We don’t get many looks at the inside of law enforcement agencies. Although cops and deputies are public employees, there’s always a moat between them and the rest of us. Cops think the average citizen doesn’t understand the real nature of their job, doesn’t appreciate them.
That’s why I found my telephone conversation with a 15-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department so interesting. He began by taking issue with my Wednesday column in which I criticized Sheriff Brad Gates for his handling of the Christmas Day incident in which one deputy fatally shot another during a training exercise.
Eventually, though, he wound up talking about the department. He described an air of disbelief, dejection and anger running through it since the incident last Saturday, in which Deputy Darryn Robins was shot by Deputy Brian Scanlan. He described a department simultaneously wrought up over the death of a colleague, the mixed feelings over the involvement of the other deputy and what the rank-and-file sees as unfair attacks from critics.
The deputy requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak for the department and feared he might get in trouble.
“Up until this happened, it was a pleasure going to work, hooking up bad guys, and morale was extremely high. Since this happened, among all the street officers there’s extremely low productivity. Everybody’s just kind of dazed. It’s hard to even get up enough energy to go to work. It’s like we’ve been zapped.”
Where’s that feeling coming from? “Depression, OK? . . . If we had lost an officer due to being shot by a bank robber, that would be understandable. You hate the bad guy and go out and arrest more crooks. You tend to exercise more officer safety and all that. In this case, you say, ‘My God, how did this happen?’ You’re just completely dazed.”
I asked him to walk me through the incident, in which Scanlan shot Robins while the two were simulating making a car stop of a suspected gangbanger. Scanlan was standing outside the driver’s side of Robins’ car, and Robins, acting the part of the gangbanger, was behind the wheel.
“You clear leather (take your gun from your holster) when you perceive danger,” the deputy said. “And on a training exercise, there’s no such thing as danger, and there should never have been leather cleared. You finger-point, use a plastic gun, or point a flashlight. That’s where the lack of understanding, the resentment comes in. It’s like one minute your heart goes out to (Scanlan) and the next I just resent him. It’s like, ‘Where was his common sense?’ ” I can’t even say a new officer coming out onto the street, I can’t even fathom him having the lack of common sense to clear leather on a loaded weapon. For a veteran officer, especially one of Brian’s caliber, I don’t know.”
Is everyone taking for granted that the shooting was accidental? “Absolutely. Even to the guys who hate Brian Scanlan the most, even those who disliked him before the incident, this was an accident. Everyone’s heart goes out to the Robins family. As for Brian Scanlan, the rank-and-file is divided, where you’ve got officers who resent the fact that--and can’t understand, just like the public can’t--what in the hell is Brian doing clearing leather with a loaded weapon during a training exercise? Others overlook that and their hearts go out to Brian right now, and they’re trying to understand what he’s feeling and show support.”
Obviously, everyone at the department has tried to explain what seems unexplainable. “Some guys can’t get past the fact (Scanlan) cleared leather with a loaded weapon. Then you’ve got some who get beyond that, and it’s like, ‘How could the gun go off and kill another officer?’ They can’t comprehend how that could happen. Some are saying maybe he went into a cop mode, where you’re trained that when you see a gun, guns kill and although you think you’ve got control of that weapon, now you’re on an automatic mode where you react. Some deputies think that. That’s one opinion and that is disagreed with by others who say, ‘Just no way.’ ”
And you? “I don’t know if he was trying to showboat for the trainee or what. I can’t get beyond why he cleared a loaded weapon on a training session.”
How is the department handling the mix of emotions? “The sergeants are trying to keep a lid on things, really working hard, trying to keep an open mind on things, trying to make sure we’re not consumed with hatred or resentment of Brian, and to realize there are two victims in this thing. One has passed away, and one is still living that we’ve got to be concerned about.”
The deputy defended Gates’ handling of the incident, saying information wasn’t solid enough to be released to the press. “Your perception is that he had information and wasn’t giving it out; my perception was whatever he had was hearsay at the time and the information was still being gathered. I wasn’t always in love with Gates, and I was not always as proud to be a member of the department as I am now. But this is a top-run organization, and I’m talking about from the deputies on up to the sheriff.”
I quarreled with the deputy’s assessment that the entire department has been under attack. But that’s how the department sees it, he said. “Absolutely. There is a certain expectation by deputies that when something of this caliber happens, you’re going to get a certain amount of bad press. But with your column and some of the things we’ve seen on TV. . . They act like, ‘My God, you mean the sheriff is doing scenarios with loaded weapons?’
“Hell, no, that’s not happening. They’re acting like this is SOP (standard operating procedure) that goes on every day. I’ve never known in 15 years that a deputy” in a training exercise “clears holster with a loaded weapon.
“There’s one thing that went wrong, and the media is trying to make it look like a cover-up. You’ve got ex-deputies saying” in the media, ‘My God, they’re training behind a theater and that’s so wrong.’ None of that is wrong. It’s ongoing training, and as long as they’re not offending anybody and they’re out of public view . . . and behind a theater nobody’s going to be offended by training back there. But you’re trying to make so much out of the whole thing when the only problem was that we had a deputy that cleared a loaded weapon from a holster with no perceived danger, which in a training exercise, should never have happened. . .
“You’re judging our department from this one thing, and I’m telling you, had there been another officer there (watching), he would have said, ‘Stick that gun back in your holster. What the hell’s wrong with you?’ ”