and in the latest case, the shooting of one individual 43 times by 6 city police officer, while he was prone on the ground, begging for his life. Section 14141 of the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act empowers the Attorney General of the United States to bring civil suits against law enforcement agencies where there is a “pattern and practice of conduct by law enforcement officers….that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.” Now, it is time to spur changes in the deadly force and other policies of the Chattanooga Police Department, which has resulted in over 45 persons killed by city police and deadly force by adjacent police agencies in the Metro area resulting in 13 deaths. For a city this size (168,000), there is no question that there should not be this many persons losing their lives in local police custody. In fact, DOJ had already determined that Chattanooga was #1 in terms of fatalities of persons in custody for any city with a population under 200,000 persons. Chattanooga political and police authorities have resisted any change in their deadly force or use of force policies generally, and it will take external pressure by the Department of Justice We therefore urge the DOJ to bring suit against the Chattanooga district police agency to address the unrestricted and unlawful use of deadly force by the Chattanooga police officers and metro agencies. Reform is long overdue. Thank you.


Lorenzo Ervin, Maxine Cousin ,

October 17, 2009 at 3:30 p.m.
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