Officer's pain is others' gain: Shooting becomes a catalyst for change
From Force Science News
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When a 52-year-old man — shirtless, coked up and bleeding from self-inflicted wounds — lunged at Shannon Brady and her partner with a "serious" folding knife in the cramped kitchen of a small adobe house in Santa Fe, she was prepared to react. She shot him dead.
What she hadn't anticipated or trained for was what happened after the smoke cleared.
Once she had a bitter taste of that, she had a mission. "I didn't want other officers to go through what I did," she says. "Changes needed to be made."
In the 18 months since her life-or-death encounter, post-shooting practices affecting the 140-plus officers on her department, Santa Fe PD, have seen some "major improvement," Police Ofcr. IV Mark Barnett, president of the Santa Fe Police Officers Assn., told Force Science News. "We didn't put our head in the sand and say everything went fine because it certainly didn't. We've tried to learn and make things better."
"This is a good example of how negatives that too often accompany officer-involved shootings can be turned into positives, with the right perspective and determination," says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. "Instead of lingering as a permanent source only of resentment and anger, this shooting has become a catalyst for the kind of changes that are needed in many departments across the country."
The call that hurled Brady into the first shooting of her career was dispatched as an "ambulance assist." A frantic woman, calling from one of Santa Fe's rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, blurted that a man had stabbed himself in the chest. Little more information seemed to be available.
It was Labor Day weekend, 2006, at the tail-dragging end of Brady's 2-to-midnight swing shift. Still on probationary status, she'd been on patrol with SFPD only about 9 months, having transferred there after 3 years with a sheriff's department near Albuquerque. The address of the call was not far from where she'd come close to shooting a teenager who'd pulled a gun on her during a tense showdown a few months earlier.
When she and Sgt. Troy Baker arrived, they found the crowded residence in an uproar, complete with a hysterical grandma, 3 girls under 14 ("all intoxicated"), the subject's girlfriend (drunk and bleeding profusely from stab wounds), and the subject himself, concealed somewhere in the place with a knife that had a 41/2-in. blade.
The 2 officers were in the kitchen, trying to tend to the girlfriend who was slumped in a chair with a pool of blood widening at her feet, when the suspect — "big guy, no shirt, with visible cuts or stab wounds" — suddenly popped out of hiding, just a few steps from them.
"He raised the knife above his head and started closing toward us," Brady recalls. "There was no place to retreat. All I could see was that blade. It looked huge."
She and Baker both screamed, "Knife!" and commanded the suspect to drop the weapon. "He kept coming," Brady says. Almost simultaneously, Baker discharged a Taser and Brady squeezed the trigger on her Glock-22.
She can't remember firing that round, a fact that still troubles her. The bullet tore through the suspect's belt buckle and exited his body near his rectum. She shot again. This time, "I could see the bullet peel his skin" as it punched in, center mass. I remember his breath against me, I felt his knuckles brush across my hand" as he fell. He was pronounced at the hospital.
Officer-involved shootings in Santa Fe are investigated by the New Mexico State Police, a precaution against accusations of bias. The insensitivities that came to earmark Brady's shooting began during the delay while SP investigators responded, and escalated exponentially.
Brady and Baker were kept at the scene for nearly 5 hours, much of that time outdoors where "I sat on an ice cold curb," she remembers. Her request for a jacket had to be cleared through the chain of command, apparently for fear that complying might "alter the shooting environment" from an evidence standpoint.
Once, she and Baker were driven to a substation about a mile away for a bathroom break. They were put in the caged back seat of a marked unit, "like we were criminals," Baker says). "All they didn't do was handcuff us. It was not an atmosphere where you could get your mind off what just happened and try to wind down."
After about 3 hours, Brady was told to surrender her pistol. "I was left with an empty holster in that dangerous neighborhood" during the time it took to scrounge up a replacement from the department armorer.
The shooting occurred about midnight. It was well after daylight before Brady finally got to her home, an hour away in Albuquerque. She was scheduled to be back in Santa Fe that afternoon for her formal interview in the SP's criminal investigation. "I tried to sleep, I really did, but I was too keyed up," she says.
Because of her probationary status, she was not automatically eligible for legal representation through the Officers Assn., but the union provided her with a seasoned police lawyer, Fred Mowrer, anyway. "He did an excellent job preparing me, and I felt so grateful," she says.
She was able to doze off for about 30 minutes at the SP station just before the interview. Aside from that, she says she had been awake for more than 46 hours before walking in to face 2 hours of interrogation for the most important statement of her career.
Two days later, Brady and Baker had their only contact with the city's contract psychologist. "She took us to a room where she said we'd ‘blend in' with people who were testing to become motor transport inspectors," Baker remembers. Brady says, "We had to take an entry-level exam and were given the MMPI [the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a common mental health test]. We were interviewed briefly by the psychologist and declared fit for duty."
She says no inquiry was made regarding how they were feeling about the shooting, no explanation was given about possible critical incident stress symptoms or how to deal with them and no offer of counseling was extended. Through the union, it was arranged for them to talk briefly by phone with a volunteer firefighter who supposedly had training in stress debriefing, but neither felt he could even begin to identify with their situation.
