ERIC YOLLICK, The Golden Hammer
Conroe, May 21 – This past Thursday, and over the past several weeks, I’ve seen first-hand how immensely trained are the law enforcement officers in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office through the Citizens Academy classes Sheriff Rand Henderson and his team provide to the public free-of-charge. It’s been a great experience and one which has certainly shown me that I didn’t appreciate how incredibly trained are the Sheriff’s Deputies one meets regularly around our community. They seem like nice easygoing guys (and ladies) but, in fact, they’re constantly on the alert and constantly utilizing the highly sophisticated training they receive in the Police Academy, in regular and recurring training, and on the job.
One of the most difficult situations a peace officer may confront is when a citizen behaves in a manner threatening the officer and the public. At what point should the officer apply force against a citizen? Under the circumstances, what level of force is appropriate – hands, club, taser, or firearm? When is the right moment to apply the force? These are split-second decisions that the peace officer must make when a routine contact with a citizen turns into a bad situation. As the instructors in the Citizens Academy often stress, as peace officers their goal is to go home to their spouses and children. The wrong decision might prevent that simple goal from occurring. In the legalistic society in which we live, peace officers suffer second-guessing to the nth degree of their decisions.
On Thursday night, the entire class of approximately thirty-three (33) civilians went into the Interactive Simulator in the basement of the Sheriff’s Office. I’ve been pretty quiet during the class and I’ve never volunteered to participate in anything. Therefore, it’s no wonder that our class leader, Deputy Steven Squier, “volunteered” me to be the first person in an interactive simulation. I learned a bit about myself but I also learned a lot about the Sheriff’s Deputies.
First, A Digression
In November, 1984, I owned a business in Austin that made gourmet chocolate chunk cookies named “Eric’s Mother’s Cookies.” They were great cookies. The way I promoted the business, besides the terrific smell that wafted from the store in Dobie Mall at the edge of the UT campus, was I wore a bunny suit with a necktie and passed out coupons on Guadalupe Street. Customers could call Eric’s Mother’s Cookies and order cookies for delivery. They wanted the bunny to deliver their cookies. It got to the point that people all over Austin seemed to want the bunny more than they wanted the cookies.
One Saturday night we received a large order for two or three dozen fresh cookies from a sorority a couple of blocks away from the store. It was already dark outside that night. I walked from the store to the sorority carrying the cookie boxes and some soft drinks they’d ordered. (I always got a big laugh when people would order a dozen chocolate chunk cookies and a Diet Coke!) I was a few hundred feet from the front entrance of the sorority when an obviously drunk homeless-looking person came up to me, pulled a large knife out, and said, “Gimme your money.” I was in a pretty bad mood, I suppose. I emphatically said, “No!” and swung my bunny suit-laden fist right into his face. Literally, I have never struck another person in my entire life. I was the kid in school who avoided ever getting in fights with others. I’ve always hated fighting and avoided violence. I couldn’t imagine hitting another person.
My punch landed squarely on his nose and he fell backwards into the grass. I saw he was still breathing so I ran (hopped along) to make the delivery and went back a different way when I returned to the store. The last thing the homeless guy saw before he fell to unconsciousness was a guy in a bunny suit walloped him in the face.
Back to the Present
Returning to Thursday, May 18, 2017, Squier called me up to be the first person in the Simulator. The Interactive Simulator is a dark classroom with black floors and a giant movie screen on the west wall. On the floor is a triangle made out of red tape which marks the area where the “police officer” is supposed to stand during the simulation. First, Squier asked me if I held a License-to-Carry, which I do. He handed me a simulator gun which shoots an electronic pulse into the giant screen on the west wall of the Interactive Simulator and asked if I was familiar with Glocks. Since I own a few of them, I’ve fired them more than a few times. Squier told me to fire the gun into the target on the screen. I did and hit the target all three times.
Next, a movie began to play on the simulator. I was supposedly walking down the hallway that I recognized was right outside of the Interactive Simulator room in the basement of the Sheriff’s Department. I heard a man yelling, “I’m going to shoot you!” to someone in the office. The office shown in the movie is the Human Resources/Finance Office of the Sheriff’s Department, an office I had visited only two days earlier to do some investigative work regarding the Montgomery County Budget.
I turned the corner and confronted a scene of three people. One of the people was a Deputy whom I know and who spent several days with me standing at the South Montgomery County Community Center while he was campaigning for Rand Henderson running for Sheriff in February, 2016, while I was campaigning for myself for District Judge. The Deputy had his hands in the air. A lady whom I hadn’t met was crying. A very tall African-American man dressed in dark clothes was holding a shot gun pointed at the Deputy. I instantly recognized Chief Deputy Ken Culbreath play-acting as a perp threatening to shoot the others. He saw me and turned, pulled his shot gun around, and shot me four times! I would have died after those close range shots.
I did nothing but just stood there and watched the movie. Unlike when I wore the bunny suit and slugged the drunk, I just watched the screen. I was absolutely useless as a peace officer.
To make matters worse, Squier offered to play the movie one more time. This time, of course, I knew what was happening. But, once again, I did nothing.
I couldn’t get out of my head that this was play-acting by Culbreath, whom I spent almost two solid weeks with from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the South County Community Center during the 2016 election. Culbreath is an outstanding peace officer and a stellar choice by Sheriff Henderson to serve as his Chief Deputy. I know Culbreath to be a kindhearted, soft-spoken man. He doesn’t seem very threatening to me when I meet him. To the contrary, he seems like he’d be your perfect kind uncle whom you’d want to hang out with during the holidays. (See “Sheriff Henderson Makes Historic Appointment of Ken Culbreath as Chief Deputy Sheriff,” The Golden Hammer, February 4, 2017.) He didn’t seem very threatening to me even holding a shot gun and yelling that he was going to shoot the Deputy and then turning to shoot me. I just couldn’t get into the simulation. I suppose I’m not a very good actor either.
My complete failure to react to the Interactive Simulation movie raises a lot of questions. First, it’s clear that I have a very different reaction to violent situations than almost every other student in our Academy class. I’m not “Pistol Pete,” the student who draws her gun far too quickly and shoots everyone at the slightest instance. Rather, I’m “Anchor-Arm Eric,” because I just don’t like the idea of firing a gun on someone.
Clearly, when I “walked down the hall” in the Simulation and heard Culbreath yelling “I’m going to shoot you” I should’ve pulled my gun out of my holster at that moment, well before I turned the corner into the HR/Finance Office. I should have had my gun pointing forward with both hands on it as I first saw the actual scene inside the office. The moment that Culbreath moved, either to shoot the Deputy, or to turn and shoot me, I should have fired on him. As a peace officer, my duty would be to protect others and myself.
I should’ve handled Culbreath just as if I were wearing a bunny suit delivering cookies and he wanted my money.
I noticed that the Sheriff’s Deputies in the room, including Academy Lieutenant R.K. Funderburk, didn’t get a chuckle out of my strange lack of reaction. They got it. After the extensive training that they’ve completed, they clearly understood how difficult those decisions of when to shoot and when not to shoot can be. They knew how to react, but they also understood the subtleties of the questions of when to react. That’s precisely the training through which every single peace officer in the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office must complete and continue throughout their entire career.
As Captain Kevin Ray, the Division Head of the East Patrol Division, has said, “We know in the Sheriff’s Department that we’re in a customer service business just like Wal-Mart. The only difference is that, in our line of work, the customer is not always right.”
The level of skill and training of the Sheriff’s Department peace officers who interact with the public every single day of their careers is truly breathtaking and something that every citizen should respect and appreciate.