This article originally appeared at forcescience.org and is reprinted here with permission
Stripped to its bare bones, the incident had the ingredients of another racial firestorm: A white cop with a prior shooting on his record repeatedly fires at and kills a young black male, a former college football player, in full view of a crowd dispersing from a wedding at an African-American church on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. In one newspaper’s terse assessment: “kindling in need only of a match.” Yet when these unfortunate circumstances recently befell Muskogee, OK, there were no protests by angry marchers, no demands for criminal prosecution of the police, no looting or burning, no related arrests . . .
Instead, thanks to a police department’s skillful performance in getting its “narrative” of the facts across to the public and maintaining calm in the critical days after the shooting, the fatal encounter and its aftermath became what one publication calls “an example for the entire country of how a police department should conduct itself.”
Some of what went on behind the scenes to produce a peaceful outcome, including the important role of Force Science training, is detailed here for the first time–and includes navigation strategies that other agencies may find useful when fate deals them a potential crisis. But Muskogee Police Chief Rex Eskridge cautions: “You can’t start working on all this the day something happens. This was a collaborative effort, involving relationships with the media and the black community that had been cultivated over a long period of time, a city government that fully supported us, a command staff that was attuned to important sensibilities. And it started with patrol officers who were out there doing the job as it should be done.”
SHOTS FIRED. About 3:50 on a Saturday afternoon last January, two urgent calls in quick succession rang into Muskogee’s 911 center from the pastor of a black Baptist church on the northwest edge of the city. A distraught young woman, part of a crowd leaving a wedding he’d just conducted, had come to him for help, claiming an ex-boyfriend had threatened to kill her. He was in the parking lot now with a gun and “a bullet with her name on it.”
“I need a police officer!” the pastor blurted. “I got a whole bunch of people out here. I don’t want nobody hurt.”
The first responder, Ofcr. Chansey McMillin, readily confronted a subject the pastor described–black male, early 20s, white jacket, short dreadlocks–mingling with 50 or 60 wedding guests who had exited the church. When McMillin started to handcuff him for a patdown, the suspect tried to strike him with an elbow and the back of his hand, then bolted into a nearby road. During a brief foot pursuit, he dropped a “silver object” that McMillin later told a supervisor he recognized as a gun. He crouched to pick it up and pointed it in the officer’s direction.
McMillin fired five .40-cal. rounds from his Glock 22. The suspect collapsed into a watery roadside ditch, fatally wounded.
A backup officer located a “junker” .22-cal. pistol, hammer cocked and a round chambered, under the suspect’s body. The dead man’s left hand gripped a cell phone.
From the time McMillin stepped from his patrol car until he fired his first round, less than a minute elapsed.
BREAKING NEWS. Called to the scene from home on his day off, the PD’s public information officer, Sgt. Michael Mahan, had made himself a student of how the controversial shooting in Ferguson, MO, five months earlier had been handled publicly, and he vowed not to repeat what he considered a critical failing there: Ferguson authorities had not adequately explained and defended the involved officer’s legitimate actions from the get-go.
“You can’t have a bunker mentality these days,” Mahan told Force Science News. “Trying to duck reporters with ‘No comment’ or stalling until a full investigation is complete only deepens distrust. You’ve got to put things in a context so the public can understand matters that may seem obvious to law enforcement.”
At the church, Mahan quickly gathered the salient facts, particularly from the pastor and from the supervisor who’d taken McMillin’s public safety statement before the officer was removed from the scene. Then he offered himself for a series of reports for four TV crews.
“I always prefer to go live if possible on breaking news,” Mahan says. “I want to get exactly what we’re saying out there from the top, not somebody else’s paraphrasing or editing of our position. And I want to immediately get people focusing on the facts.”
He made certain to direct the crews to “a witness who saw everything,” the pastor. The minister had told Mahan that he felt McMillin “did everything right” in the fatal confrontation, and the PIO wanted that statement, coming from a credible source, repeated on camera, along with the pastor’s description of the suspect’s initial threat to kill the wedding guest.
A reporter, noting that McMillin was white, asked if race was a factor in the shooting. “Race had nothing to do with it,” Mahan answered. “It had to do strictly with actions and the response to actions”–a theme he would underscore more than once across the coming days.
Yet even as he spoke, someone in the parking lot crowd was claiming that the suspect had only a cell phone in his hand when he was shot. And someone else was alleging that he was shot multiple times in the back but had never made a threatening move against the officer.
TRANSPARENCY PLEDGES. Within 15 minutes of the shooting, the police department contacted the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) to take over the official probe of what happened to assure the public of an independent inquiry.
