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To use lethal force: Inside the before, during and after of an officer-involved shooting

Every day in America, law enforcement officers are forced to make life or death decisions in situations where there are no good answers and lives hang in the balance.

In the just the last year alone, Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office Deputies have been involved in two fatal shootings, when a suspect brandished a weapon at authorities and was shot and killed.

But according to local authorities, those two instances are just the tip of the iceberg, a tiny percentage of encounters that happen every day, where trained men and women are forced to make a choice.

This story will follow the actions of one Forsyth County deputy, the choices he made and the outcomes that developed from one of the most difficult situations a person can be in.

“Fall back on your training”

On Aug. 19, 2009, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office received an alert that the Wachovia bank off Bethelview Road in south Forsyth had been robbed by one adult male that allegedly brandished a handgun and stolen an unknown amount of cash. In minutes, responding deputies sped towards the area to set up a perimeter and begin searching for the suspect.

A call came over the radio that the suspect had fled in a white panel painting van. As Sgt. Brent Weeks, a seven-year veteran of the department, made his way towards the crime scene from the far south end of the county, he watched in astonishment as the wanted vehicle passed him, traveling south, nearly bumper to bumper with another driver.

"Like if I hadn't been going to a call I'd have turned around and stopped him for following too close," Weeks said.  

Weeks immediately turned his car around and began a pursuit, without lights or siren, while he waited for backup to assist him in what he knew would be a felony traffic stop.

"But we didn't have anyone close to me,” Weeks said. ”And I’m just following the car. He sees me, he knows that I'm on him and he finally decides to pull into a gas station.”

As the two vehicles turned into the Texaco gas station on Hwy. 9 near the Midway community, Weeks noticed the people pumping gas and entering and exiting the station. If it turned dangerous, things could go wrong quickly. 

"Our procedure for felony stops, we like to have multiple cars there … but there are people in the parking lot getting gas and people inside the gas station, so I had to make the decision to go ahead and engage the guy," Weeks said.

Weeks said that when he flipped on his lights and hopped out of his vehicle, the suspect came out of the van with a gun in hand, pointing it at Weeks and himself, ignoring Weeks’ commands.

"A good concept to keep in the back of your head is that people don't really rise to the occasion when they get put in critical situations,” Weeks said. “In our line of work, you fall back on your training."

Weeks said that within a split second of seeing the gun he had gone through a mental checklist. He calculated where the civilians were at the gas station and the surrounding area and yelled the command “Drop it!” over and over again, falling back on the thousands of hours he had spent drilling with firearms and tactics to decide whether to pull the trigger of his weapon or not. 

‘We train decision makers’

According to Cpl. Josh Bell, the Field Training Officer Coordinator for the sheriff’s office, the decision that Weeks was forced into making in 2009 was the culmination of extensive training that deputies are put through from their first to last day.

Training deputies that can make the right decision, based on their training and the totality of the situation’s circumstances.

"We don't want robots out there to make pre-programmed decisions because every situation is not the same," Bell said. "What decision you made last time in a similar circumstance may be appropriate or it may not. But you have to make your decision on each particular fact of that specific incident.

“I want deputies and the agency wants deputies that can think quickly and multitask and make good appropriate decisions at that time."

Bell said that throughout their career, Forsyth County deputies are trained in everything from de-escalation tactics, the methods that law enforcement officers use to attempt to diffuse a tense situation, to active shooter response and search and seizure laws.

“Any type of training that deputy might need, we facilitate it and coordinate it,” Bell said.  

De-escalation is particularly important, Bell said. It gives deputies the chance to calm the situation and end things peacefully, which Bell says is ultimately the goal. The de-escalation can be as simple as separating parties or asking a person to explain what happened. The key is approaching the situation non-confrontationally.

"When someone is really amped up, that is when force is likely to have to be used," Bell said. "But de-escalation, it doesn't always work. Some people are just highly agitated, and they are going to make irrational decisions, and no amount of de-escalation is going to change that. But if you never try it, you are never going to know."

Each year, all law enforcement officers are required by Georgia law to go through firearms, de-escalation, use of force and community relations training, Bell said. Twice a year they must qualify to carry a firearm.

He said that aside from firearms, deputies are trained with less-lethal options like TASERs, pepper spray and bean bag rounds, using them when de-escalation isn’t working but a lethal approach isn’t required or necessary. 

All of the training is necessary, Bell said, because no situation is ever the same, and officers can never know for certain what is in the mind of a suspect — and like in Weeks’ case, they may be never get a chance to de-escalate the situation.

“It's not like a set of stairs where you start at the bottom and work your way up,” Bell said. “Sometimes the situation goes from no force whatsoever to deadly force in a tense rapidly evolving situation … and I mean it happens very quickly. If you have a traffic stop, and when you approach the car the driver produces a handgun, that’s not the time to de-escalate.”

