By Leon Lott, Sheriff, Richland County, Columbia, South Carolina
he worst nightmare for a chief or sheriff is to receive a call that one of his or her own has been shot. That nightmare is magnified when that call is in the middle of the night and the chief or sheriff is half-way around the world when the shooting happens.
|One week after being shot responding to a domestic violence call, Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Sheila Aull was shown the vest that saved her life on a WLTX News interview, Columbia, South Carolina.|
“I called out a 10-3, which is basically when you feel uncomfortable in a situation,” said Aull when describing her arrival on the scene.
“I just so happened to be at the right place at the right time. A female came out of her apartment and said, ‘I think the person you’re looking for is in my apartment.’”
The person turned out to be the suspect who later shot Aull in the chest. After being shot, Aull continued the pursuit of the assailant. The assailant was killed in the shootout.
Sheriff Leon Lott says the bulletproof vest saved her life. Lott says he requires all deputies to wear the vests. The vests are custom fit to each deputy and replaced every five years.
“I heard a number of deputies saying ‘Sheila, are you hit? Are you hit?’ I said ‘I don’t know. It feels like a bee sting,’” said Aull. “A swarm of law enforcement surrounded me, almost like angels.”
Aull says the shot that hit her was fired from one and a half car lengths away.
“I think about the family of the victim and I pray for them,” said Aull. “I am sorry, but it had to be done.”
Excerpt from WLTX Interview, Columbia, South Carolina, March 6, 2013, 6:40 p.m.,
http://www.digtriad.com/news/article/273011/0/Richland-SC-Deputy-Who-Was-Shot-Said-It-Felt-Like-A-Bee-Sting (accessed June 6, 2013).
On February 26, 2013, while I was in Israel, such a call came. A suspect had fled from a domestic violence incident, and the responding deputy searched the area for the assailant (the male suspect had beaten his pregnant girlfriend and was armed). The deputy did her job and pursued the suspect who engaged her three separate times in fast-developing shooting incidents. The assailant shot the deputy, but she continued the firefight—ultimately killing him. The deputy placed herself in extreme danger and her actions protected herself, her fellow officers, and the citizens of the area.
Most agencies respond to officer-involved shootings by taking the deputy’s gun and placing him or her on administrative leave—making a public comment that “the shooting is under investigation.” In Richland County, we believe these steps, along with not having policies and procedures in place, are huge mistakes. Those actions or lack of action are seen as counterproductive for both the deputy and the agency.
The primary responsibility of law enforcement executives is to make sure that personnel are trained and equipped to protect and serve. Yet, what about protecting and serving them—so that they can also protect and serve themselves and their families.
Preparing for the Critical Incident
There are approaches agencies must take in the event of a critical incident: (1) providing proper training and proper equipment before an incident ever occurs; (2) preparing to handle the incident while it occurs; (3) providing incident support after it happens—(preventing and dealing with possible PTSD); and (4) getting your message out quickly—build morale, reduce rumors, and stand up for an individual’s actions under pressure.
Training and equipment: More often than not budgets and resource limitations restrict the amount of training and equipment provided to deputies. This is unacceptable in this day and age. The criminals train inside and outside correctional facilities every day to commit criminal activities, and often have the upper hand over those who are actually in the crime-fighting business. We have to make sure we find and obtain the best training and equipment possible to stay ahead of the criminals. Prior to the events of February 26, 2013, the deputy attended a weeklong active shooter training. Following this incident, all she talks about is the training that kicked in to help her handle being shot at, being shot, and maintaining the ability to return fire, which ultimately saved her life.
Prepare personnel: The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is more true now than it was 100 years ago. Public safety leaders must practice and prepare to handle all of the intricate details of a critical incident. This involves having specific policies and procedures in place for everything from crime scene preservation and investigation to how the officer’s family is notified of a critical incident to a policy that identifies who is responsible for each and every intricate detail of a funeral.
More important, it means having the right people in place to do the right jobs. On February 26, 2013, while I was 3,000 miles from the incident location, the preparation of personnel worked. The deputy’s vest stopped the bullet, her training kicked in, and the threat to her and the community was eliminated. The community was notified immediately of what actually happened, and the procedures in place allowed everyone to do their jobs, which they did exceptionally well.
The IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness takes a proactive approach to safety and wellness by providing guidance on preventing harmful situations and creating a healthy lifestyle. Through strong engagement with IACP membership, the Center for Officer Safety and Wellness identifies the most pressing wellness issues and safety challenges facing officers. It addresses these needs and provides tools for leaders to prepare their officers, serving as an agent for positive change in the law enforcement community. For more information on the Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, visit http://www.theiacp.org/officersafety.
The IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center offers a policy and accompanying paper on the following related subjects: critical incident stress management; officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, and serious uses of force; and line-of-duty deaths and serious injury. For more information on IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center model policies, please visit http://www.theiacp.org/PublicationsGuides/ModelPolicy/tabid/135/Default.aspx.
What Deputies Need
Ask any peace officer and you will be told that he or she does not need peer or critical incident support. Yet, the low return to work rate after critical incidents proves it is necessary. Executives must have personnel and resources in place to provide peer support, grief counseling, and short- and long-term support. This can involve immediately replacing the deputy’s gun (needed for evidence) with another and not placing the deputy on administrative leave. Both of these actions maintain the deputy’s dignity and sense of belonging. Keep employees who are involved in shootings connected in order to deal with possible PTSD that can result from such critical incidents.
Just as important is the preparation prior to a critical incident taking place. In order for personnel to successfully return to work long-term and for the agency to weather a critical event (whether in the media or public perception), agencies must plan, prepare, and prevent catastrophic failure before, during, and after a critical incident. Executives can provide the resources, training, and support to make sure public safety professionals return home to their families after each tour and pull through a crisis. ♦
Please cite as:
Leon Lott, "Planning for a Critical Incident Involving an Officer," Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 80 (July 2013): 14–15.