Crime

He went into work early and ended up shooting a suspected cop killer

Something told Wesley Griffis to head into work early on the afternoon of Nov. 6.

A Byron police officer since March, it wasn’t uncommon for the 26-year-old to show up 15 minutes early. That day, he left 45 minutes early to begin his 6 p.m. shift.

Driving down Ga. 42 about 5:30 p.m., he heard dispatchers ask all available officers to respond to a house a few miles away where 57-year-old Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr. reportedly had just shot two Peach County deputies.

He heard his co-workers, who were wrapping up the day shift, radio in that they were on their way.

Griffis headed there, too.

He said he felt like he was almost in a dream, hoping the situation wasn’t as dire as it had been reported by dispatchers.

He and his fellow Byron officers were the first help to show up for Sgt. Patrick Sondron and Daryl Smallwood, the deputies who were fatally injured after going to Elrod’s house. The deputies had gone there to talk with Elrod about a complaint that he had threatened a neighbor’s nephews after they’d ridden a four-wheeler and motorcycle up and down Hardison Road in front of Elrod’s home.

Authorities say Elrod, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, fired shots at the officers.

Griffis, standing behind a ballistic shield, shot Elrod, ending the assault. Elrod is charged with two counts of murder stemming from the deputies’ deaths and three counts of aggravated assault for firing on three Byron officers

Two days after the shooting, District Attorney David Cooke told reporters gathered at a news conference that Griffis acted appropriately and wouldn’t be charged with a crime.

“I think God puts us in places where he wants us,” Byron police Chief Wesley Cannon said. “He put Wesley where he needed him that day.”

Cannon and Griffis declined to speak about the details of the shooting, citing the pending murder charges filed against Elrod, who is being held at the Bibb County jail without bond.

Byron officers also were among the members of the Peach County Emergency Response Team who on Dec. 8 surrounded a house in Americus where Minguell Lembrick, the man suspected of fatally shooting Americus police officer Nick Smarr and Georgia Southwestern State University police officer Jody Smith, later was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sondron and Smallwood, the deputies killed about a month earlier, also had been members of the team.

Four of the Byron officers who went to Americus also participated in the Dec. 12 Peach County Drug Task Force raid in Crawford County where Byron officers James Wynn and William Patterson reportedly were shot by 31-year-old Rainer Tyler Smith. Police returned fire, fatally shooting Smith.

“An officer actually having to use his firearm in the course of his duty might happen once in a 30-year career,” Cannon said. “Some of these guys have been through it twice in two months.”

‘It’s people’s lives at stake’

Just three months before Byron officers responded to help their sheriff’s office brethren, they’d spent a week practicing use of force techniques on an interactive simulator that recreated real life scenarios.

Officers spent three or four hours each practicing, negotiating with suspects and, when necessary, using a Taser or a gun.

In some scenarios where an officer used good verbal skills, talking a suspect down, no force was necessary.

Cannon said an officer doesn’t want to use any type of force — especially deadly force — and they’re not going to unless they have no other option.

The chief said some officers came to work on their days off to get extra practice.

“They don’t want to make a wrong decision. They want to go home at the end of the day,” he said. “They want to be as sharp as they possibly can, as proficient as they possibly can.”

Byron officers also rented the simulator about five years ago.

In light of current events, Cannon said he hopes to use it again in 2017, making it a part of officers’ annual training. In 2016, he used money from the department’s confiscated funds account to pay the $4,000 fee.

“It’s people’s lives at stake,” he said. “When you have that high stakes, there’s not a cost you can put on training that’s too much.”

Griffis was one of the officers who participated in the training. Before coming to Byron, he served four years on the Roberta police force — including a stint as the city’s interim police chief — and three years as a Pike County deputy.

The simulator provided an environment similar to real life, the opportunity to build “muscle memory” and experience in decision-making, he said.

Looking back on the incident at Elrod’s home in November, Cannon said he thinks the simulator sessions and prior training had an impact on how his officers made decisions and acted that day.

Having his officers stop the assault without getting injured, “that was best case scenario for us that day,” he said.

Making the job safer

It’s not uncommon for Cannon’s phone to ring late at night or early in the morning.

But the calls he got after Sondron and Smallwood had been shot, and later about his officers being shot in Crawford County, were the ones he’s been dreading for the 16 years he’s been a police chief.

Even though some of Cannon’s 25 officers are old enough to be his father, the chief thinks of them as his children.

“I’ve got 25 I’ve got to wrap my arms around and make sure they’re safe,” he said.

Along with ensuring the officers have the best training possible for future incidents, Cannon said each officer has been required to meet with a psychologist in light of the recent shootings.

“As a whole, everything is good,” the chief said. “You don’t know how to fix something you can’t see. We want to make sure.”

He said one of the officers injured in the Crawford County raid was expected to return to work soon after Christmas. The other likely will be out of work and recuperating for several months.

Anytime force is used, whether it involves a gun, Taser or a chase, Byron police review the case in a way similar to how football teams study game film to improve their performance, Cannon said.

“This is us policing ourselves,” he said. “We need to see what we can do to make our job better and safer, and if we can do that, we can make it better and safer for the public.”

Looking back on all that’s happened in the past two months, Griffis said, “It’s made me that more alert and makes me want to be that much more prepared … so if I have to encounter this again, I’ve got all the training I need and can be ready.”

Police can’t control when situations such as those faced by Byron’s officers arise, Cannon said

“There’s only two people in this world that can stop it. That’s God and the bad guy,” the chief said. “We just have to react to it and come out on top. We have to come out safe.”

Speaking to people who might one day encounter police in a heated situation, Cannon asked them to consider the value of a human life — the life of the suspect and officer.

“Just stop and don’t put us in that situation,” he said. “Just stop and talk.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Amy Leigh Womack: 478-744-4398, @awomackmacon

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