In response to the Athens-Clarke County PD Shooting (July, 2019)

I made the mistake of reading things on the internet. Apparently you’re making the same mistake.

There are few enough reasons to be a cop these days. Low pay, rotating shifts, subpoenas interrupting off days, missing family time, an ever-increasing list of demands and duties, and on and on. I’m thirteen years into this profession with a Master’s Degree, over 3,500+ hours of training, just about every instructor certification Georgia officers, and I’m still making less money than I did at my first pharmaceutical tech-writing job out of college. Despite that, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. Law Enforcement has given me thousands of opportunities to help people. I love those moments, regardless of whether it’s changing a tire, stopping an abusive partner, providing medical aid on an accident scene, or speaking with an at-risk youth. Most of the people I’ve worked with throughout the years have been in this business for the same reasons. Personally, I find the most emotionally taxing part of working in law enforcement to be the constant after-the-fact review by the court of popular opinion, usually made up of people who are under or over-qualified. One group is viewing events based on what television tells them that cops do, i.e.: “just disarm the knife like all cops are trained to”. The other group has been on the job for so long that they have forgotten all the mistakes that got them to where they are.

Since last week Monday, I’ve seen dozens of opinion pieces providing their “would have, could have, should have” in reference to the July 1st shooting in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. I’m directing this at a few of you that have gone far and above in terms of making sweeping judgments and assertions about the officers and tactics involved. For some reason law enforcement is one of those fields where everyone feels entitled to an expert opinion, in spite of having no knowledge of the field. I’ve come to expect that. However, there’s also a growing trend where seasoned members of the law enforcement, firearms, and self-defense training community are making money on clicks and training classes while disparaging the way good guys win fights. Shame on you. Shame on you for asserting that the actions of these officers were the product of poor hiring standards or failures of character. What are we telling officers when their victories, even messy ones, are cause for scorn?

Most of the folks commenting have been drawing conclusions based on half of the information. What I haven’t seen widely circulated is that the two officers in this incident were initially dispatched to an “unknown problem” where the suspect was standing on a person’s doorstep covered in blood. There were no known weapons at that time. A short time later, dispatch told the officers that the suspect was now chasing a maintenance worker around the complex with a knife. The next update given was that the maintenance man had fired two shots at the suspect in self-defense and the suspect had stopped chasing him. In the videos, you can hear the updates being given over the radio as the officers are pulling into the complex.

So what’s the right play here? You have a criminal actor, covered in his or a victim’s blood, wielding a knife, committing a violent felony against a third party. Shots have been fired. It’s unclear if there are other victims on the property requiring aid. There are also hundreds of other potential victims in the apartment complex. The Active Killer model has taught us that every moment wasted worsens the outcome for victims. We teach officers to go in and engage the threat to prevent loss of life to the innocent. In this case, Officers Bidinger and Harrison were legally justified in using deadly force the moment they arrived on scene and the suspect moved towards them in violation of their lawful orders. The fact that the video is longer than 30 seconds in length speaks to their desire to resolve the conflict without violence. Nowhere in their Oath of Office, Georgia statute, or case law is the officer mandated to become the victim of violence. An irrational and delusional schism of the population has begun asserting that the lives of criminals are more valuable than the lives of law enforcement officers. Maybe I’ve seen it building for so long that I simply dismiss this as mental illness, but the notion that officers are less important than criminal actors is ludicrous.

In an ideal world, I’m sure that more resources could have been brought to this encounter. In retrospect, the officers may have acted differently. However, as the Supreme Court pointed out in Graham v. Connor, an officer’s actions are best judged by what he or she knew and felt in the moment, and not with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. The members of the Supreme Court offered this opinion specifically because they knew it’s easier to see the bigger picture when you’re not fighting through tunnel vision and the other effects of adrenaline. The camera doesn’t have a heart rate of 180 or the emotional baggage of past transactions. Training helps, yes. But there’s a huge difference between understanding the theory of using force and the reality of being required to use force against someone you’re trying to help.

