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Sheriff's officers tell of trauma from having to shoot, kill

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Investigator Walter “Griff” Garrison had been a police officer for about three months when he pulled the trigger and took a life on Labor Day 2010.

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Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. David James, who was shot by a teenager in 1990, works with other officers who experience traumatic incidents.  JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF
Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. David James, who was shot by a teenager in 1990, works with other officers who experience traumatic incidents.


Police said Garrison’s case was unusual because it happened so early in his career, but the act in itself is not.

“If you are in law enforcement long enough, you may experience it more than once,” said Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. David James.

The recent fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old in Fer­gu­son, Mo., has brought up the police shooting issue again. According to FBI data, about 400 killings by police are reported every year. Richmond County has seen at least eight cases in the past six years.

“They come in here with their heads down low,” James said of officers involved in the shootings. “There’s no smile on their face. They never wanted to pull that trigger … They were put into a situation that was not their choosing.”

Although every experience is different, officers who take a life often experience severe bouts of depression, alcoholism, marital problems, sleepless nights and feelings of being alone in the aftermath.

A fear of admitting a weakness often results in more severe problems for the officer.

“It’s not something anyone should have to go through,” Gar­ri­son said. “The emotion of it never ends. It changes who you are.”

Flood of emotions

Garrison was a 32-year-old deputy who had been riding solo for about two weeks when the call went out about trouble with a customer at Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Washington Road.

Kevin Pao, 22, of Mary­land, had been coming into the restaurant recently asking for money, eating free peanuts and using the restroom.

The officer found Pao in the restroom and walked him outside to talk. Garrison said he intended to check for active warrants then let him go.

In the back of the patrol car, everything changed when Pao pulled a gun draped in a T-shirt from his backpack. There was a struggle before Garrison pulled his gun from his holster.

He remembers his life flashing before his eyes – images of his wife, twin sons and daughters. He doesn’t remember pulling the gun and recalls firing only one of the four shots.

“That tenth of a millisecond felt like it lasted 30 minutes,” he said. “It was like an out-of-body experience, and I had always laughed at people who talked about that.”

Backup was called and investigators began arriving. Gar­ri­son sat on the curb and vomited.

He was able to hold his emotions through the long hours that passed as he went through interviews with officials and the Georgia Bureau of In­vestigation, which is brought in to investigate all officer-related shootings.

When he got home, “the floodgates opened,” Garrison said.

Like a child, he found himself crying, curled on the floor with his wife. He doesn’t know how long he lay there, playing back the scene in his mind, trying to grasp the reality that he had killed another person and wondering whether it could have been different.

Trained response

Sgt. Dan Carrier had experienced death numerous times in his career by the time he fatally shot a man.

Carrier had been with the sheriff’s office for six years when he was sent to a Fenwick Street boarding house the day after Thanksgiving in 2002.

A man in the hospital had told him that Benny Bauknight had shot him through the door of the house. When Carrier arrived, he saw the bullet hole and instantly knew the potential danger.

Bauknight opened the door with a rifle pointed at Carrier. There was a struggle, but Bauknight fired, striking Car­rier once in the inner thigh. He returned fire, striking Bauknight twice in the chest.

Even with a gunshot wound, Carrier said, he focused on securing the scene and getting the gun away from Bauknight, who was still alive at the time.

“There’s plenty of emotions going on afterward,” he said. “It’s something you’re never going to forget.”

His father, a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and a former firefighter, came to Augusta to provide Carrier with support. Carrier also has former military and firefighting experience, so shock was not as extreme as some officers experience.

“My instance is probably a little different than most in that I was kind of born into this,” he said. “It makes it a little easier growing up around that.”

The aftershock

“John Wayne never suffered from anything,” said Dr. Jim Sewell, a retired assistant commissioner of the Flor­ida Department of Law Enforc­ement. “He shot bad guys and walked away.”

That’s Hollywood, not real life. For months and even years after an officer takes a life, he can be haunted by the memory.

Officers experience nightmares and sleeplessness, Sewell said. A common dream is that the gun malfunctions.

Garrison experienced unease with a new gun after the shooting. Although it was the same brand and model as the gun he’d had before – which was now in evidence – he didn’t feel safe with it.

“I wanted my gun back,” he said. “I knew the gun had worked. I had put it to the test and it worked.”