In the end, Bell said that it is entirely up to the deputy to decide whether their life or the life of an innocent bystander is in danger when making the decision to use lethal force.

"That's why we try to train decision-makers," Bell said.

Weeks said that in his case, he felt forced into a situation where he had no time and no alternative but to use lethal force.

“It would have taken half a second for him to grab someone as a hostage ... so he put me in that situation to where I had to act,” Weeks said. "Nobody wants to take someone's life, that's not what I signed up for. But when you put me in a situation where I've got people inside of a gas station, I've got people pumping gas and you are pointing a gun at me – believe me, it's always been proven that action is faster than reaction.”

Later, on the dash camera footage from Weeks’ patrol car, he would watch as he shot the suspect, 50-year-old James Matthew Kenny of Cumming, five times, killing him on the spot.

"The thought that has always stayed with me is, ‘Why he didn’t drop it?’” Weeks said.

Weeks paused.

"That has always stayed with me as, 'Look man, if you had just dropped that gun, you’d still be alive today.'"

‘You are completely protected’

After the shooting, Weeks said the scene felt almost surreal as he and other deputies cleared the suspect and his vehicle.

“We had to clear out the panel van, because we didn't know how many people were involved in the robbery at the bank, so we are opening up doors to this van, and clearing it ... and the wind blows through so there's like freaking cash flying all over the parking lot from the robbery,” Weeks said. “It was like time just slowed down so much.” 

As deputies secured the suspect and kicked his gun away, they discovered that the weapon was nothing more than a black air pellet gun.

"The way we look at it is, it doesn't matter whether it’s a real weapon that fires a projectile that can kill you, versus a replica, it's all treated the same way,” Weeks said. “He robbed a bank with it, so apparently he used it in an offensive manner, and we’re not able to make a decision whether that's a bb gun or a pellet gun when someone's pointing it at you."

By the time they had cleared the scene and separated witnesses for statements, the cavalry had rolled in and the scene was taken out of Weeks’ hands.

Weeks was taken by his superior, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman, then a captain, back to the precinct, leaving his car and all his belongings at the scene.

"I personally felt a little numb and calm about everything,” Weeks said. “The nervousness that I think people feel is, 'What's going to happen next?' or ‘When do I get to go home?'”

Today, Weeks that calmness came from knowing he had done the only thing he could have. Weeks believes that people who are truly meant to be in law enforcement are able to take that emotion and do something positive with it.

"The feeling of, 'I killed somebody,' you don't feel that emotion until later on down the road,” Weeks said, “and it’s different with everybody." 

After giving a statement to his superiors, Weeks was interviewed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who investigates nearly every officer-involved shooting in the state to determine if there was any wrongdoing by the officer.

"My first interview with those guys, I don't remember it being as structured as it is now, they just had pen and paper,” Weeks said. “Today, when they come for a post-shooting interview, they come in with a three-ring binder and they put it on the table in front of you and they ask you questions and turn the page." 

According to a statement from the GBI, officer-involved use of force investigations are one of the organization’s highest priorities. During the course of an investigation, agents seek the facts of what occurred in the incident as an independent external source.

“There is no statutory requirement to contact the GBI but agencies contact us because we are able to provide an independent investigation that eventually gets turned over to the district attorney’s office for review,” the statement reads.

Both of the officer-involved shootings in Forsyth County this year have been or are being investigated by the GBI.

Weeks said that things have changed since his case was investigated. According to Weeks, officers that use lethal force are generally given a sleep cycle to recover from the incident before going through a post-shooting interview.

"We have found that allowing a deputy to have sleep cycles in-between interviews allows them to recall better," Weeks said. "(GBI) will interview the other parties involved ... but they don't interview the trigger pullers until later on."

Since that incident in 2009, Weeks has been in two other shootings, most notably an incident in 2017 where a man armed with an AK-47 opened fire on deputies attempting to negotiate him out of a residence in north Forsyth. 

The night of the 2009 shooting, Weeks was placed on paid administrative leave. Six days later, after a psychological evaluation and other assessments by the sheriff’s office, he was cleared to return to active duty.

"That's a pretty intense moment, the first time you get put back," Weeks said. "And it’s a key part of closure; we want to get back to normal. Getting us back to normal is getting us back with our guys that we weren't allowed to talk to, getting us back in our element and our crew and our normal everyday life. That's part of the healing process."

Weeks said he was ready to get back, but he also felt a twinge of fear when he thought about going through the ordeal again.

"What would happen if I did have to shoot another person today? What are they going to think of me if I immediately get into another deadly force situation?" Weeks said. "Because it could happen at any moment, and it could very well happen the first shift you are cleared from your previous one ... you just want everything to settle down." 

Weeks said that the final hurdle to clear came eight months after he returned to active duty. He received a letter from the district attorney’s office later in the form of a letter. He was officially cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting.

"You are completely protected," Weeks said.