Comply to Stay Alive: All Lives Matter

In the Media Training, WSVN Channel 7 Photographer Julio Jara decides to fire at the unarmed man who is charging him.

In the Media Training, WSVN Channel 7 Photographer Julio Jara decides to fire at the unarmed man who is charging him. Photos by Jim Donnelly

By: Jim Donnelly

On the anniversary of 9/11, I was inspired to write part three of my series about my experience at Media Training Day with the Coral Springs Police Department and complying in order to survive such an encounter.

Who Are the Law Enforcement Officers?

The next time you are out and about take a mental count of how many police officers cross your path. It’s the one profession that we encounter just about every day of our lives. Law Enforcement Officers interact within our surrounding so frequently, that we sometimes don’t realize how much they have blended into our lives. The local peewee football coach, the guy sitting next to you at church, or maybe even the guy jogging through your neighborhood just to keep in shape so he can chase after bad guys with his K9 partner – may be police officers, you just never know.

The uniformed officers are easy to spot, but the hundreds of detectives and plain-clothed officers that intertwine our daily lives would surprise you. They are there for one reason – to protect us. Yet there seems to be a growing segment of the population that wants to declare war on these heroes. This has got to stop. If you hear someone speaking negatively about the police, how do you react? If you jump on the bandwagon, you are part of the problem.

I’ve been told that the “silent majority” of people back the officers and appreciate the jobs they do. The question is which category are you in? The side that bashes law enforcement every chance you get or the kind that supports the profession and looks at every officer like the Heroes that died in 9/11?  Why does it take a tragedy like 9/11 for people to show their respect and admiration for people wearing a uniform? 

Yes, I will repeat it again that there are a few bad cops out there – when you compare the sheer number of law enforcement officers employed in this great country to the relatively few number of those officers that break the law and violate our rights – well lets just say I think its about time we stop being the silent majority and start showing the cops that are putting their lives on the line for us how much we care and respect them.

To be perfectly clear, I’m all for exposing bad cops. I will be the first in line to put the mugshot of a bad cop on every TV screen and newspaper. However, shouldn’t the opposite be the same? When cops do great work shouldn’t they be acknowledged as exemplary or better yet, heroic?

Officer Justin Sollohub

One such hero was the son a friend of mine from high school. He was a police officer – doesn’t matter what department he worked for… he wore a uniform and was on routine patrol when his job required him to chase a bad guy on foot. This encounter started out as a routine traffic stop. The suspect got out of the vehicle and ran – as it happens every day in South Florida because society accepts this kind of behavior as routine – anyway, this 27-year-old veteran officer turned the corner of a house and was ambushed.

We as a society have to respect how dangerous this world is becoming and back our police officers every chance we get. Lets point the fingers at the law breakers. Lets condone them and shun them and make it known that we aren’t going to put up with their lawlessness and that we will back the heroes who wear badges and put their lives on the line to protect us. Let my friend David Sollohub know his son didn’t die in vain. He died a hero.”

Officer Justin Sollohub was shot at pointblank range in the head. Needless to say we all know the outcome. My friend David, the incredibly proud father, never would see his son again because of someone who thought it was acceptable to kill a police officer.  We can no longer consider this “routine” or blow it off as “part of the job.” Every time we badmouth the law enforcement profession we are disrespecting Officer Justin Sollohub and every other hero that died while on duty. This man was making a living protecting and serving his community, yet I don’t remember seeing the so called “Reverend” Al Sharpton on TV preaching about how Justin’s life matters? But you can bet he would have been marching down the street had the assailant been black and killed by a white officer. Race should not matter. I wonder what would happen if Reverend Sharpton and his friends declared war on the law breakers instead of those just trying to do their jobs.  Criminals follow no law, while officers must obey the law.

The deck is stacked against the police.

Media Training Day Part 3

JDJR9011

WSVN 7 Vanessa Medina loses gun to attacker

WSVN reporter Vanessa Medina decides not to fire at the suspect attacking her and has her gun taken away from her

The extreme unfairness of that situation really hit home for me recently when the Coral Springs Police Department hosted a ‘Media Training Day’ to which I was invited to participate. I learned firsthand how quickly a situation similar to Officer Justin Sollohub’s could go awry on a completely innocent police officer doing his job.

