By Greg Bluestein
EAST DUBLIN, Ga. — Video from a police cruiser in this rural Georgia town shows just how quickly a traffic stop can turn deadly.
In the recording, officer Jason Deal jumps out of his patrol car and runs toward Melvin Williams, who has gotten out of his vehicle. The two begin fighting. Williams punches the officer in the head and takes a couple of steps toward Deal, who draws his gun and fires, killing the unarmed Williams.
Police encounter similar split-second decisions each day and rely on their intensive training and "shoot or don't shoot" scenarios to guide them. Yet in this case, Deal had gone more than a year without a mandatory training on the use of deadly force. He should have lost his arrest powers several months before the May 2010 shooting, according to a report from state investigators.
"Shooting him in the stomach should have been the last resort. But it was the first thing he did," said Williams' mother, Lena. "And that tells you he hadn't been trained."
Williams' family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officer, the police department and the town of East Dublin, seeking unspecified damages. They claim East Dublin didn't have a written use of force policy.
Town attorney Ted Freeman has disputed the excessive force allegations and said the 26-year-old Deal was properly trained. The state investigation, however, found that more than half of the eight-man force in East Dublin, including the chief, missed the training in 2009. Freeman declined further comment.
State investigators are looking into the shooting a second time and the district attorney said he will launch a grand jury investigation next month.
"There's a lot of controversy about the arrests powers, I can tell you that," District Attorney Craig Fraser said.
It's not clear exactly why Deal pulled Williams, 33, over at a friend's house in a neighborhood filled with ramshackle cinderblock houses and overgrown lawns on the edge of town. Authorities have refused to talk about the traffic stop.
Williams also seems initially confused about why he was pulled over.
"What is wrong with you? Man, what is wrong with you?" Williams said to the officer in the video. Much of the scuffle takes place outside of the camera's view, but the audio makes clear there is a struggle. After a few more seconds of fighting, Deal fires and Williams crumples to the ground.
"I just shot one," Deal, struggling to catch his breath, said to a dispatcher. "... I had one try to take my gun."
Williams was no stranger to law enforcement. He served a few stints in prison in the 1990s on cocaine and shoplifting charges and was sentenced to more than eight years in 1999 for a robbery. He was released in March 2008.
The dash-cam video was provided to The Associated Press by the Williams family. Their attorney, Mario Williams, verified the recording was the same as the one he received from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The attorney, who is not related to the Williams family, declined comment on the case.
States require extensive use of force training, though it is not uniformly administered. In Georgia, officers must complete an annual course that teaches them when to draw their weapons and how to defuse dangerous situations. Courses vary by instructor, but officials said many require officers to go through case studies and scenarios where decisions are made in an instant.
Officers in Georgia who don't complete the training each year or obtain a waiver lose their power of arrest, said Mitch Jones, the director of the training division of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
An initial Georgia Bureau of Investigation report concluded that Deal didn't do either in 2009 and should have lost his arrest power in January 2010. Deal, who became an officer in 2007, did complete the annual course in 2008, records show.
In a brief interview, Chief Bill Luecke said the department has changed its training protocol, but did not elaborate. He also said officers who had failed to meet the requirement have either made up the course or are doing so.
"Everything's cool," he said, before declining to answer additional questions.
East Dublin is a town of about 2,800 people perhaps best known for hosting the Summer Redneck Games, an annual competition that involves watermelon-seed spitting, bobbing for pigs' feet and the ever-popular mud pit belly flop contest. There's no city center, but a handful of restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores line the main drag. The police station and mayor's office share a building that was formerly a bank at one of the town's main intersections.
The shooting, in a rundown neighborhood within a mile of the police station, incensed activists and others.
"It is so appalling to me that some law enforcement will not uphold the law," said Kenneth Glasgow, who directs the human rights group The Ordinary People Society. "The hypocrisy is unbearable."
Experts said an officer is generally allowed to fire a weapon if there's an immediate threat of death or serious injury to him or others. But they differ on whether Deal should have been allowed to carry a firearm without the training.
Fred G. Robinette III, a retired FBI agent who now works as a consultant on use of force, said the officer should have been required by the department to give up his weapon until he had the proper training.
"When he lost his lawful certification, he should have been placed on administrative duty, the same as officers who are similarly taken out of active service while shootings involving those officers are being investigated," said Robinette, a 26-year FBI veteran. "This not a new concept. It is done routinely, all of the time."
He said both the department and the officer could be liable.
"If he had been minding his own business, and was accosted, he would have been as justified as any citizen to defend himself," he said. "However, it appears that he was acting assertively in his official law enforcement capacity here, and created the confrontation that ultimately resulted in his use of deadly force."
Others said Deal could have fired his weapon regardless as long as he felt he was in serious danger.
"A police officer does not lose his inherent right to self-defense just because he didn't attend an annual refresher training course on his department's use of force policy," said Gregory D. Lee, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who has written three textbooks on criminal justice procedure.
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