I was dead before I even reached for my gun. And so was my partner.
It was a sobering moment Tuesday night at Day 7 of the Citizen's Police Academy as I stepped up as the first volunteer in a simulated shooting exercise.
After just having watched several episodes of the TV show "Justified," featuring rogue U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, I made the valiant decision to go first.
Lawrence police Capt. Bill Corey directed the simulation, and handed me a fake handgun while he set up the scenario on a large computer screen. There would be a police vehicle stop, I was told, and I would be the backup officer. On the screen, my partner approached a car, and a woman was asked to step out of the vehicle.
As I affected my best Raylen Givens swagger, I tried to think how Raylen would act. He'd be aggressive, but a perfect shot, I figured, ready to save the day. Would he even bother to take up a proper shooting stance, or just fling from the hip? Would he try to verbally de-escalate the situation, or just go for the gun?
None of that mattered. In this scenario, my partner and I were dead faster than I could form answers to those questions.
See, all that thinking, along with a second passenger who exited the vehicle, distracted me long enough for the woman to pull a gun and shoot both me and my partner. I didn't even have time to raise my weapon.
And that was the point. In the heat of the moment, decision-making is compromised. It's not even really decision-making as much as it is reacting.
Thankfully, for the citizens of Lawrence, I'm writing about this and not out there on the streets reacting.
But here's a video from fellow academy member J. Taylor, who kept his eye on the hands of a suspect reaching for a second weapon during an exercise:
And here's me on my second and more successful try with the simulator:
Use of force
With the story of a disgruntled and homicidal ex-police officer who's been shooting officers in California dominating national headlines, it was apt that Day 7 of the Citizen's Academy centered on officer use of force.
We were treated Tuesday to a frank discussion about the challenges officer face when deciding to use force.
Fortunately, in Lawrence I don't remember an instance (I've been here since 2008), where an officer has had to fire a weapon.
But police officers are trained to do so, Corey told us, equipped with a Critical Incident Team, or the Lawrence version of a SWAT team.
More likely, though, is an officer having to wrestle down a suspect, or pull a Taser.
Taser usage has become more common in the country during the past few years, and many of LPD officers are equipped with the yellow guns.
The reality is that the guns are pulled and not used much more often than used. It reminded me of a story we did a few years back about Tasers.
I'll never forget the quote from the officer we interviewed for the story: "Oh yeah, they (criminals) know the yellow gun."
According to that article, in the two and a half years since 2008, when the LPD got its first round of Tasers, officers used the yellow gun just 17 times in more than 300,000 police calls.
It just reinforced what the officers told us all night: It's much easier to sweet talk a suspect than use force.
That was clear to us a few weeks back in class when we watched a video of three suspects assaulting LPD officer John Evinger during a traffic stop in 2011. The video — which I don't have to share here — showed how quickly it can happen, and how dangerous the job is. Because of injuries to his eye, Evinger was forced to retire.
If they'd kept their mouths shut, Damon McCray would've gotten away with murder.
But as we learned in Day 5 of the Citizen's Police Academy, people, even when it means selling out their lovers and friends, talk.
Lawrence Police Sgt. Mike Pattrick walked us through the investigation of the August 1996 murder of Onzie Branch, a Topeka gang member.
Branch was shot when he was outside what is now the Magic Lounge, which back then was Langston's nightclub. It's the bar that's tucked behind the McDonald's on 23rd Street.
With hundreds of witnesses coming out of the club at closing time, someone peered out from behind a van and shot Branch, striking him in the head. Branch bled out on his way to the hospital.
The two other gang members riding with Branch that day, however, were not cooperative, and Pattrick said it took police five hours to positively identify the two, who initially gave police aliases. Stuck with uncooperative victims, police had to resort to a variety of investigative tactics, including staking out Branch's Topeka funeral.
The break in the case came when a confidential informant strapped on a wire for police, and headed straight into gang headquarters. "That one made me nervous," Pattrick said.
But the informant came back with a name, Damon McCray, and from there, police interviewed McCray's girlfriend, Shanee Blue, who eventually told police McCray confessed to her and asked her to lie about where he was the night of the murder.