I’m not talking about a “bad” cop with horrible intentions and beliefs. I’m talking about someone with nothing to prove, who was just out on routine patrol when, as the kids say “the shit just got real.” I know, because on that day I was the officer.

This scenario seemed to be simple: I am out on routine patrol when I am called to a “36 in Progress” which in police-speak is a fight. The only information I was given was that it was a fight in progress at an office building between two men and that “94” or backup, was not available. 

I had three options as a sworn keeper of the law:

  • Quit my job and go home. Probably the smartest decision I could make at that point when I weighed the possible outcomes out in my mind. 
  • I could grab a bag of popcorn, along with a ringside seat and watch these two men beat the crap out of each other until one of them died.
  • Or I could put myself between them and do my job. No one else was going to protect them from themselves, so I had to do it.

So, with hands trembling I walked to the office door where I could hear the two men wrestling around and cursing at each other. I could hear skin slapping skin. That’s when I first noticed my heart beating a little faster than normal.  But what I didn’t expect in this role playing game was the realism. As my hand turned the knob of the door it was as if I was turning up my pulse. My heart was suddenly about to beat out of my chest. This was no longer a game. I was afraid to open that door. A million questions ran through my head:

“Are they armed?”

“Were they bigger than me?”

“Would they listen to me?”

“Why is my backup delayed?”

The questions didn’t matter, because the door opened and I timidly walked down the rabbit hole. For a police officer, this is the moment of truth. The officer’s life will forever change at this moment.  He could get attacked, hurt, killed, or see something that could haunt him for life in his dreams, or in some cases in reality. He may have to put someone in jail and change his or her life forever. 

Usually when the police are called, it doesn’t end well, yet the officers I’ve encountered love their jobs and will do whatever they can to protect and serve. I was going to try and do the same even if I was just pretending to be a police officer for this scenario.

I saw two men slugging it out like world class UFC Fighters. It was immediately apparent to me that their fighting skills were well beyond anything I could compete with – I mean I’m not afraid of a fair fight – but I know my limitations. Just one of these guys was beyond my limits but what if they both turned on me?

Then I noticed their incredible size. Both men easily outweighed my 285 pound body. I knew I was in way over my head. 

I thought through the situation before making my presence known. Even if I had a taser with me, which I didn’t, there was no way in the world I would trust a taser to take down either one of these oversized men. Besides, police officers joke now that in order to deploy a taser nowadays, they first have to stop and take a health survey of the suspect, get it signed by the suspect’s doctor and then notarized before they can even take the taser out of its holster, because the officers really do put the suspects health ahead of their own safety.

So that option was off the table. Then I thought about the collapsible baton that most officers carry.  The sheer thickness of these fine gentlemen would prevent it from being effective. Besides, I didn’t particularly want them to take it from me and beat my ass to death with it. So, I put my hand on my service revolver completely forgetting that it isn’t real and that it only fires soap pellets. For me, this was as real as it was ever going to get.

I yelled, “Gentlemen, I’m with the Coral Springs Police and I need you to break this up!”

But they couldn’t care less. Unfortunately, that is the norm in today’s society, people just ignoring the officer’s orders, and these guys were no exception.

“Break it up!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, which surprised both of them enough to stop fighting long enough to look in my direction with hatred and contempt in their eyes. I didn’t have time to find out why they disliked me before I yelled “Get on the ground!” It was then suddenly one of the giant men started charging at me. I mean full out running. To put this in perspective, picture Michael Oher from The Blind Side (but instead of a kid, a full-size man the size of the NFL Lineman he was portraying) running full speed at you with bad intentions on his mind.