With OSBI approval, the PD would be free to analyze the video recording from the TASER Axon body camera that had been affixed to McMillin’s collar and, so long as the investigation was not compromised, to comment publicly on what the footage revealed. Mahan assured the media they could expect “full transparency” from Muskogee PD, regardless of what the video showed.
As more was learned about the dead man (a 21-year-old who’d been a scholarship linebacker for a local college the year before), a deputy chief from MPD talked by phone with the suspect’s mother in Texas. He promised he’d keep her abreast of developments daily and gave her his number to call any time she had questions.
Several black clergymen, one of whom is also a city councilman, had showed up at the scene as word of the shooting spread, and a core component of a response plan that involved them quickly took shape. In light of the active personal and professional relationship he’d developed with the city’s African-American ministers, Chief Eskridge believed they could be valuable conduits through which the PD could reach out to reassure Muskogee’s black community.
A meeting was set for the next day at a community center with members of the black ministerial alliance, city council members, the mayor and city manager, community leaders, and representatives of the police department. The religious leaders and politicians were asked to urge to their constituencies not to rush to conclusions about the shooting until an analysis of Ofcr. McMillin’s body cam video could be completed and a “more informed judgment” could be made.
In return, they too were promised full transparency “as information becomes available,” including the chance to see the entire footage and ask questions before it was made public.
Meanwhile, McMillin was concerned about public reaction in Muskogee, a town of 39,000 with something of a rough-and-tumble reputation. Nearly one in five of its residents is black, and the city has suffered racial tensions in the past.
A military Bronze Star recipient who’d seen heavy-combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan, 36-year-old McMillin had been involved in shooting another minority, a subject who had committed violent attacks with a knife, just six months earlier. That shooting was nonfatal and was determined to be justified.
“Still,” says his attorney Scott Wood, “given the national climate, he worried that he might become another Darren Wilson,” the beleaguered officer in Ferguson.
VIDEO ANALYSIS. McMillin asked Wood, himself a former officer and now a police attorney in nearby Tulsa, to represent him in the new investigation. Because Wood has counseled the city of Muskogee in various use-of-force cases across the last two decades, a deputy chief also asked him to review the body cam footage for possible legal issues.
Wood, a graduate of the Force Science Analysis course, recruited Sgt. Jim Clark of Tulsa PD, a nationally known use-of-force expert and former legal section chair for the National Tactical Officers Assn., to join him.
Beginning the evening of the shooting, Wood and Clark spent several sessions meticulously examining the video. “The shooting was one of the fastest evolving I’ve seen,” Wood says. “We watched it 15 or 20 times, and still some details didn’t become evident until we slowed down the action on a laptop so we could study it frame by frame.”
The most critical clarification concerned the object the fleeing suspect dropped and then recovered just before McMillin shot him. The officer had insisted it was a gun, but the distance between his collar camera and the suspect–Wood estimates it was 60 ft.–made the item difficult to distinguish on video when the recording was played at normal speed.
Frame-by-frame, however, the item became recognizable as a pistol, which for an instant was pointed threateningly at McMillin as the suspect picked it up from the pavement with his right hand. All McMillin’s rounds were then fired in less than 1.3 seconds.
Also, in the camera’s running footage as McMillin approached the downed offender, the gun could be seen revealed under the suspect’s body as the backup rolled him over–evidence that would refute any allegation that the weapon had been planted.
As for the rumor that it was his cell phone that the suspect dropped and pointed, the suspect could be seen early in the video transferring the phone from his right hand to his left when McMillin tried to pat him down. It was still in his left hand as he lay dead in the soggy ditch.
Wood called Chief Eskridge and assured him the shooting looked “perfectly justified.” Even so, based on the video, Wood predicted the autopsy would show “some shots to the suspect’s back,” a potential flashpoint for civilian minds.
3 HITS. Soon after the weekend, the medical examiner confirmed it. Three of McMillin’s five rounds had brought the suspect down. One struck his left side, another entered the left side of his back and penetrated his heart, and a third bored into the base of his skull and exited his left eye socket, Wood says.
“It was a classic example of what Force Science teaches about how shots often end up in the back,” he notes. “An officer decides to shoot when he is facing a deadly threat, as McMillin was. But by the time the bullets impact, the suspect has begun to turn in flight, and the rounds strike in the back. With action and reaction times, it’s unavoidable.”
Policy requiring that body cams be worn by Muskogee officers had been finalized only a few days before the shooting. Wood says, “If we had not had video showing the movement of the suspect and the speed he was moving, the location of the wounds by themselves could have implied that he was shot when there was no direct threat.”
Armed with Wood’s and Clark’s analysis, Eskridge decided it was time for full public disclosure.
THE REVEAL. The rollout of evidence was carefully designed and orchestrated.
