WMBF Investigates: Police stress in the digital age

WMBF Investigates: Police stress in the digital age

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Shoot or don't shoot? It's a decision law enforcement officers have to make in micro-seconds.

In today's digital age, citizens carry their own type of gun, the camera phone in the palm of their hands.

North Myrtle Beach Police Chief Phillip Webster walked WMBF News through dash cam video from a police chase involving two of his officers and three men suspected of robbing a bank in May 2016.

In the video, Lance Cpl. Andrew McCarter can be heard on the radio saying he was being shot at with an assault rifle as he followed the suspects' vehicle near the Barefoot Landing area.

"As a supervisor, when I've listened to officers involved in pursuits, I listen to their voice," said Webster.

He listens for any signs of stress because, in a moment like this one, how an officer reacts is important.

"Distance is our friend, distance is going to equal time," said South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Instructor Bruce Hancock. "We want to assess. With the perception the general public has of us, we don't want to shoot or use force unless we have to."

The academy is one of the first lines of training potential officers in South Carolina go through before they are hired with an agency.

"People just don't realize how quickly these situations develop," Hancock said.

He's talking about situations that have the potential to change so many lives.

"These guys are stressed, stressed out, and a lot of times very scared to do their job," Hancock said.

All it takes is the blink of an eye for things to change, and it's the body functions people rely on that are hindered most in stressful situations.

"One biggie is the eyes," Hancock said. "We lose depth perception, ability to focus, night vision is altered. We normally get tunnel vision."

But it doesn't stop there. An officer's hearing is affected, along with their heart rate, stress hormones, their cognitive attention and even their memory.

"We're not taking in as much information as we would be, so we miss stuff," Hancock said.

And those missed cues, affected by the stress of the job, can lead to someone getting hurt. That's why the training officers go through is so important.

"No officer gets up in the morning and says, 'I think I'm going to go out today and kill somebody,'" Hancock said. "We don't do that, and again, if something were to happen and we find out we have a bad apple, we're going to take care of it and clean it up because it makes all of us look bad."

Hancock trained a young Michael Slager when he came through the academy before making it to the North Charleston Police Department. And while Hancock wouldn't comment directly on the current legal battle over Slager's justification for shooting and killing Walter Scott, he did say this:

"We are just humans, and as humans, we are going to make mistakes unfortunately. But we've got to be accountable."

What makes Slager's case so notable, though, is that a short portion of the incident, including Slager firing his weapon, was caught on cellphone video by someone on the street.

In this digital age, it's easier than ever before to not only access videos like that one, but to share opinions about them.

Plus, at the state level, lawmakers are working to protect residents' right to record interactions with law enforcement officers.

A bill in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee would hold an officer accountable if he or she restricts someone from recording them on the job, within certain constraints.

It's just another example of how technology has changed the world everyone lives in so much.

People are seeing things from angles that were never available before, even officer-involved shootings. That's helping to hold authorities accountable for some of their actions.

"A lot of those cases, the tape doesn't look good and there's no way to sugar coat it," Webster said. "There was a whole lot more that happened prior to the video starting. That's why investigations try to get all of the pieces together. And we've seen it go the other way, too. If the officer was wrong, they have to face the penalties just like anyone else would."

On the other end of this debate, authorities say video recordings can add to their stress levels because the general public can make assumptions about an officer's actions based on a short clip showing only one perspective from an interaction.

"A lot of people do not understand how the legal system works, and if an officer does fire his weapon and kills someone, that he becomes sort of that suspect, that he has the same rights as anyone else," Webster said. "He shouldn't automatically be judged for what they did at that moment without due process and a trial and all these other things involved. I think people lose sight of that, especially if it's an officer involved."

For the case in North Myrtle Beach, it was only the dashboard camera in McCarter's vehicle that captured his experience and showed how he stayed calm in the face of real danger.

"He had to get his wits back about him and get back in the game," Webster said.

He also had to notify another officer up ahead that the suspects were heading his way. Despite the chase through North Myrtle Beach, a six-hour manhunt, and 17 shots fired their way, the officers never pulled the triggers of their own guns.

"Obviously, in hindsight in this situation, everyone came out okay," Webster said.

WMBF tried to talk to Lance Cpl. McCarter and Lt. Thomas Dennis personally, but they never responded to requests.

However, Webster was more than happy to brag on his officers' responses that day. He hopes other officers watch those dash cam videos and take notes on how McCarter and Dennis relied on their training and remained calm in the face of danger.

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