I had no idea what to do. Instinct kicked in and I backpedaled like I had done in football practice in high school.  “I’m gonna kill you Mother F’er” I heard in my head. I don’t know if he actually said it or not, but his intentions were clear. I really thought this man was going to kill me. As I sit on a chair in my backyard typing this a month later my heart is racing and my palms are getting sweaty, the threat was that real.  I thought I was going to suffer a horrendous beating or die. 

I wasn’t going to take that chance. I grabbed the gun on my right hip but the safety clip was keeping it locked in the holster and I remember thinking my fingers must have run away faster that the rest of my body. By some act of divine intervention I managed to get the gun out of the holster and raise it high enough to shoot him in the leg. He kept coming at me, which in reality could happen due to adrenaline or drugs, or he might not have felt it, or I missed.

Make no mistake about it; I wasn’t aiming for his leg. This brings up a great point – it is for this exact reason police don’t aim for the suspect’s legs – it’s harder to hit a moving target for one, and the other reason is simple: I know if I give him a chance to survive, he could still kill me. He was the one breaking the law by fighting; and more so by attacking me. Does he deserve to die? Over a fight? Probably not, but if the officer takes a chance and lets someone attack him in this situation, there is a better than average chance he won’t survive the encounter. I for one don’t want our officers to take that chance. If someone is lawless enough to attack a police officer causing the officer to shoot in self-defense, I have no – zero – sympathy for the suspect. My son’s kindergarten teacher put it best, “If you break the rules you get what you get and don’t get upset.”

The decision as to what to do was a no-brainer for me. It’s either him or me.  I kicked my attacker’s hand with my left leg and that backed him up just enough for me to get the gun high enough to shoot him in the chest with eight shots. The only reason I stopped at eight was that the gun jammed.  I was scared to death. I couldn’t catch my breath. Anyone in the vicinity knew my gun was jammed. I have handled guns plenty of times, but at that moment I had just killed someone. It wouldn’t register in my brain how to clear the jam. The other suspect started getting irate because I shot his ‘friend’. He was on me before I could do a damn thing about the gun being jammed. He raised his hand to punch me in the face and then I heard “cut!” And the nightmare life-threatening situation was over for me. Well, if my heart didn’t explode first.  I was lucky because this was just play-acting.

“Oh my God, I just killed that man,” I said as reality set in.

“Yes you did,” said the investigating officer. “Did you feel like your life was in jeopardy?” He asked.

“Absolutely.” I said without having to think about it. It was the God’s honest truth.  “Then it was a justifiable shoot. You got him before he could kill you.”

But his justification was of little consequence. I took someone’s life because he didn’t respect the uniform. He didn’t like that I was a police officer and decided to try to hurt me for doing my job. I may have saved his mother from being mugged last week for all he knows, but now he’s dead because… why???? He didn’t comply with my orders? Should getting into a fistfight be a death sentence? All of these questions rang out as my heart just wouldn’t give me a break.

The real officers in the room all knew I wasn’t playing a game, this was very real for me. But it was about to get as real as an officer’s life can get.

“Officer,” the investigating officer asked, “one last question,” he said with a very long pause in between so I would grasp the reality of the situation, “what color was the suspect?”

“Oh – My – God!” I gasped. He was black! I swear on my life that the color of his skin never entered my mind.  But I was about to find out that this “little” fact would change my whole life  – theoretically of course. Even though it was a justifiable shoot, me as a white police officer with absolutely no care in the world as to what color the man’s skin was just shot an unarmed black man.  Life would change forever how I knew it both fictitiously and as a journalist.

Life Would Change in an Instant

Fictitiously lets take a look at how this officer’s life could change: The news headlines around the United States would now say that a white police officer shot an unarmed black man.  Maybe someone even used their cellphone and recorded the last seconds of him trying to get the gun out of my hand and the shots ringing out. Those eight seconds of video is what I’ll be judged on for the next news cycle because while the shooting is being investigated, the police department can’t comment on the facts, so I’ll be crucified in the press.

My 27-year career that has seen me win awards and commendations for my work and no complaints, suddenly is over. I can’t live in my town anymore because my wife and children’s lives as well as my own, are now in danger because people think I’m a racist pig and shot that man for no reason. Reverend’s Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson fly into Ft Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport and hold a press conference at the gate to condemn my actions caring very little about the facts, because, remember, they have that tagline now, someone is even profiting on it “Black Lives Matter.”