Sewell said some spouses have witnessed officers speaking to the bad guy out loud, as if he was standing there. Common things such as a car backfiring can have an officer reaching for his holster immediately.

Not every officer requires help, but others need extensive support and mental and physical guidance.

“We’re all wired differently,” said Georgia State Patrol Lt. Andy Carrier, who isn’t related to the Richmond County sergeant.

Marital problems, alcoholism, domestic abuse, forgetfulness, digestive issues, a loss or increase in religious faith, extreme anger and suicide are all common reactions, he said.

“It’s funny how you feel,” said Sgt. Bill Adams, who shot and paralyzed Robert Marchman when he threatened to shoot him in 1997. “You feel anger toward them for making you do that, but then you want to go home at the end of your shift.”

A team of support

In January 2013, the Rich­mond County Sheriff’s Office formed its first peer support group to help police who had experienced traumatic incidents.

The team is made up about 35 officers from all divisions who have experienced such incidents. They come in during the aftermath to help the officer cope, have someone to talk to and understand what might be happening to him in the days, months and years to come.

Before the team was created, support was more informal. Officers, such as James, would check in on other officers after hearing about the incident, but there was no formal training on the subject.

All James had was experience. In 1990, he was shot five times – once in the eye and four times in the back – by a 16-year-old.

The team helps put the officers in touch with doctors, psychologists and other professionals. They check back periodically, and if more help is warranted, they might suggest the officer attend Georgia’s annual Post Cri­tical Incident Seminar, which puts them in touch with people across the state who have experienced similar events.

“There’s nothing scientific about what happens there,” Lt. Andy Carrier said. “You’re just putting people together who have a common bond.”

Georgia is one of only five states that offer such seminars.

Sewell said peer groups and seminars are slowly starting to reverse the high turnover rate seen in police agencies across the country.

“I’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” said Deputy Pat Cullinan, who is part of the Richmond County sheriff’s support group.

Cullinan and another deputy fatally shot Jesus Rodriguez-Martinez in 2004. The officers fired when Rodriguez-Martinez refused to stop stabbing his wife, who was holding their small child.

Cullinan said he didn’t experience remorse but still had sleepless nights and dreams about the incident.

“I thought I would have had some more remorse, but I didn’t because I saved two lives,” he said.

Despite the circumstances, most officers don’t know what to say to someone who has been involved in a shooting or other incident, leading to increasing in a feeling of “aloneness,” isolation and other issues. That’s where the team comes in.

“Things build up and a lot of officers are afraid if they admit they have a problem then they’ll be labeled as weak,” Cullinan said. “We (the peer support team) are breaking down those barriers.”

Comments (17) Add comment
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myfather15
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myfather15 08/31/14 - 12:58 am
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I've used the story of David

I've used the story of David James many times on here; without using his name. I've heard this story many times.

If my memory is correct, they took his firearm and shot him with it, execution style, with him on his knees!!

This is why LE officer's can not allow someone fighting them, to knock them unconscious or render them defenseless; because their firearm can then be used against them!!

If a LE officer is being pummeled and is in fear of losing consciousness; it doesn't matter if the assailant is armed or not; deadly force CAN be used!!

Young Fred
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Young Fred 08/31/14 - 03:06 am
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This is

the untold story. It's not what the main stream media likes to portray as the typical LEO.

corgimom
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corgimom 08/31/14 - 04:44 am
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This is what I've always said

This is what I've always said about the people that brag, "I've got a gun, and if anybody bothers me, I'll shoot them!" It's a deeply traumatic experience to kill another person, no matter what the circumstances. When these officers have to shoot someone, I always say a prayer that they may be healed.

MTBer
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MTBer 08/31/14 - 06:35 am
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Good article, well-timed

I don't know of anyone that carries a firearm that brags and wants to shoot anyone. Law enforcement or civilian, or even military. We never have a desire to shoot another human. The weapon we carry is there to stop the "bad person" from continuing to do harm, or the potential of harm. It is not carried for macho reasons.

flipa1
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flipa1 08/31/14 - 07:50 am
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One more reason to pick the

One more reason to pick the bad boys up out of bed in the wee hours instead of waiting till they're pointing a gun at you. When you call Crime Stoppeers 800-222-TIPS tipsline, you give the police the information to stay safe. The officers go get the bad boy, and nobody gets shot. Crime Stoppers, where you remain anonymous and nobody gets shot... hopefully.