In my 18 months as a state police academy instructor, I took part in the instruction of eight academy sessions and saw approximately 230 cadets graduate to become rookie officers. When I came on board, my goal was to turn out the highest quality recruits with the most relevant information possible. I wanted to create thinkers, diplomats, and warriors. The problem has been and continues to be that there are just not enough hours in the academy to provide anything beyond a basic understanding of the job. The State’s basic mandate school (meaning the minimum amount of basic law enforcement training mandated by the state) is eleven weeks long. Into that is crammed Georgia criminal law, traffic law, sex offense investigations, domestic violence investigations, crimes against children, firearms, defensive tactics, crime scene processing, criminal procedure, ethics, de-escalation, driving, physical fitness, report writing, and dozens of other topics. Things that the academy DOESN’T include are: disarming an edged weapon, partner tactics to overlap lethal and less-lethal cover, how to use OC/pepper spray, taser training, CQB tactics, or Crisis Intervention Techniques (CIT). Even the Defensive Tactics training provided to the recruits is based primarily on a mildly non-aggressive suspect who isn’t trying to harm the officer. In each session, I would introduce a training knife in the defensive tactics block. The cadets were warned that I would try to use a weapon against them and to watch my hands as we grappled. In every encounter, I was able to access and deploy a training knife and reach a major artery with it. Other than a brief discussion of the Tueller Drill and the distances I’d seen people close in sort amounts of time, no practical exercise or information addressed how to respond to a knife-wielding suspect. There wasn’t time in the schedule to allow for this “advanced” training, which many have come to expect is “standard” for every sworn officer.

Multiple attempts to lengthen the academy to seventeen weeks have been sent to the legislature. While still not sufficient to train an officer, seventeen weeks would be better. Currently, we still have an eleven week academy because taxpayers want highly trained officers at the price you’d pay for a greeter at Walmart. The idea that everything should be free (health care, housing, education, food) is over-saturating our society.

I don’t know much about Officer Harrison, but mutual acquaintances say he’s a good cop. He knows how to speak with people, does his job professionally, and has been willing to step up and train the newer generation of officers at his agency. He and I probably don’t have the same skill sets. He’s probably better with people than I am. He has taken classes that I haven’t on how to deal with individuals in emotional / mental health crisis. That’s a much more useful skill for 99% of the calls officers respond to, where you’re solving a problem without force. As a road officer and part of a team, I’m happy that my shift and I have different skillsets. This job’s ever-growing list of duties is too complex for any one officer to master all of it.

As for Officer Bidinger, he was one of my academy cadets. I found him to be polite, professional, serious, and hopeful. He was one of the cadets who never rocked the boat. He addressed his peers and instructors as “sir” and “ma’am”, asked good questions, demonstrated an understanding of the material, pushed himself during PT, got along with his peers, got good grades, threw solid punches, and shot well. He also talked about how he wanted to make a difference and help people. He was the class leader for his academy session. He was also awarded with the class flag at the end of the session, which is assigned based on the judgment of the academy staff and his fellow cadets. Beyond the academy, he has attended three months of additional in-house training with ACCPD, to include the 40 hour Crisis Intervention Training focusing on non-violent methods of dealing with individuals in an altered mindset.

In March, this officer, who got out of the academy in 2018 and is still currently in Field Training, had to use his weapon when someone pointed a firearm at him. At the time Bidinger and other officers used their weapons, they had every reason to believe the gun was real. In accordance with Georgia law and his training, he used force to stop someone from using lethal force against him. Immediately following that use of force, he learned that the gun pointed at him and his fellow officers wasn’t real. Shortly after the shooting, his firearm was taken from him and the other officers involved. He and the other officers were all left in a room, unarmed, for hours before they were issued new weapons. When a replacement firearm was given to him, it was with the understanding that he was on administrative duty while a criminal investigation took place concerning his actions and the actions of the other officers on scene. Administrative duty was later changed to “light duty,” where he wasn’t allowed to wear a uniform or openly carry a firearm. He spent the next 10 weeks waiting to see if he would keep his job and his freedom.