One of McCray's friends, who drove McCray away shortly after the shooting, also said McCray admitted to the murder. Add in a fingerprint police found on the van where McCray braced himself before shooting Branch, and it was enough to convict him of murder.
But had everyone just kept silent, there would've been no conviction, Patrrick said.
The case was eventually overturned on appeal, but McCray was charged again and later pleaded guilty to lesser charges. He was released from prison in 2010, but soon went back for a drug crime. He's currently on parole and living in McPherson County.
Several times throughout the academy so far, police and even Chief Tarik Khatib have spoken with pride about their 100 percent homicide clearance rate.
Records prior to the 1980s are a little spotty, but every murder in Lawrence in the past several decades has been solved, though the family of one victim argues that's not the case in a murder from the late 1970s.
Knocking on wood, Lawrence has been fortunate in the past few years, with no recorded homicides in the city since the 2008. As a crime buff, I've taken particular interest in murders in Lawrence, and in 2010, we compiled the list of murders in the past decade. Since 2000, the city has seen 19 murders, all of which have led to convictions.
804 W. 24th St. in the spotlight again
It struck me as ironic that this past weekend, there was another gun-related arrest at 804 W. 24th St. Though the location has changed hands numerous times over the years (anyone remember NiteOwls, the failed "clothing optional" club from the early 1990s?), crime has been a constant at that spot, which was most recently Taste Lounge, before switching to Magic Lounge last year.
On Sunday, police were patrolling the Magic parking lot and spotted a gun partially hidden under the seat of a car, waited for the owner to come out of the club, and arrested convicted felon Dion M. Jones.
For a fun read, and to get a better sense of how police were able to arrest Jones, check out the federal indictment here.
• Day Four: robbery, homicide and crimes against children
• Day Three: Gangs, gun and peyote
• Day Two: Reports from the field
• Training Day
Last night, my fellow Citizen's Academy attendees were able to visit a place very few people ever step foot in: the Lawrence Police Department's evidence room, tucked away above the county's courtrooms.
It wasn't what we saw that initially caught our attention. The second you enter, the pungent smell of marijuana hits the nose, a by-product of all the drugs confiscated and later stored by local law enforcement.
As the LPD's two evidence room officers talked to us, we were sandwiched between old rifles, nefarious-looking duffle bags and huge flat screen televisions. By necessity, the officers have gotten a little creative with the 55,000 square feet they have, which used to be a basketball court when the building housed the jail. Plywood planks littered the rafters, stacked with old evidence that officers just can't yet dispose of, in case of appeals.
I'd love to show you, but sorry, no photos allowed in the evidence room.
The rest of the night we were treated to presentations about drugs and street gangs.
Some of the more interesting tidbits we picked up:
• The Kansas Drug Tax Stamp: For forward-thinking drug dealers, Kansas offers drug tax stamps, allowing those who profit from the illegal drug trade to pay taxes on their sales. It sounds a little bizarre that someone would stop by a state office, admit to being a drug dealer, and then agree to pay taxes on their criminal enterprise. Here's a little explainer from the Kansas Department of Revenue.
• Buyer beware: Aided by its white, powdery appearance, it's not uncommon for drug dealers to dilute cocaine before distribution. It's referred to as "stepping on it," and basically includes drug dealers adding in other substances to cocaine to add weight and make the most of the substance, sales-wise. One common ingredient? Niacin, which has a similar appearance as powdered cocaine. The internet is filled with formulas for how this is done. Officers told us that this is often done at various stages, leaving the buyer with a watered-down substance, or "stepped on" product.
• Funniest quote from Officer Shannon Riggs, who's been involved in the LPD's drug unit: When discussing "tips" police receive about illegal drugs, offered that they come from a variety of sources, "including angry spouses."
• While it's not like Kansas City, or even Topeka, police do see gang activity in Lawrence. Police monitor such activity in a variety of ways, such as spotting and identifying gang graffiti. Though a few years ago, one prominent example, highlighted by veteran LPD Det. Mike McAtee, was the 1997 killing of David Eugene Walker by Lafayette Cosby, a case McAtee worked. Searching the LJWorld archives also found this 1996 gang-related shooting in Lawrence.