Despite a string of recent fatal encounters involving his deputies, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran believes his officers have followed their training and taken “reasonable actions under the circumstances.”
As Lagniappe reported, a Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) deputy shot and killed a woman during an armed confrontation in Coden on Friday, Jan. 24. Police later identified her as 35-year-old Rebecca Angel Alexander, who officials say opened fire on deputies before she was fatally wounded by return fire.
According to Cochran, the encounter occurred after deputies responded to a report of a “disorderly female” on the property on Bellingrath Road near Highway 188 around 3 p.m. Burch said the property was shared by several members of the same family. He said a neighbor called the police on Alexander.
“She has previously suffered from mental illness and has attempted suicide several times,” Cochran said. “According to her husband, she had also been in an altercation and using [crystal meth] that day, which made her paranoid. She then broke into the man’s trailer on that same property.”
According to MCSO, Alexander was hiding inside of a camper trailer on the back of the property that didn’t belong to her as deputies approached and attempted to establish contact with her. Before they could, Cochran said she began firing at them from a window. He claimed that, even though officers were pinned down, they gave Alexander a chance to surrender peacefully before returning fire.
No deputies were injured, including Cpl. Rusell Norgren, who fatally struck Alexander when returning fire. A deputy for nearly 20 years, Norgren was placed on administrative leave per MCSO’s own protocols. The shooting is under investigation. It’s unclear if any other deputies returned fire.
The shooting of Alexander, which is still under investigation, marks the fourth incident involving MCSO deputies that have ended with a suspect or bystander being injured or killed in the past two months.
Bernie Wade Johnson was shot and killed by an MCSO deputy Jan. 9 after he allegedly attempted to shoplift at a Walmart in Semmes. Officials say he was wielding a clawhammer, threatened to kill the deputy and had continued to advance on the officer after being tased. His family has disputed whether a taser was used.
In the early hours of Jan. 11 — just two days after Johnson’s shooting — Cameron Gamble, 18, was fatally struck by an 18-wheeler on Interstate 10 while trying to flee MCSO deputies on foot following a high-speed chase in a reportedly stolen car that ended with a collision near McDonald Road.
On Dec. 19, 2019, 19-year-old Ann Marie Rylee was shot and critically wounded in her own home during an MCSO narcotics operation involving multiple agencies. However, the officers who actually fired the shots worked for the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security.
On Dec. 9, Cpl. J.T. Thornton and deputies Nathaniel Kersten and Owen Bradley shot and killed 66-year-old Terrance Edward White after he opened fire on several officers responding to a domestic disturbance at a house in Semmes. Local prosecutors are reviewing that incident, but police say White opened fire first and had previously told neighbors he’d kill anyone who showed up on the scene.
While police were reportedly able to collect cell phone footage of Johnson’s shooting captured by a witness in the parking lot, none of the other incidents were captured on film because MCSO deputies do not wear body cameras — bucking both local and national trends for agencies its size.
Cochran has previously told reporters he doesn’t see the need for them and, in fairness, the recent string of shootings involving his deputies is unusual. He also stressed that most of them involved mentally ill suspects — a problem he says has caused law enforcement issues in local jails and on the streets.
“Is this number of deputy-involved shootings unusual? Yes. But, is there an uptick in violence against police? I would say yes, also,” he said. “We train all of our officers in crisis intervention semi-annually and have specifically retained them in the last few years. That covers handling the mentally ill and different ways to approach it that can lead to better outcomes, and we have a lot of good outcomes.”
Cochran also noted that, for several years now, around 20 percent of the population in Mobile County Metro Jail has been treated with some kind of psychotropic substance, and he also noted state mental health officials have recently pitched a plan to help take that pressure off local jails in Alabama.
During a presentation to legislators last week, Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear asked for an additional $18 million to set up crisis service centers in the state that would provide police with an alternative to jailing the mentally ill when they’re picked up for petty crimes.
As for the deputies who have been placed on leave for their roles in recent officer-involved shootings, Cochran is standing by them, and at least based on what’s known now, believes they followed protocol.
“It some respects, it’s not fair to judge them in 100 percent hindsight, but I certainly think it was all reasonable and under some of these circumstances,” he said. “We train, in some instances, to avoid a potentially dangerous person or back off, but these have been situations where that wasn’t an option.”
Cochran said when they were shot, Alexander, White and Johnson had already shown signs of being a danger to themselves and others and deputies were required to engage them. He said the alternative could have led to an officer or a bystander being shot, or in Johnson’s case, struck with a hammer.
“There are unfortunate outcomes, but I’m satisfied that our deputies handled them properly,” Cochran said. “Under the circumstances, I’d think there’s little — if anything — they could have done differently.”
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