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Fatal shooting by St. Petersburg police shows complex factors officers face

ST. PETERSBURG — When officers responded to the little house on Second Avenue last week, the stakes were already high.

Dispatchers had received a 911 call, then overheard a struggle on the open line.

Moments later, officers forced their way inside to find a terrible scene — a woman on top of another, holding a large sharp utensil to the woman's neck.

Police haven't released all the details of what led two officers to shoot and kill Julie Goodson, 42, but law enforcement officials say a number of factors made the Feb. 10 shooting unusually complex.

The possibility of mental illness. The gender of the offender. The uncommon weapon. The risk of harming the victim.

As hard as it is to sort out the issues after the fact, it's much more difficult in the moment. Rulings on police shootings take that into account, often giving officers the benefit of the doubt.

"The blunt reality is the police have broad leeway to protect themselves and others in society, and that includes even making mistakes," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "They have broad leeway because it's their duty to do that."

Police and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office are investigating the shooting to determine whether there was any wrongdoing, as they do in every case where an officer shoots a person.

The police department's use-of-force policy says deadly force is allowed "when other reasonable means to avoid danger have failed, and the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to defend himself/herself or another from death or serious physical injury."

It explicitly does not allow firing a gun to wound or warn — a tactic that may work in cop movies and TV shows, but isn't applicable to real police work.

Family and friends wondered after Goodson's death whether police had to shoot, and even if they did, if they had to kill her.

But if officers believe a life is immediately at stake, they are trained to "stop the threat" by shooting for the person's center of mass, said Sgt. Tim Brockman, who trains officers to handle high-risk situations.

They don't respond to a deadly threat by shooting to injure or by using a Taser, because those may not end the threat.

"It's not foolproof, and we're not going to risk someone's life or the officer's life to use that kind of weapon," police Chief Chuck Harmon said of Tasers. "The main goal is to protect the innocent person, the victim, or the officer."

History suggests a review will probably find the shooting justified. When asked if a St. Petersburg police officer has ever been found to have committed an unjustified fatal shooting, Maj. J.R. Thompson could recall only one.

That officer had already fired his weapons seven times in 19 years with the department when he shot and killed an unarmed man while off-duty in 1993.

A shooting review board convened by the police department said it was not justified, but the state attorney made the final call that it was justified homicide.

Most officers never fire a gun on duty, Thompson said.

"I've been doing it for 35 years and I've never fired my weapon," he said. "I'm probably very typical."

Records suggest neither officer who shot the woman had ever fired his gun before.

Robert A. Virant, 37, has been a police officer for about two years. Sgt. Joseph H. Collins, 57, is a 15-year veteran with the St. Petersburg Police Department. He was certified in hostage negotiations in 2003 by St. Petersburg College.

A letter in Collins' personnel file describes how he handled a domestic situation in 2005. A man barricaded himself in his apartment, armed himself with knives and threatened to hurt himself and officers.

Over the course of an hour, Collins persuaded the man to surrender.

But as last week showed, tense situations don't always end with detente.

O'Donnell, the New York professor, said the mere presence of police can intensify a conflict. They arrive with training in using force. The confrontation of police and the mentally ill can be especially unstable. Goodson had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, according to her family.

"When the cops come they don't always make things better," O'Donnell said. "They bring deadly weapons with them."

The victim of last week's attack, Wendy Ott, has told the St. Petersburg Times that the officers tried "everything possible" to get Goodson to stop threatening her.

"They didn't want to shoot her," said Ott, 44.

Cases where a police officer fires a gun to protect a citizen's life are much more rare than shootings where officers are protecting their own lives.

But in 1996, a St. Petersburg police officer shot a man in a similarly difficult situation.

Like last week's shooting, it, too started with a 911 call. A man was on top of his wife with a knife to her throat. Police negotiated with him, but when he made a sudden move with the knife, a police officer shot him once in the head, killing him.

A shooting review board determined it was justified.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

Fatal shooting by St. Petersburg police shows complex factors officers face 02/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 8:53am]

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