Mobile Police Officer Leland Terrell was fresh out of the academy and off duty when he was first forced to discharge his service weapon.
The now 39-year-old, 17-year veteran of the force was two weeks out of training, out of uniform and in his personal vehicle at a car wash near where he grew up in Saraland, when a man brandishing a firearm with the intent to rob him approached.
“I was in disbelief that someone was trying to rob me,” Terrell remembers.
The man pointed a gun at Terrell’s head as he was standing outside his vehicle. The rookie officer shot the would-be robber once in the chest, before detaining him and flagging down help.
Terrell said that first incident changed him. For one, he said some officers had gotten in the habit of not carrying a weapon with them at all times.
“It impressed on me the importance of carrying my weapon,” Terrell said.
The job got a lot more serious for the new police officer, who was engaged at the time, he said.
“I had to take into account that my family was now involved at this point,” he said. “They started to have to deal with the issue that (a loved one) was in harm’s way.”
That was the first of four similar incidents for Terrell, which highlights the importance of training for the rare situations.
Chief James Barber said while his department averages around 202,000 calls for service a year, the number of officer-involved shootings averages about four annually. But the department has dealt with two officer-involved shooting incidents within the last few weeks.
In the first such incident, an MPD officer shot into the vehicle of 44-year-old Michael Odell Sims, after a short chase that ended at the intersection of Old Shell Road and Upham Street in Midtown on Feb. 13.
Police said the suspect was wanted after an alleged theft at Bel-Air Mall. The officer fired after Sims began driving toward the officer following a car chase through town. Police say Sims was aiming his late-model silver Ford Mustang at the officer and was then shot once in the shoulder. He was later treated at the University of South Alabama Medical Center.
An internal investigation into another officer-involved shooting Feb. 19 found that officer Kevin Kelly was justified in his shooting of 23-year-old Shawn E. Taylor. According to police, the investigation found the suspect was attempting to gain access to a weapon to use against Kelly, before the officer fired and hit Taylor in the lower back.
The incident occurred at approximately 1:35 p.m. in the area of Live Oak and Persimmon streets, after a report of drug activity. Officers tried to detain two subjects who matched witness descriptions as those possibly involved when a struggle ensued.
Taylor produced a weapon during the struggle and multiple shots were fired, including one that hit the suspect. He was transported to the hospital and treated for a non life-threatening injury. Kelly wasn’t injured.
Barber said not only are officers trained to use deadly force when they feel their lives, or the lives of others, are being threatened, but officers are also trained to use that force until the threat has been eliminated. This is why in many of these situations multiple shots are fired.
Officers are also trained to “recognize the threat of deadly force” in these situations, Barber said. He said cues can include a subject’s demeanor, expressions and mannerisms.
Officers are extensively trained in these scenarios. In the academy, officers spend a full week on a shooting range and in a computer program that simulates officer-involved shootings. Cadets also spend two weeks in survival training and new officers don’t go out to calls by themselves in their first eight months on the job, Barber said.
Officers are also required to attend training sessions at the range and in the simulator for the equivalent of one week per year.
“We just drill it into them,” Barber said of the training.
He said the department hopes that in situations where lives are at stake, training takes over.
All the preparation came in handy in June of 2001, when the officer once again found himself in a life-and-death situation with a suspect. Terrell and other officers were in the Roger Williams community doing a sweep as part of the department’s public housing detail.
Terrell says the officers approached a group of male subjects and pursued them after they ran. Terrell caught up to a subject and began to try to detain him. Terrell says he forced the subject to the ground but the man put a 9 mm handgun to Terrell’s side and began firing.
“He fired and continued firing,” Terrell said. “I realized I had been shot by the third round. The sharp pain and muzzle flash helped me realize he was shooting.”
Terrell said he began firing back at the subject at this point, hitting him five times and killing him.
Terrell had also been shot five times. He suffered a collapsed lung and had the nerve severed that controls his thumb and first two fingers on his left hand. He also sustained shots to his hip and left leg.
Spent 10 days total in the USA Medical Center, including two days in the Intensive Care Unit. He came back to light duty that September and made a full recovery by November.
“Working helped me work through things,” Terrell said. “I kept replaying the scenario in my head and wondering if there was anything I could’ve done to avoid it. The consensus around the department was that I couldn’t have done anything different.”
Terrell was voted officer of the year in 2001, as a result of the incident, which Barber called “a knife fight with guns.” Terrell also made news last year, after being dismissed from the department for an incident where he brandished a firearm at a Waffle House. He was reinstated after Barber went to the personnel board on his behalf.
“He’s one of the most highly decorated officers on the force,” Barber said. “He had a lapse in judgment. He shouldn’t have been fired for it.”