While most people were going about their business on the afternoon of Aug. 25, Phenix City police Sergeants Terrance Walker and Matt Goodson were in the middle of trying to de-escalate a very dangerous and complicated situation on Broad Street.
In the early afternoon, around 2 p.m., a woman entered the Phenix City Police Station on Broad Street to file a complaint against her estranged husband for threatening to kill her. Meanwhile, the husband had called and said he wanted to kill her and himself. The husband, as it turns out, had followed her and was parked in front of the Chamber of Commerce building next door.
“For us, that’s a clue,” Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith said. “If you show up at the police department chasing your estranged wife, and she’s in there saying you’re trying to kill her and you’re out front, it’s probably a legitimate complaint.”
Another officer was on the scene, but Walker took over and began trying to calm the man down just by talking. What he didn’t see, and what Goodson did, was that the man had a pistol on the seat.
“I actually got a phone call, saying what was going on,” Walker said. “Once I saw the car, I went over and started talking to him through the window.”
Walker said he just concentrated on trying to keep the man as calm as possible, while Goodson moved to the passenger side of the car.
“When I got there, he (Walker) was already talking to him. He was as calm as he could probably be in that situation,” Goodson said. “I could see through the passenger window that a gun was lying in the seat. He (driver) had his hand on the console. Whenever he kept inching over toward the gun Sgt. Walker would talk to him, and he’d bring his hand back to the middle. I was there making sure that he didn’t grab the gun that Terrance couldn’t see.”
To make matters worse, while all of this was going on three individuals from a First Amendment auditors group were filming the incident from three different angles, adding to the pressure for both the officers and the suicidal man. First Amendment auditing is a social movement where individuals film encounters with public officials in the hopes of encountering a First Amendment violation. The officers managed to peacefully disperse the auditors under the direction of Cpt. George Staudinger.
Walker is a 23-year veteran on the police force and Goodson has nine years. They have had extensive training and experience. They were able to get the man out of the car, get the gun out of range and called an ambulance to check him for injuries. Realizing the man was suffering from possible mental illness, the officers called Probate Judge Alford Harden who signed for the man to be mentally evaluated.
“When you look at this situation, what comes to my mind is the lack of mental health facilities,” Smith said. In 1989, there were 11 mental health hospitals in Alabama. Today there are only three.
“Think about the amount of training needed to deal with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, all those things that are very common in our society…you’ve got people who are master’s level and doctorate level who still struggle to deal with those kinds of things, and you’re asking a bachelor’s level academy-trained police officer to go out and deal with those issues and not in a calm manner during group session…You have 32 years of experience between those two guys (Walker and Goodson) who were able to solve that,” Smith said.
According to Smith, this was quite possibly a “Suicide by Cop” attempt. Smith said that officers would have been in their legal jurisdiction if they had shot the man.
“The legal standard is reasonableness,” Smith said. “What would a reasonable police officer do? It’s reasonable to use deadly force against someone who has a gun and won’t give it up, but is it necessary? He’s just a guy that’s having problems with his relationship and doesn’t know how to solve them. We don’t want to kill somebody because that’s their issue. We’d rather get him some help, and that’s what we did.”
In a time when police departments across the nation are facing an angry public, the Phenix City Police Department counts this as a win, but Smith knows it could have just as easily gone the other way. Smith said his department tries to learn from the mistakes of other police departments.
“We dissect the incidents, try to figure out the training value and how can we not go there,” Smith said. “We’ve had a lot of successes. They’re not as visible because they didn’t happen right in front of the police department, but they happen all the time. But one time, it’s going to go bad. He could have grabbed the gun, shot himself and died and we would have still been blamed because we were trying to deal with him. We may not have shot him, but we didn’t keep him from shooting himself, and that’s a failure.”
City Manager and Public Safety Director Wallace Hunter was on the scene and watched the scenario unfold.
“In the wake of everything that’s going on in this country, I needed to see that, the leadership in what they were doing,” Hunter said. “When they got the person out of the vehicle, they hugged him. He will never forget that. To see how they worked together, it is something that needs to be highlighted. The way they used their training that day, I couldn’t be any prouder and this city should be very proud.”
Smith said that the man’s actions from Tuesday will likely result in criminal charges.