PITTSBURG — A gunshot cracked through the morning air and small hole appeared just a hair above the black dot in the center of a paper target downrange. The group of Pittsburg Police Department Citizen’s Academy students erupted in cheers, and Girard High School Teacher Megan Johnson’s face lit up.
Johnson had just won the “Top Shot” competition at the end of our day at the PPD gun range. It was her first time shooting a firearm — except a few times when she was young — but when it came down to one shot, winner take all, she was closest to the bullseye.
I grew up around guns and own many myself. Others in the Citizen’s Academy have past experience with guns, but for others their knowledge was limited. But that didn’t matter. PPD Rangemasters Sgt. Chris Moore and Lt. Ben Henderson did an absolutely fantastic job making sure everything was safe and that everyone involved felt comfortable.
We arrived at the range at 8 a.m. Saturday and quickly began cycling through firearms. We shot paper targets with a Glock .40 caliber pistol — what PPD officers carry as sidearms — as well as a 12 gauge shotgun, and the firearms used by the PPD Special Response Team.
It was a fun morning. I shot better than I expected and everyone seemed to have a great time. But the day at the gun range was a follow-up to our class Thursday, which did not have such a happy tone.
Thursday evening we covered officer involved shootings — something most officers hope they are never involved in. Being fired upon or having to fire a weapon in the line of duty is a scary thought, and it also comes with many complications.
To tell us about the details of how officer involved shootings are handled, PPD invited Kansas Bureau of Investigations Senior Special Agent Tim Botts to teach our course Thursday.
Botts worked as a patrol officer and eventually police chief in Baxter Springs before moving on to the bureau. Now he conducts investigations when officers are involved in shootings, a situation in which he’s seen both sides.
“If you’re on the outside looking in, something of the things we do may seem weird,” Botts said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to explain those to you.”
Botts investigates officer-involved shootings in order to uncover evidence and determine what happened in a situation. He and other agents process crime scenes, collect evidence and even look at the events leading up to a shooting, not just the shooting itself.
When an officer is involved in a shooting, the officer’s firearm is collected as evidence, but Botts said he always makes sure the officer is given a firearm right back.
“As an officer, your firearm is something you associate with your job and your identity,” Botts said. “If that is taken from you and not replaced, you immediately feel like you’ve done something wrong.”
Botts said it is also standard to wait 48 to 72 hours before interviewing an officer involved in a shooting. Traumatic events have strenuous physical and psychological effects. The rush of adrenaline, elevated heart rate and other effects can hinder a person's ability to clearly remember the details of a traumatic incident. Botts said that’s why officers are given enough time for two sleep cycles before being interviewed.
He also said the KBI will not release any body or dash camera video from an officer involved shooting until after the interview.
“I want the officer to recall all the details on their own,” Botts said. “If they go home and see the video on the news, it may affect the way they remember the incident.”
The KBI and agents like Botts only serve as unbiased investigators. They collect evidence and present it to the Kansas District Attorney, who will rule in three possible ways.
The DA can rule the shooting was justified, that there was not enough evidence to prove it was unjustified, or rule the shooting unjustified.
Being involved in a shooting and having their regular routine turned upside down is something officers hope they never have to experience. A day at the range was a fun release after covering a more somber part of what it means to be a police officer.
— Chance Hoener is a staff writer for the Morning Sun. He can be emailed at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ReporterChance.