By: Jim Donnelly
In order to give the public a better understanding of what police officers encounter on a daily basis, the Coral Springs Police Department invited local media to participate in a Media Day. This event showcased nine different scenarios that placed the reporter, and in some cases, their photographers in the shoes of a police officer on routine patrol. The results were eye-opening, to say the least, and terrifying by any estimation. Over the next few weeks I will take our readers through those different scenarios and try to let you feel what I was feeling and what was going through my mind.
I started working for the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach the day I turned 17. I began in the sports department recording events and editing the highlights to air for the weekend broadcasts. The department didn’t have a dedicated photographer, and I desperately wanted that job, so I put myself in a position to earn it, which I quickly did. In order to prove I could handle the job I had to work with the “chief” photographer for a day. I was still in high school at the time, so as soon as the bell rang after my last class I flew out the door, fired up my supped up Chevy van and took off for the station. I didn’t get very far, in fact, I was so excited, I was pulled over by the police just outside of the school gates in Greenacres for running the red light exiting campus.
The officer asked me where I was off to in such a rush, and I excitedly told him I was starting my new job at Channel 5.
“So you are going to be a newsman are ya?” he asked with a questioning grin. “Are ya trustworthy?” asked the man with three stripes on his shoulder.
“Yes sir!” I said as convincingly as I could.
He thought it over for a minute and scratched out an address on a piece of paper. He explained that something was going on that night that the station would want to air. He made me swear an oath that I would never reveal my source of the information, which they went to great lengths to try and extract from me – including an interrogation by the chief of police.
I am proud to say that I never caved, and kept my word. Because I did, I found myself being outfitted with a bullet proof vest and jumping out of a police van, running behind 15 very heavily armed police officers when they broke down the front door screaming, “Police, search warrant!” while they had their guns at the ready.
It turned out to be the biggest drug bust in the history of Palm Beach County at the height of the cocaine crazed 80’s. I was so naïve I didn’t even know what cocaine was, but the adrenaline rush I got from running into that house got me higher than any drug ever could.
That was over 30 years ago and my career has been just as exciting ever since. I’ve had my ups and downs with the different police departments in South Florida. No two are run the same. How each treat the media is up to the top brass at the department. Some like us, most don’t. I always thought my job was to show our viewers what their tax dollars were paying for since not everyone could witness live what I was seeing. I liked showing the fire and police men and women putting their lives on the line; heroes in action as far as I was concerned. To me, anyone willing to risk his or her life to earn a paycheck was okay in my book.
Back then, everyone honored and respected cops. You said “yes sir” and “no sir” and looked on in awe as the officers drove down the street. If an officer asked you to do something it ranked even higher than if your father gave you an order. I knew that I didn’t have to fear the police officer – it was my father that was going to whip me if an officer brought me home in trouble.
My dad may have even tolerated me going afoul of the law, but heaven help me if I was disrespectful to that officer. I still have those feelings today. My dad and mom instilled in me a respect for that badge. My mom always said, “The man wearing that badge would give his life to save you or me. You show him respect.” She didn’t need to tell me twice. It wasn’t that hard. Everyone I knew felt the same way about police officers.
Then came Rodney King.
By then, I had been carrying a camera on my shoulder for a few years and it was as if a light switch had been flipped. Suddenly half the nation had no tolerance – no respect for police officers. Life on the streets changed overnight.
Suddenly people just lost respect for the law. I watched as thugs stole peoples’ cars just to go joy riding and to see how many police cars joined in the chase. They had no care about the peoples’ lives they were putting in jeopardy. They didn’t care how many laws they were breaking or if they ended up in jail. When I was growing up, people who went to jail were shunned. They were outcast. But now it was becoming commonplace – no big deal. It was as if people were saying, “It’s okay that you rob people and steal their possessions as long as you don’t bother me. I don’t want to get involved.”
Then it got worse. Then it was, “We don’t like how you are arresting our kids and our friends.” When did this happen? When did it become okay to hate the cops doing their jobs instead of hating the criminals? Lawyers play a huge role in this because municipalities have deep pockets and it’s easier to sue for damages than get a real job.
“How hard can it be to arrest someone without using deadly force or inflicting pain?”I found myself asking this question after the recent outbreak of viral videos on social media and TV news. Therefore I jumped at the chance to participate in these scenarios offered by the Coral Springs Police.
So, on an incredibly hot July morning it was suggested I wear “groin protection”, long pants and sleeves, and show up at the police training facility. We were briefed on some alarming statistics involving arrests and use of force lawsuits. We were introduced to some of the men and women in the room but several shady characters remained in the room and their presence set off alarms in my head. The main firearms training officer was in the middle of speaking when suddenly one of the shady looking guys draws a gun and points it at the speaking officer. The firearms officer pulled his weapon from his holster and they started screaming at each other. It went from a nice calm laughing atmosphere to an incredibly tense police standoff zero to sixty in record time. My heart started pounding out of my chest. Was this real or just an act?
Suddenly the instructor yelled, “Which of us has the fake gun?” If I was offered a million dollars, I couldn’t tell you which weapon was real and which was fake. These two men were less than six feet from me standing toe to toe with their weapons pointed at each other in a very well lit room and no one in the room could tell the difference. Now picture the lights going out and the only light in the room is the officer’s flashlight. “Does this help?” asks someone in the dark.
One thing is certain: I will never question an officer shooting someone with a fake gun ever again. How was he to know if it was real or fake? No amount of training in the world could teach that kind of knowledge. I felt like his life was in danger. After the demonstration, I had a hard time figuring out which was the fake gun and which was the real gun – the manufacturer had done a very convincing job with the replica gun.
