Split-second decisions can come at great costs- often death or liability. How’s a cop to know what to choose?

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This editorial is brought to you by Mike Simonelli is a retired US Army officer with 30 years of military service who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; an active police officer in New York for 22 years; the Suffolk County PBA Sgt-at-Arms and holds a master’s degree in National Security Studies from American Military University.  His book in policing can be found at www.jdfinformation.com.

Nationwide: There’s an old saying amongst police officers:

“I’d rather be judged by twelve then carried by six.”

It’s a refrain typically made when acknowledging the dreaded but realistic possibility that one day the officer will be forced to make a split-second decision on whether or not to use deadly force.

Three law enforcement officers who faced such a decision met their fate this week– two were murdered and the third was found guilty of manslaughter.

The Murders

Tragedy struck first on December 14, 2022 when Bay St. Louis Police Department Sergeant Steven Robin and Police Officer (PO) Branden Estorffe were feloniously murdered in the line of duty while handling a 911 call at 4:30 a.m.

The two officers were dispatched to check on the welfare of a woman sitting in her vehicle with a child at a Motel 6 parking lot.  After locating the vehicle and speaking to the woman inside it for nearly 30 minutes, the officers decided to call for Child Protective Services for the safety of her nine-year-old daughter in the backseat.

In response, that woman, Amy Brogdon Anderson, a veterinarian “who had no criminal history and was reportedly well-liked in the community” allegedly took out a gun and fatally shot Sgt. Robin and PO Estorffe.

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Sgt. Robin was a 12-year veteran, supervisor and known as a great mentor, while PO Estorffe though a rookie, was considered an “exceptional cadet” and exuded “professionalism.”

Both were caught off guard.

Although they determined Anderson posed a danger to her daughter, her behavior did not give them reason to believe she was a threat to their own safety.

So, when Anderson suddenly moved her hand under her clothes, into her bag or around the vehicle, the officers would have had to ignore their initial impression to immediately draw their weapons and shoot her.

In this case we know after the fact they would have been right, i.e., justified to use deadly force, and therefore would possibly still be alive.

But had they been wrong, and it was later found out Anderson was just reaching for a tissue or her phone instead of a gun, they risked being fired and/or criminally charged.

Split-second decisions can come at great costs- often death or liability. How's a cop to know what to choose?

The Other Side of the Coin

Proof of that was demonstrated by a jury’s decision rendered the very next day, on December 15, 2022 finding former Ft. Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean guilty of manslaughter for the October 12, 2019 fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson.

On that tragic day in October, PO Dean and PO Carol Darch responded to a 911 call around 2:30 a.m. to check on a house which a neighbor reported seeing the front door open. Upon arrival the officers looked around and surmised the house “was being burglarized because two doors were open, lights were on inside, cabinets were wide open and things were strewn about the living room and kitchen area.”

To further assess the situation, the officers walked around to the back of the house where upon shining his flashlight at the rear window, PO Dean saw a person inside. Believing that person was in the midst of a burglary, Officer Dean aimed his weapon and yelled:

Put your hands up. Show me your hands!”

A second later when that person raised their hands holding a gun pointed at PO Dean, he justifiably fired one shot through the window, killing her.

Split-second decisions can come at great costs- often death or liability. How's a cop to know what to choose?

A Tragic Accident

As it turns out, that person was Atatiana Jefferson who was lawfully in her mother’s house. Jefferson was playing video games when she heard a noise in the backyard, and fearing it was a prowler, she justifiably grabbed her legally owned gun.

Clearly everyone knows now that Atatiana did not deserve to be shot. But at that moment, when Atatiana pointed a gun at PO Dean, all that he knew was he had reason to believe the house was being burglarized, he just ordered a suspect to show her hands, and in response she pointed a gun at him.

PO Dean did not have cover, he was out in the open and looking down the barrel of a gun – there was no time to yell “Gun!” to alert his partner nor a requirement to identify himself as a police officer to the suspect. His survival instinct and police academy training kicked in and he did exactly what he should have – he shot at the armed suspect to end the deadly threat.

So why for the first time in the history of Tarrant County, Texas was Aaron Dean, an on-duty police officer just convicted of manslaughter, for shooting an armed woman no less?

Close up on the scales of justice
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The answer is the shooting was framed as racism instead of being about an armed woman making a police officer reasonably fear for his life. Addressing the shooting during a press conference, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy said, “the gun was irrelevant.”

What was actually irrelevant were reporters’ references to the shooting of Botham Jean, a black male, by an off-duty Dallas police officer the year before. Such efforts to racialize the shooting were common as many articles pointed out that “a white Fort Worth police officer fatally shot a black woman.”

Prosecutor Ashlea Deener even painted Dean as a racist in her closing remarks, insinuating he had “preconceived notions” about Atatiana and did not believe he had to serve and protect her.

In Conclusion

As this week’s tragedies reveal, the war on police continues. It started with an otherwise law-abiding citizen murdering Sgt. Steven Robin and Police Officer Branden Estorffe as they treated her and her daughter with compassion.

The next day Stuttgart Police Sgt. Donald Scoby was murdered by a mentally ill man with a history of threatening police. It concluded that same day with the character assassination and wrongful conviction of Police Officer Aaron Dean for his use of justified deadly force.

These heinous attacks bring to mind another old saying:

“A society which chooses war against the police better learn to make peace with its criminals.”

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Split-second decisions can come at great costs- often death or liability. How's a cop to know what to choose?

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