Increased focus on officer-involved shootings brings Miss. cops to class

The Ferguson effect and trend to videotape police actions has made many departments refocus their efforts

Robin Fitzgerald
The Sun Herald

GAUTIER, Miss. — Police attending an officer-involved shooting class Thursday said thoughts of "to shoot or be shot" and "to kill or be killed" weigh on their minds daily.

The Ferguson, Mo., officer-involved shooting and a trend in videotaping police actions are changing the way law enforcement officers do their jobs, said Tim Rutledge. He is teaching the free course at cities around the state in day-long classes.

Higher visibility of police actions indicates a growing need for officers to protect themselves legally with video, Rutledge said. He is founder and director of the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support in Madison and training director for the Regional Counterdrug Training Academy in Meridian.

"If your agency doesn't provide you a body cam, buy your own," Rutledge said. "You need to clear your name."

Six of 11 police departments across Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties have body cameras for all their patrol officers.

Joel Smith, district attorney for Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties, said he expects all the region's law enforcement officers will soon have body cams.

A day before the class, a Corinth police officer was shot in a struggle and a Jackson County deputy shot a man who reportedly pointed a gun at him and refused to put it down.

About 100 people, including police, prosecutors, dispatchers and chaplains, signed up for the class at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College's Jackson County campus. They came from Coast cities and areas from Mobile to Petal.

Rutledge is one of several who said they've been involved in a shooting.

"We want officers to know we are here for them," he said, referring to an adrenaline rush followed by gut-wrenching emotions, fear of losing their jobs and worries of public ridicule or retaliation.

Most Shootings Justified
Rutledge said a review of more than 500 officer-involved shootings in Mississippi shows "only two were bad shoots."

The training includes videos of shootings. Some videos were filmed by bystanders who cursed police and blamed them for shooting an unarmed man; in most cases, close-up views or other videos showed the suspects were armed.

Some say the goal of a police officer is to make it home safely. However, Rutledge said the first priority is to support the Constitution and be willing to die to save others.

"If you are not willing to use force, you are in the wrong line (of work)," he said.

'You Just Go On'
Petal police Officer Wayne Bounds said he thinks about the possibility of a shooting daily.

"You just go on and do the best you can," Bounds said.

Retired Pritchard, Ala., police Capt. Eddie Ragland, who now works for the Mobile Airport Authority, was involved in a fatal shooting in the 90s. He and two reserve officers found five burglars inside a home.

"I fired two shots as they tried to get out the front door to stop them from getting away," Ragland said. "I wasn't trying to hit them. I was protecting myself."

A shot fired by another officer killed one of the burglars, he said, and the other four pleaded guilty.

"This training shows officers what prosecutors look for in evidence that can be used at trial or before a grand jury," said Tony Lawrence, district attorney for Jackson, George and Greene counties.

Other Issues
The course also covers emotional, legal and constitutional issues, public sentiment and working with the news media. Rutledge said police chiefs should release as much information as possible immediately after a shooting.

Sponsors of Thursday's training were Rutledge's groups, the Mississippi Attorney General's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office, Gautier Police Department and MGCCC.

Special Assistant Attorney General Paula Broome said the training may prompt agencies to consider if they need more help with use of force, legal protocol or other issues.

"We've seen what happened in the Ferguson case and the Baltimore case," Broome said. "We certainly would not want to be going down those paths."

Copyright 2015 The Sun Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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