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.
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.
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.”
“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.”