“Well no shit. Of course they matter!” I scream at the TV news blaring from the hotel TV where we are forced to hide out while the storm builds.

No one, except the lawyer that I had to hand over my life savings to represent me, hears me scream.  We never hear from the good guys, they are never the loudest. Because the family of the lawbreaker will undoubtedly sue them, and they can’t comment on the ongoing investigation. Neither can the department. The only person who can comment is the crying mother of the dead man who has no idea what happened that day but still calls for the officer’s job. There’s no way her baby would try to hurt a police officer.  So all hell breaks loose in the community.

I see on the news that all of my fellow officers, my friends that have stood by my side for the past 27 years, are lining the streets as the “protestors” riot, loot and pillage the city I would have given my life to protect.

Sleep would never come that night or many nights after. The crying of my children because they are living in a hotel room and getting death threats by text or on social media keeps me awake. Wondering how they will ever be able to go to school again without being hated because I killed a black man they will branded as racists forever. My wife, can’t go to work because some reporter showed her place of employment on TV and the place has been burned down. What do I do now?

That man with no respect for the law has destroyed my life when he forced me to take his.  Just because he had no respect for the law and didn’t comply with my orders and attacked me, the entire country has to pay for his lawlessness. Its pure and simple a case of good vs. evil.

Evil wins out as every officer in the country gets dragged through the mud while some are being pelted with rocks and bottles or worse – assassinated. All this without knowing the facts as they haven’t been released yet.  So now those officers that put their lives on the line to protect us all, they have to deal with people who hate them for doing their jobs.

Just as I contemplate suicide because I did my job, my fictitious life is over. 

What is so important about police work that so many good, honest, hardworking men and women would even risk something like this happening to them when they have no ill will towards anyone except bad guys?  You gotta be nuts. But I for one sure as hell appreciate what every law enforcement officer does.

The next time you see a clip of an officer making an arrest, even if it’s a little more “brutal” than you might have liked, imagine yourself in the same position and what you would have done. If you think you can do it better, they are always looking for more police officers.

After working the streets alongside of police officers for over 30 years, this “Media Day” really opened my eyes to how “doing the job” can go bad in a heartbeat through no fault of my own.  We as a society have to respect how dangerous this world is becoming and back our police officers every chance we get. Lets point the fingers at the law breakers. Lets condone them and shun them and make it known that we aren’t going to put up with their lawlessness and that we will back the heroes who wear badges and put their lives on the line to protect us. Let my friend David Sollohub know his son didn’t die in vain. He died a hero.

I hope if you have read this far you will pass this article along to anyone that will read it so it spreads some good will to a group that desperately needs it. When you see an officer, try saying thank you. To all sworn Law enforcement Officers I say, thank you and please be safe out there.      

If you haven’t read the first two articles in this series, I invite you to read those, which you can find here:

Comply to Stay Alive: How to Survive a Brush with the Law

Comply to Stay Alive: Training Day – The beginning

About Jim Donnelly

avatar Jim Donnelly is an Emmy Award winning journalist with over 30 years of experience reporting news in South Florida and beyond. Through his company Image Masters Photography he has also provided services for many of the Fortune 100 companies. He has provided services for the Marlins, Heat, Dolphins and NASCAR as well as providing breaking news coverage for all of the major news outlets in South Florida and major networks around the world. Jim is a member of the Coral Springs Sports Commission and has a long history of volunteer work with the city as well as with the School Board of Broward County.

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  • jhkilroy

    You forgot to mention how many dogs are shot by officers because they ‘ lunged ‘ at them…. #doglivesmatter

  • Fred

    “The question is which category are you in? The side
    that bashes law enforcement every chance you get or the kind that
    supports the profession and looks at every officer like the Heroes that
    died in 9/11?”

    Perhaps there’s a middle ground between complete condemnation and slavish and naive worship.