GiantsAllDay
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GiantsAllDay 08/31/14 - 08:59 am
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So, tell me again........who

So, tell me again........who in their right mind would want to carry a gun for a living?? Fonzie from Happy Days said it best: "I want to be a cop after high school..where else could they pay you to carry a gun and ride a motorcycle???"

MrClen1944
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MrClen1944 08/31/14 - 09:17 am
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GAD, you wouldn't understand

GAD, you wouldn't understand if I told ya.

Gage Creed
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Gage Creed 08/31/14 - 08:05 pm
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Funny...

The people that carry guns for a living serve to make it possible for "citizens" like GAD to comment.. Yet he has nothing but contempt for them?

Spell edit

Sweet son
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Sweet son 08/31/14 - 11:54 am
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This is a great article!

Thanks to Bianca for telling these officer's untold stories. Any of you who think police officers go to work wanting to shoot someone don't have a clue.

corgi is right to pray for officers who find themselves in these situations. We should all pray for Officer Wilson in Ferguson. He is a 'condemned' man even before the criminal justice system has begun to work on the case.

GiantsAllDay
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GiantsAllDay 08/31/14 - 12:28 pm
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Just my opinion, and it is my

Just my opinion, and it is my own opinion... Those that have a great desire to carry a gun for a living are probably the ones that shouldn't. Just look at the news articles for the last 18 months or so.

butterflygina
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butterflygina 08/31/14 - 02:40 pm
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Thanks for sharing these

Thanks for sharing these officer's stories. I don't believe the deputies involved in the Alfago Davis shooting are still around or were they mentioned? Don't forget about the shooting of the young man in Cherry Tree, I believe Jed was his name. I commend the police for the hard and dangerous job that they do. Cudos to those who are dedicated, well trained and treat all persons fairly!!

csraguy
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csraguy 08/31/14 - 08:21 pm
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Great Officers and Excellent Peer Support Personnel

These officers give so much for so little, even for those like GAD who could care less.

GAD, most people don't become police officers or join the military because they can carry a gun, the notion is ridiculous. People become police officers to serve their community, make things better, to help others, to catch drunk drivers or killers or others maybe due to some personal experience in their life. Anyone who wants to "carry a gun" can do so legally by simply being 18 and not being a felon. Becoming an officer is a calling and if you don't get it (which you clearly don't) then no matter what is said, you never will.

As for these heroes, thanks for all you do for our community.

corgimom
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corgimom 08/31/14 - 09:04 pm
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MTBer, you should read some

MTBer, you should read some of the local blogs. You will be astounded.

GnipGnop
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GnipGnop 08/31/14 - 09:32 pm
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Don't know any officers

Personally that have had to use deadly force but my father in law did in Vietnam. It has always bothered him too. He always told me you do it out if reaction because if you stopped and thought about it you would be dead. There is no glory in taking a life of another man there is only a fleeting relief that it wasn't you that was killed. That only last moments and you realize you took a life. As a gun owner and 2nd amendment proponent I hope I never have to use my gun on anyone.

GiantsAllDay
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GiantsAllDay 09/01/14 - 03:03 am
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MrClen1944, go ahead and

MrClen1944, go ahead and explain it to me while you are talking down to me. Obviously my brain isnt as highly developed as yours, so explain it in the most simple of terms, OK? I'm listening....

myfather15
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myfather15 09/01/14 - 12:47 pm
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MrClen doesn't want to waste his time

And explaining anything to YOU, about LE would be a complete waste of time!!

Anyone who states emphatically that LE officer's can't wait to shoot someone, doesn't deserve further explanation.

I've calmed some and toned the comment down, so maybe this one won't get pulled.

GiantsAllDay
10517
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GiantsAllDay 09/01/14 - 01:54 pm
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I wouldn't think a bad temper

I wouldn't think a bad temper and LE career would go very well together.

myfather15
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myfather15 09/02/14 - 12:57 pm
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After emphatically stating

After emphatically stating that LE officer's "can't wait" to shoot people; I couldn't care less what YOU think goes well with a LE career!!

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