DALTON, Ga. — As appropriate use of force in officer-involved shootings continues to generate discussion nationally, Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood explained Monday that while it can be easy for the public to “second guess,” officers deserve latitude because they have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions.
“A weapon can be discharged in 0.25 seconds, (and) we are faced every day with threats,” said Chitwood, who has been sheriff for more than a quarter century. “We are humans, so we have fear, too, but we need to keep control.”
Officers always want to take control of situations, rather than having to react to escalating incidents, he said, noting, “Action is better than reaction.”
As of the end of September, 216 officers had died in the line of duty this year nationally, 41 from gunfire, Chitwood said. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has investigated 77 officer-involved shootings this year, roughly one every four days.
When an officer is involved in a shooting, “we bring in an outside agency,” the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he said. They investigate whether the shooting was justified, then hand over a report to the district attorney’s office.
“So far, the cases I’ve looked at here have been obviously justified,” said Bert Poston, the district attorney for Whitfield and Murray counties. “No families have questioned the outcomes.”
When a person is killed by an officer, Poston’s office brings in his or her family members to share with them information about the case, including showing video if warranted, he said.
“We try to be as transparent as we can,” he said.
If a shooting does require further scrutiny, a civil grand jury can be empaneled to examine the evidence, Poston said. The grand jury members can then recommend taking the case on to a criminal grand jury for possible indictment of the officer.
While “we haven’t had grand juries since March” due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, summonses will be sent this month for a new grand jury of 23 and three alternates, Poston said. In Whitfield and Murray counties, residents serve on grand juries for six-month terms.
The selection process is random. Serving on a grand jury is “very educational,” Poston said. “It’s a real eye-opener for them,” especially given the volume of cases that come through the district attorney’s office.
Chitwood is often asked if certain types of crimes are on the rise, such as child abuse and child molestation, but that’s not the case.
Residents are “just better educated” on where and how to report those crimes, and “they know resources out there to seek help,” Chitwood said. Those crimes “have always been with us, I’m sorry to say.”
Domestic disputes and traffic stops are the two most-dangerous circumstances for officers, he said.
“If you don’t think stopping three subjects at 3 a.m. (in rural Whitfield County) will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, ride with us for a night,” he said.
When interacting with officers, such as during a traffic stop, a person ought to “stay in the car and obey commands,” he said. “An officer wants to see your hands, because (a suspect) can hide a lot down here.”
When an officer has to resort to “defensive mode” because of the actions of a subject or subjects, “things can turn very, very bad very, very quickly,” he said. “Do what the officer says.”
Officers are authorized to shoot when life is threatened, and an officer can be threatened without seeing a weapon, he said.
“There are a lot of things out there that can be used as a threat; a vehicle is a weapon,” for example.
Officers don’t “shoot to wound; that’s Hollywood, that’s TV,” he said. If an officer feels sufficiently threatened to discharge his weapon, he or she is shooting to kill.
Officers have mandated training on cultural awareness, deescalation and use of force, Chitwood said. In addition, the sheriff’s office obtained a shooting simulator for its training grounds a couple of years ago, and the technology presents hundreds of scenarios to officers.
“It tries to give you a true-to-life scenario (so you can practice) what to do,” he said. “It’s a great training tool.”
He even showed a couple of situations, including a domestic dispute that quickly turns violent, to an audience during Monday’s meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Dalton at the Dalton Convention Center, then allowed them to share their thoughts.
“When there’s a domestic dispute, a private citizen can walk away, but an officer can’t,” Poston noted. “It’s a very different situation.”
As for some controversial police tactics, like the chokehold, “we’ve never taught that,” Chitwood said. However, if an officer is in a fight for his or her life, it’s no-holds-barred, as “you do what you can to survive.”
Officers are “continually having training throughout the year, (because) law enforcement is a profession where you have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s,” Chitwood concluded. “You have to.”