03/07/2006

Basic gun rules broken in Ga. recruit's death

By BRENDEN SAGER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Recruits in a Cobb County police firearms class were worried about an instructor's teaching methods moments before he shot and killed a member of the class, an investigative report released Friday shows.

In fact, the report said that recruits in Cobb Sheriff's Deputy Al Jackson's class didn't want to follow his instructions to point weapons at their classmates, and that Jackson physically moved them and their guns to bear on one another.

Jackson shot and killed Tara Drummond, a 23-year-old Kennesaw Police Department recruit, on Sept. 13, at the North Central Georgia Law Enforcement Academy in Austell.

The report also says that in 2000, the director of the police academy forbade Jackson in writing from using live weapons in class, and a variety of weapons instructors said Jackson violated the most rudimentary tenet of firearms instruction: Don't point a working gun, loaded or not, at a person.

Cobb police officials on Friday released a summary of their investigation into the fatal shooting. The report became public after a Cobb County grand jury declined Thursday to indict Jackson, 49, on any crime.

The grand jury was asked to consider two misdemeanor charges against Jackson, reckless conduct and involuntary manslaughter, according to documents filed in court.

The police investigation, completed in November, did not recommend charges against Jackson, Cobb Public Safety Director Mickey Lloyd said. The report released Friday said there was no criminal intent by Jackson but was critical of his teaching methods.

"The class and the instructors were armed with functioning weapons, magazines and utility belts," the report said. "Sergeant Jackson instructed the students to point their weapons at each other.

"The students stated they were pointing their weapons at the wall to avoid direct aim at their classmates. ... Students were verbally and physically moved into this face-to-face position by Sergeant Jackson.

"The drill included dropping the magazine in the weapon, reloading with a spare magazine, charging the weapon with a dummy round, pointing the weapon at a fellow student, and pulling the trigger.

"Sergeant Jackson completed the first course of fire and transitioned to his second magazine. The weapon discharged and struck Recruit Tara Drummond in the chest."

Bob Sanderson, assistant director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, said Friday the exercise was a significant departure from normal training procedures.

"Even with simulations, you don't line up students across from each other and practice loading and aiming and shooting at someone," Sanderson said. "There are drills you do, where you drop your magazine, aim and fire, but you do it on the firing range. I never heard of anyone conducting their drills that way. That is completely contrary to what I know of."

Sanderson said a fake gun — a molded solid piece of plastic — and dummy bullets would normally be used for such classroom exercises.

Dummy rounds are "blanks" designed to simulate the weight and feel of a live round, but without any projectile, Cobb Sheriff's Col. Don Bartlett said.

The synopsis of the police investigation was not clear on how a live round — the fatal bullet — came to enter Jackson's 9 mm semiautomatic handgun. Police recovered the shell casing and the projectile from the training classroom.

All ammunition is banned from the building, and state policy bans any working firearm — loaded or not — from police academy classrooms, officials said.

The state oversees the center in Austell and nine other regional police academies. The Austell academy is operated by Cobb County under a contract with the state.

"The lab also advised that the projectile was ammunition generally used at a live fire range," the report said.

Jackson, a 23-year veteran of the sheriff's office who had taught at the academy for 10 years, "stated that the dummy rounds were stored in a range box which he had left in the classroom. The dummy rounds had been used on a live fire range a few weeks prior to the incident. ... [Jackson] had not checked the dummy rounds after they came off the range or before he inserted them into his weapon."

Sanderson said any ammunition should be checked and rechecked as it passes from different locations.

"Certainly, safety would require that you re-inventory your dummy rounds and containers for your ammunition so you make sure you don't risk mixing live with dummy rounds," Sanderson said.

The report also concluded that "there appeared to be little review by North Central Georgia Law Enforcement Academy Staff on how Sergeant Jackson taught this class."

Carole Morgan, director of the training center, said Friday instructors were following standard procedures when the shooting occurred.

"Everything that we were doing was consistent with what we should have been doing," Morgan said. "There is no live ammunition in our classes."

Morgan said she had not seem the Cobb police report. She said the academy interviewed all of the staff, but it would not release details about the academy's response to Drummond's death until all the investigations are complete.

The Cobb Sheriff's Office still has an open administrative personnel investigation.

Cobb police released only the investigative synopsis Friday, a four-page document that's part of a larger 2,500-page report on the shooting.

Police declined to release the entire report because personnel details were being redacted.

The summary on Jackson concludes in fairly blunt terms:

"He deviated from the basic fundamentals of firearms safety which resulted in this tragedy."

Jackson's attorney, Lance LoRusso, could not be reached Friday.

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