The first audiences were assembled groups of black clergy, city council members, other civic leaders, and representatives of the US Attorney’s Office, with Wood and Clark on hand to answer questions. Overlapping those presentations were debriefings at the PD as officers arrived for shift changes, giving them facts and interpretations with which they could dispel rumors they might encounter on patrol.
At the urging of Wood and Clark, the presentations consisted of more than just a playing of the body cam video at full speed. Instead, the first component of the program was a 25-slide PowerPoint production, created by Wood, that combined colored still frames taken from the video with explanatory text.
With walk-through narration, the PowerPoint focused attention on highlights of the confrontation and established justification for the shooting from the officer’s perspective. Pivotal frames included the suspect spinning away when McMillin tried to pat him down…launching an elbow and then a backhand at the officer’s head…targeting McMillin after recovering the dropped gun…the officer firing in self-protection…McMillin cautioning, “He’s got a gun!” as backup approached….and the retrieval of the cocked, chambered weapon and the cell phone.
After that, the video was shown in slow motion (speed reduced by a factor of 10) a couple of times before finally being played at normal speed. Q and A followed and included explanation of the back wounds and answers to anticipated questions like why McMillin fired multiple rounds and “didn’t just shoot the man in the leg.”
“Out of about 25 civilians who sat through the presentation, only one verbalized that he still thought the shooting was unnecessary,” Wood says. “All the others said they understood and promised to make sure that the black community knew what they’d been told and seen, to counter any inflammatory rumors.”
VIRAL. At 8 o’clock the next morning, TV stations and other major media in the state were emailed a copy of the PowerPoint program, the various formats of the video, a transcript of radio logs, and other materials pertinent to the shooting via a Dropbox attachment. On the advice of a friendly crime reporter, the time was specifically selected to allow TV newsrooms to “thoroughly absorb” the contents before their first major newscast of the day.
Included was a 15-point list of “considerations” for reporters compiled by PIO Mahan that directed their attention to crucial elements of the video. This itemization explained step-by-step why McMillin had reacted to the suspect’s actions as he did and why the police department felt he was legally justified in doing so.
Care was taken to state why McMillin had not used a less-lethal weapon instead of his gun. “This had come up repeatedly,” Mahan says, “and we felt it important to explain why anything less than deadly force was not appropriate to deal with the threat he faced.”
This same material was shared with the suspect’s family before it was released to the media and with the state NAACP president and his staff. Also a public “listening session” was scheduled for the weekend at a local African-American church where “people could voice their concerns and ask questions.”
“The video quickly went viral,” Mahan says. Before long, he was receiving email from as far away as the Netherlands and the UK. The coverage he knows of, he says, proved to be “fair and accurate in its presentation of the facts,” with some stories noting specifically that the PD was “leaving no doubt” about its defense of McMillin’s actions.
Mahan’s tenure as PIO ended soon after this event, but he recalls that before he left the post he received letters from a variety of news agencies congratulating the PD on its handling of the incident. The online news journal The Daily Beast wrote that Muskogee set “an example for the entire country on how a police department should conduct itself, starting with equipping its officers with body cameras and following through with a promise to be as transparent as possible in the wake of a fatal cop involved shooting.”
OUTCOME. Six days after the shooting, McMillin gave his official statement to the OSBI. Late last month, District Atty. Orvil Loge, citing the reconstruction of the shooting by OSBI investigators, ruled that the suspect had unlawfully posed a “direct threat” to the officer and that McMillin’s deadly response was “legally justified.”
A group of black ministers held a press conference at which they said, among other things, that they were grateful for the openness the department had shown and that they held no ill will toward McMillin. Even so, in light of his two shootings, they recommended that he be permanently removed from street patrol “for his safety and the community’s safety.”
In one-on-one meetings with the pastors, Eskridge explained why it would not be appropriate to punish an officer who had justifiably acted to save his own life and, potentially, the lives of others in the vicinity that fateful day at the church. “After that, they backed off of that recommendation,” Eskridge says.
“Most important, I’m very satisfied that we had the ability to deal with all this in a mutually respectful way that did not get overheated.”
“We believe that our community’s best days are ahead of us,” one of the ministers told reporters. “We don’t have to be a community that’s out of control, that’s consumed by riots. We took the approach that says, ‘Let’s communicate first and try to see how well we can work together.’ “
Though not publicized, MPD did have a contingency plan in place in the event of civil disturbances, Wood says. Primed to supply personnel if needed, neighboring agencies, the state highway patrol, and the National Guard all provided MPD’s SWAT supervisor with emergency contact numbers for their personnel and a list of equipment each agency could bring to a callout.
Although never implemented, even this preparation, too, had a positive result. “It was discovered,” Wood says, “that there was a vast shortage of gas masks and many of those who had masks did not have filter cartridges for them.”