One thing is certain: I will never question an officer shooting someone with a fake gun ever again. How was he to know if it was real or fake? No amount of training in the world could teach that kind of knowledge.”
That’s how the day started. They then divided the news reporters into groups and sent us to different stations. I was chosen to go first in my group so the team I was with, Vanessa Medina from Channel 7 and her cameraman, Julio Jara were sequestered in another room so they would encounter the scenario for the first time when it was their turn to go.
I wasn’t encumbered by a bulletproof vest, and already I was sweating profusely. My hands were sweating as I strapped my gun and holster to my hip. The safety glasses I put on immediately fogged up. I remember thinking, “With all of the gear they have to wear, how do cops deal with the heat and not let it effect their job?”
My instructor tells me, “You are on routine patrol when you get a call about a man breaking into an apartment. Neighbors report the suspect is wearing a blue hoodie.”
“Great,” I though sarcastically to myself. Mention the word hoodie and everyone on the planet knows whose name comes to mind.
“Your backup has been delayed. You are on your own.” I realized that no one else was coming and I had no choice but to do the job at hand. I couldn’t leave it to someone else, no one else was coming.
The man stood straight up and dropped what was in his hands and two big metal tools fell noisily to the ground. I thought to myself, “So far so good.” But then it all fell apart. I noticed my hand, while still holding the gun in its holster, was shaking.”
Now, you would think that playing cops and robbers would be fun but suddenly this was no joke. I opened the door to the situation room and entered cautiously. I had no idea what was behind that door. What officer does? Think about it. The responding officer has no idea what he/she will encounter on any call.
I hear what sounds like metal on metal. My heart skips a beat. “Here we go.” I say to myself. I take a deep breath and open the door to a long, dark hallway with a bunch of doors. About ten doors down I see a big dark blob bent over with something in his right hand that he is pounding on what appears to be a window. As he moves it I see a flash of light reflect off of the metal in his hand.
In my best commanding voice I yell, “Sir I’m with the Coral Springs Police. Please drop what’s in your hands and slowly step away from the building.”
The man turned his head and just looked at me like I was annoying him as I was slowly walking towards him. I had no idea what he was going to do. I figured he would do as he was told and this was going to be easy. As Captain Brad McKeone would tell me later, “You always have to expect the unexpected. It rarely ever goes as planned.” It was advice I could have used ten minutes earlier.
The man stood straight up and dropped what was in his hands and two big metal tools fell noisily to the ground. I thought to myself, “So far so good.” But then it all fell apart. I noticed my hand, while still holding the gun in its holster, was shaking.
What had appeared to be a safe distance between the suspect and myself quickly evaporated as this mountain of a man, 6’5 340 pounds started rapidly walking towards me. “Sir freeze!” I yelled but he didn’t even blink. His hands went into his pockets.
“Oh shit.” I though to myself and I started to panic. “Its ok, I live here.” The man says as he’s moving towards me much quicker than I had anticipated – Okay, I hadn’t anticipated at all.
“Sir I’m not going to tell you again. Freeze and get your hands out of your pockets!” I said as I drew my weapon.
I’m 6’2, 280 pounds and I was scared to death. This wasn’t a scenario anymore. I was in fear for my life. I forgot that this was play-acting. This man was coming after me with his hands in his pockets and completely disregarding my orders to stop moving.
“Its ok, I live here.” He said again. He was within six feet of me, still moving forward when he suddenly pulled both hands out of his pockets. I shot him six times.
The man fell to the ground and his hands by his side. I was suddenly out of breath and dizzy.
Lying in his hands…. A cell phone and his wallet.
I just killed a man. An unarmed man. My life, the one I theoretically spent on a career to serve and protect the citizens of my city where I grew up, where my kids are growing up, where my wife and I own a house, where she works and is involved in the PTA all just got destroyed because I was sent to do a job, and this man wouldn’t comply with my orders.
I hear the arguments that police should be trained better and all the crap the cop haters spew whenever something like this happens. That’s what it is, crap. Short of turning and running away, there was not a damn thing any officer trained or untrained – could have done differently.
The training officer asked a series of questions. The first being, “Were you in fear for your life?” and the answer was a resounding, “Absolutely!” to which he replied, “Then it was a justifiable shoot. He left you no choice.”
But that knowledge was of little consequence as they told me that he had locked his baby girl in the home and was trying to get inside.
There was no malice on my part. I had nothing against this man. No hatred. Yet when this story will get reported in the news one simple headline will destroy my life and everything I’ve worked for
“Police Shoot and Kill Unarmed Man.”
That headline in itself will create a firestorm but ask yourself this, “Can you imagine what the fallout would be if he was a black man?”
It’s been a number of weeks since that training day, and I still see that man coming at me in that dark hallway. I still here the explosions from my training gun that only fired soap pellets at the man, I can still feel the gun kick in my hand and my pulse starts to race just thinking about it. I replay over and over in my mind watching that man fall to the ground. I feel my heart drop when I see the cell phone and wallet. Would I feel any better if it were a gun and justify my actions because the man was going to shoot me? Who knows? All I know is that I keep asking myself, “Why would anyone in their right mind want to risk his or her life to do this job when the consequences of doing the job can be so disastrous?”
I hope you think about this the next time you hear of an officer doing his or her job. Not all cops are bad. In fact, most are just like you and me. Good people trying to do the right thing. Good vs evil on a very basic level. We’ve got to start rooting for the good guys and quit making it easier on the bad guys or one day you will call 911 and no one will come to help you.
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.