Jim Ruffalo: Use of deadly force traumatic for law enforcement

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
-A +A
It would be nearly impossible, and also rather presumptuous of me, to try to get inside the mind Gregory Ray DeFord. He’s the Weimar man who was the suspect in two recent Auburn bank robberies, and was subsequently shot and killed by a Placer County Sheriff’s deputy while attempting to avoid arrest after a 10-mile vehicle pursuit Sept. 16. What has already been reported is that DeFord suffered a series of financial reversals, and also reportedly made it clear that he would never see the inside of a prison. So was it a case of what law enforcement calls “suicide by cop”? We probably will never know for sure, but no matter, because as just about any cop I’ve known in my more than three decades of scribbling for a living will tell you, the last thing he or she wants to do is pull a trigger. Sheriff Ed Bonner says, “What we many times fail to realize is that there is more than one person affected here. When an officer has to shoot, there is almost always long-term results from that action.” Bonner says after such incidents, “most often the shooter eventually asks ‘was there something else I could have done?’” “It’s a traumatic time for everyone such as the deceased’s family and friends, but also for the (immediate and extended) family of the officer,” he added. Sometimes it gets tragic for the shooter, despite the counseling. Cases of officers involved in fatal shootings later swallowing their own gun — which is how some peace officers term suicide — are well documented. “Right there is one big reason why having caring and qualified chaplains is so important for us,” Bonner said.  And, fortunately, part of the healing process often begins before the incident. “Our people are trained to realize such situations can and do happen, and such reactions are highly probable. Deep down, one has to realize that it wasn’t the deputy who started matters in motion,” he said. “It’s a shame somebody had to die, but the reality is I pay my deputies to win. I want them to be able to go home to their families every night, so when we have to shoot, there are no warning shots, or shoot to wound. We have to shoot to kill,” he said. But as Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Ausnow points out, there’s always “our upbringing that comes into play.” He explained that when we are in our formative years, we’re taught to play nice and to follow the 10 Commandments. “And through the years, we’re told one of those Commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ so if you do shoot somebody, you wonder about sin and the like,” he said. “On the other hand, if we really study it, we find out the Commandment actually says ‘Thou shalt not murder.’ It helps to realize the difference.” Despite that difference, Ausnow is quick to admit he’s happy there is now an arsenal of non-lethal weapons at an officer’s disposal, including Tasers, bean-bags, pepper-spray and the like. But sometimes deadly force is the last resort. Auburn Police Captain John Ruffcorn, who has nearly as much time as a law-enforcement officer as I have as a reporter, remembers one time he had to shoot. That was back when he was with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. “Three of us were on a ‘burglary in progress’ call when a guy holding a gun comes up a dark driveway and confronts us. When we told him to put his hands up, he leveled the gun at us so we all fired,” Ruffcorn said, adding he really was happy they all missed because the person was a concerned citizen in the wrong place doing the wrong thing at certainly the wrong time. Still, he agreed with something more than one law-enforcement officer has told me over the years. “Two things simultaneously go through your mind when you fire your weapon. You immediately think ‘I hope I killed that SOB,’ but at the same time you also say ‘I hope I missed,’” he said. A lot of us civilians probably can’t get our collective minds wrapped around such a concept. “One reason we can’t,” says Bonner, “is that TV tells us differently. “There, a cop may shoot at somebody more times in one-hour than our whole department does in a year. It really isn’t the way you see it on TV. Shows like those are doing a horrible disservice to peace officers.” Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Reach him at