Without further ceremony, they went back on the street. The city's annual Fiestas festival, marked by the bacchanalian burning of a marionette called Old Man Gloom, was at hand and maximum manpower was needed.
Brady's husband, a sergeant and officer-involved shooting investigator with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Dept. in Albuquerque, "put me in touch with a police psychologist who works with his people," Brady says, and as a personal favor he helped her cope with the shooting and its aftermath. "Otherwise, I would have been left in the cold."
Meanwhile, the dead suspect's girlfriend, recovered from her injuries, claimed through the media that the 2 officers had tackled her boyfriend and pinned him to the floor while Brady summarily executed him with her 2 rounds. In the absence of a thorough debriefing for all personnel, rumors flew through the department regarding the circumstances of the shooting and about Brady and Baker personally.
They were heartened when Chief Eric Johnson publicly declared his complete confidence in their actions. Johnson released 911 tapes of the event, which provided an audio documentation of what happened, down to the shots being fired. A captain sat with a reporter from the local newspaper and "went second by second over the recording," Brady says. The resulting article "was very favorable and saved my reputation."
Still, it was some 5 weeks after the shooting before a county grand jury finally exonerated the officers of any criminal wrongdoing. And only after that, Brady says, did IA investigators get around to interviewing her and eventually declaring her clear of any departmental violations, as well — an infuriating lag that seemed to unnecessarily prolong the stress of the ordeal, especially considering that an IA investigator had sat in on the SP interviews just hours after the shooting.
Brady, known to be as outspoken as she proved to be resilient, was not content to let her grievances drop once the dust settled and her emotional battering abated. Her husband, Sgt. Mark Kmatz, says: "Her perspective was ‘I can't change what happened to me, but I want to make it better for other officers in the future.' That's where she has directed her efforts."
Mark Barnett, who became president of the Officers Assn. just a month before the shooting, and members of the union's board have become Brady's staunch allies, joining her in lobbying for more humane on-scene procedures and investigative practices, easier access to psychological counseling and debriefings, and better training in survival tactics and post-shooting coping skills. Brady supplied articles from Force Science News on proper post-shooting procedures to buttress the arguments for change.
A significant achievement, in Barnett's view, has been getting the cooperation of SFPD's command staff so that the union can remove involved officers from a shooting scene expeditiously. "As soon as reasonably possible," they're taken to "some neutral place where they can feel comfortable" and where they can be with a "buddy" of their choosing, protected from the media and from curious, uninvolved officers who may have intrusive questions and comments.
"They can call home, calm down and begin to collect their thoughts in a peaceful atmosphere," Barnett says. "Psychologists have told us this is one of the best things we can do."
Four months after Brady's incident, Sgt. Kyle Zuments, a 12-year SFPD veteran, shot a car-theft suspect after a wild pursuit during Santa Fe's evening rush hour. Zuments himself took a round to the vest ("friendly fire," as it turned out, from one of several officers involved in the chaotic confrontation). Even with a trip to the hospital for his blunt-trauma wound and a conference with the union attorney, Zuments says he was comfortably at home — "in my recliner with an ice pack on my stomach and eating a ham sandwich" — well before his shift normally would have ended.
"The difference between the handling of Shannon's shooting and mine was night and day," he says. Among other things, besides the immediate post-shooting expediency, he was allowed time to be fully rested before sitting down for the SP's official interview.… SFPD's command staff sanctioned and joined in a candid debriefing among all officers involved in the confrontation, which Zuments says "resolved lots of issues" and provided "great support."… He was given 10 days' administrative leave before having to return to work.… At his insistence, he says, the department agreed to pay for counseling for all the involved officers from the Albuquerque psychologist who had privately come to Brady's aid and a colleague. "All this was huge," Zuments says.
Establishing a permanent arrangement for mental health services from sources who understand law enforcement and are respected by officers is high on the union's list for additional improvements, Barnett says.
As part of that agenda, the Officers Assn. and the department have combined to send Sgt. Baker and the department chaplain to a nationally recognized training course on critical incident stress management, with an eye toward creating "a shooting response team that would include a support group of peers." The union also now offers a debriefing, with a psychologist facilitating, to all officers who were working on the day of a shooting, Barnett says, in acknowledgement that a life-threatening event impacts more personnel than just the officers immediately involved.
Barnett and Brady say they intend to continue pushing hard for other changes that "haven't quite happened yet." These include more timely IA investigations. Zuments points out that it took 1 year to the day after his shooting before he received an exoneration letter from Internal Affairs. When he complained during the long delay, he claims he was told, "We have cases that are a lot more high-priority than yours." He observes: "I discharged my weapon in traffic at a crowded intersection, a suspect was shot, a sergeant was shot, and this is not a priority?"
Brady acknowledges that improvements "are still a work in progress," but she's encouraged by the results so far. "The administration — the department as a whole, really — is definitely coming around to a better understanding of how a shooting impacts an officer," she says. "I know that a lot of the things that really bugged me will never happen again."
As this report was being researched, Santa Fe police were involved in another shooting. A middle-aged suspect was shot dead after he opened fire on officers and sheriff's deputies with a Tec-9 during a vehicle pursuit.
A few days later, we asked Mark Barnett how things were going with the aftermath of that incident. "Perfect," he said. "We really have learned a lot."