In May, after the 10 weeks waiting on his agency’s judgment, he and the other officers were put back on the road having been cleared by the GBI and agency brass. He’d been back on the road for approximately two months, still in field training, when he again used deadly force on a criminal actor threatening his life and the life of his partner.

At this point, you really need to understand the politics surrounding Athens-Clarke County and ACCPD. I am completely serious when I describe Athens-Clarke County as a non-permissive environment. Historically, the ACCPD has punished their officers for winning fights with desk details, transfers, and marginalization. You can look at the recent case of Taylor Saulters and the money Athens-Clarke paid out to him in a settlement as a prime example. ACCPD is budgeted to have a sworn force of more than 300, but has seen many seasoned officers with hundreds of years combined experience leave in the last year. ACCPD is currently 60+ officers short, and cannot hire and train officers fast enough to replace those who are leaving. Most of my friends from there have moved on, taking their credentials and experience with them. Their average officer has less than five years of experience. Also, due to budget and staffing concerns, Athens-Clarke County PD officers are limited to 40 hours or so of training every year before they must attend career development training at their own expense.

It’s also worth mentioning that the current District Attorney in Athens, Ken Mauldin, ran against his predecessor with “I would have indicted the officer” as his motto. Ken’s predecessor declined to indict an officer involved in a shooting that was ruled justified. At the time I write this, Ken has not given formal notice that Bidinger and the other officers involved in the March shooting have been cleared. Mauldin has also not cleared two of my former partners of shootings that took place in 2011 and and 2016, in spite of being cleared by the GBI and their agency. In both of those shootings, the suspect was pointing a firearm at the officers before he was shot. During a preliminary criminal hearing for the 2016 shooting, the purpose of which related to the prosecution of the suspect, Ken attempted to compel agency heads to discuss information obtained from officers under a Garrity Warning. Ken asked for information obtained under Garrity four times, until the Judge told him to stop asking. If you don’t know what that means, google it.

To round this entire picture out, let’s look at the City / County Council of Athens-Clarke County. In terms of spending, ACC provides a wealth of Section 8 housing, free medical services, free schooling, free transit, et cetera. There is currently an initiative to make all city transit busses operate on a free basis, with operating expenses paid out of the tax base. What they don’t spend money on is law enforcement salaries or training. A recent pay study was meant to bring their salaries up to something resembling a living wage, but there just wasn’t enough money for emergency services personnel while they’re giving money away to everyone else.

At last count, six of my cadets have been involved in shootings. In February of 2019, three weeks after I left the academy and went back to the road, I was involved in an officer-involved shooting myself. So with all of that said, it doesn’t matter what you or I would have done because we weren’t there. I’m sure there are things that could have resulted in a different outcome. I’m sure the officers themselves might take different actions with the benefit of hindsight. However, their actions were legal and ethical. These two made every effort to spare a man’s life, and he made it impossible. They will both get to live with the aftermath of this incident for the remainder of their lives. If they do stay in law enforcement, they will probably take some lessons away from this and apply them moving forward. Why make that harder by attacking their character or ability from afar? If you have energy for that, write an elected official, offer a free class, donate some money for equipment, or participate in a citizen’s police academy. If you want to review the video as a learning opportunity and teach tactics, fine. Video review is a useful tool that I use extensively myself. However, being snide, condescending, or making character attacks for clicks isn't helping anything. Let’s just stop the finger-pointing, character assassination, and endless complaining.

UPDATE:

I began writing this on July 2nd, after Bidinger's shooting. I posted it on the evening of July 8th. On the morning of the 8th, I woke up to multiple text messages and phone calls to inform me that Deputy Nicholas Dixon of the Hall County Sheriff's Office had been murdered in the line of duty the night before. It's a horrible feeling when someone you know is taken away by violence. I only knew him for a few months, but I liked him. He was an excellent young man who was a joy to speak with and instruct, and we are diminished by his passing. I wish I could have been there. I wish all of this had been avoided. I wish his wife and two children would have the opportunity to see the man he was and the man he was becoming.

Go easy, friend.

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