Originally created 03/01/98

Decision to fire tough for police



It was just when Mark Bowen desperately wanted to save Jose Maes' life that he ended up taking it.

The Richmond County investigator pleaded with the suicidal Mr. Maes to put down the pistol containing one round of ammunition, but Mr. Maes promised he'd use it.

Investigator Bowen just didn't know who would end up taking the bullet.

In the end, the officer would make the decision that hangs over the head of every police officer but few ever face: the decision to fire.

"The stress is ungodly," Investigator Bowen said. "I kept thinking that if I just had enough time with him, I felt we had a bond.

"I just kept saying `Please, let's talk about this. There's no need for anyone to get hurt. Nothing can be that bad.'

"I watched his thumb pull back the hammer," he said, and when Mr. Maes stretched out his arm toward police as though he was going to fire at them, the investigator fired one bullet into his chest.

"I can still see his eyes when I shot him, I dream about it a lot," he said. "I always think about anything else I could've done. But I've never second-guessed what I did. In my heart, I think I gave him a longer chance than I should've. I let him get too close."

Mr. Maes is one of three men killed in recent months by Richmond County deputies. Police were called to his Bluebird Road home when he threatened suicide Dec. 30. He held police at bay for nearly an hour brandishing a gun before he was killed.

Officers like Investigator Bowen involved in fatal shootings say using deadly force is not an easy decision to make or to live with.

"You can't possibly sit there and try to conceive actually taking someone's life. It's something you know you might have to do, but some officers go for 20, 30, 40 years without ever pulling their gun," said Deputy Scott White, who fatally shot a man lurking outside a Turkey Trail mobile home Dec. 29. The man, 46-year-old David Carter Graham, jumped from behind a car and fired shots at the deputy, who returned fire.

"I was definitely in fear of my life," Deputy White said. "From the time he jumped out with the gun - that was the first time I was that close to a weapon - at least the other end of it."

Deputy White ordered Mr. Graham twice to put his gun down, and he refused. When Mr. Graham fired at the officer, the officer shot him once in the chest.

In the days after the shootings, both the officers experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions - from grief to anger.

"He forced my hand to do that, I didn't have a choice," Deputy White said.

Investigator Bowen said his first thought was for the family of Mr. Maes but that he later became angry that he was put in that position.

"I did consider that I might have to do this some day - that I'd kill or I'd get killed," Investigator Bowen said. "I dreaded the day."

Both Deputy White and Investigator Bowen were cleared of any wrongdoing, and the shootings were ruled justified by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Police officers involved in shootings are required to see a counselor following the incident to help them deal with the emotional burden of taking a life.

Capt. Ray Myers, the officer who supervises training of all sheriff's deputies, said officers are trained to make a decision in seconds on whether to pull a gun and that it's never an easy decision.

"It's something that happens on the spur of the moment. The officer makes that decision in a couple of seconds. Everyone else has days that turn into weeks and weeks that turn into months and months that turn into years to sit back and critique it. But at that moment, it's the officer that makes the decision," he said. "Once you make that decision and fire that gun, the bullet is yours forever.

"But it's always easy to quarterback a game on Monday that you saw on Sunday. You know all the plays."

In order for an officer to justify using force, three things must be present, Capt. Myers said. He must show that the assailant is armed, that the opportunity exists for the officer or a bystander to be injured and that there is a reasonable fear that the officer or another's life is in danger.

At issue in the Feb. 21 fatal shooting of 29-year-old Alfaigo Davis is whether the officers who shot at him could have been in reasonable fear of their lives since Mr. Davis was not armed with a gun or a knife.

The officers maintain Mr. Davis was trying to run them over with his car.

"A vehicle can kill," said Capt. Myers. "When you think of weapons, people think of a gun or knife, but there are a lot of things that can be considered weapons."

No matter what the weapon may be, if an officer feels his life is threatened, he's trained to pull the trigger.

"It goes back to muscle memory - the officers are trained not to think about it," Capt. Myers said. When the officer sees danger, his arm immediately reacts and pulls the gun.

When deputies aim and shoot, they are not trying to kill the suspect, Capt. Myers said.

"They are not trained to kill, but trained to remove the threat," he said. An officer may get only one shot at a suspect, so he must aim for the largest part of the person, usually the torso, he said, and that inevitably means sometimes hitting the chest.

"He must shoot until the threat disappears."

Officers face that threat everyday as they patrol the streets, and sometimes it's the officer who takes the bullet.

Perhaps one of the most daunting shootings in Richmond County Sheriff's Department history was in 1990 when a 16-year-old gunman shot Deputy David James five times while he had his back turned - once in his left eye and four times in the back while the officer was responding to a suspicious person call.

Deputy James, now an instructor with the department's training center, lost his left eye and had to have a kidney transplant.

The gunman, Carl Lamont Brandon, was sitting on the porch of a house on Belair Road March 2, 1990, and when Deputy James stopped and turned his back to get a rain jacket out of his car, the boy fired.

"I never saw it coming," the deputy said. "I was very angry at first. I felt everything had been taken away from me, I had had so much taken away from me."

"But I was a victim, and I had survived. But in order to keep surviving, I had to set goals."

Today Deputy James helps to train deputies - how to handle a gun and handle themselves.

"You have to stay really alert. It's a lot worse now than even when I was hurt," he said. "Younger kids are carrying weapons, and you never know who is going to pull a weapon."

In March 1997, Deputy Robert Harrell experienced an officer's worst nightmare when a suspect he was struggling with got hold of his gun. Larry Roberson, 36, grabbed the .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun, pointed it at the officer's chest and pulled the trigger. His life was saved when the gun jammed.

Deputy Jason Vinson, who arrived on the scene moments later, fired shots at Mr. Roberson, hitting him four times in the leg and foot. Mr. Roberson recovered and was convicted of aggravated assault on a police officer.

Lt. Jack Francisco won't talk about the night his gun was taken from him.

The last time he spoke publicly about it was 14 years ago when he told a Richmond County jury that a suspect stole his pistol and turned it on his father.

Lt. Francisco, then a sheriff's deputy and his father a captain, still remains silent about the shooting incident in which he and his father both were shot. Capt. John Francisco died two weeks later from a blood clot that some doctors said was ultimately caused by the gunshot wound. His son recovered from his wounds, and the then 36-year-old Larry Charles Adams went to prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Lt. Francisco, now a lieutenant with the violent crimes division of the Richmond County Sheriff's Department, says he never plans to speak publicly about the bullet that took his father's life.

But the death of Capt. Francisco serves as a reminder to police officers today that a routine traffic stop or police call can turn deadly, much like the Feb. 21 chase of Mr. Davis that ultimately ended his life.