Monday, December 11, 2017
Public safety

Saving a life is a pure act of valor

Here's what Sgt. Scott Lamia has to say about seeing ugly confrontations end peacefully:

"It's extremely satisfying. . . . That's the main goal, to preserve life," said Lamia, 36, a 15-year veteran of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

"There isn't anything joyful about taking somebody's life. There's nothing good that comes out of it."

Lamia's reminder — which he's more qualified to deliver than just about anybody in the department — is sadly relevant these days.

In October, Hernando sheriff's Detective Rocky Howard and Tampa police Officer William Mechler shot and killed Inga Marie Swanson, a naked, disoriented woman who had threatened them with a gun that turned out to be broken and unloaded.

On Wednesday night, Deputy Ramona Fuhs shot and injured an 18-year-old high school senior who had attacked her as she tried to get out of her patrol car.

In Fuhs' case, we don't know enough to determine whether the shooting was justified. Howard and Mechler, who were off duty at the time of Swanson's shooting, were not only cleared of wrongdoing; last month Sheriff Al Nienhuis awarded them his agency's highest honor, the Medal of Valor.

I thought at the time this award undermined the lesson that should have been learned from Swanson's death — that killing a person in need of help is one of the worst imaginable outcomes.

I'm even more convinced of this now that I've read the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's report on the shooting. It doesn't show malice or negligence — just a messy, tragic incident in which no one appears especially heroic.

Swanson, as we've reported before, showed up near a home where Mechler and Howard were hanging out and tried to climb into a truck with a 5-year-old boy.

The boy's father, Eric Glass, cursed at Swanson, yanked her hard enough that she fell to the ground and later referred to her as a "crazy b----," one of the witnesses interviewed said.

When Mechler's friend — who is also Howard's brother-in-law — told them about the incident, he said, "Eric just threw some half-naked chick out of his car."

Howard did try to help Swanson after she had walked away. And when she returned with the gun and continued to advance toward him and several other people, he fired a relatively restrained three shots.

Mechler shot at her eight times, bringing the total number of bullets fired to 11, seven of which struck Swanson.

Howard handcuffed her and then went to a house to wash his hands with bleach, apparently as a precaution against disease. He then retrieved latex gloves from his vehicle before applying chest compressions and trying to "stop the blood coming out from where Swanson had been shot," according to his statement to FDLE investigators.

Lamia probably knows as well as anyone how Howard felt.

In October 2002, he shot and killed John Thomas Tenison, who had repeatedly violated a court order requiring him to stay away from his ex-wife's Spring Hill home.

Most deputies go their entire careers without firing their weapons. This was the third time for Lamia, though the first time one of his bullets had struck anyone.

He told investigators he had to shoot. Tenison had been trying to run him down with his car.

A witness said otherwise. And though a grand jury cleared Lamia of criminal charges, it called the death unnecessary. Richard Nugent, who was sheriff at the time, suspended Lamia from duty for 15 days and then assigned him to desk duty, where he remained for five years.

I should make it clear that Lamia's comments at the beginning of this column were not meant to second-guess any of his fellow deputies' actions. He doesn't even second-guess his own, saying only that he was an "extremely proactive officer."

But after looking at Lamia's record since his return to patrol and interviewing him on Wednesday, it seems to me that he's a different deputy.

He is a longtime member of the agency's crisis response team, which is responsible for using negotiations to resolve problems.

He did this well enough that when he was promoted to sergeant last summer, he became commander of the team.

And a week ago Friday, he was called to the home of a suicidal man in Royal Highlands.

The man was inside and didn't hit or directly point his weapon at deputies. But they could see through a window that he was holding a shotgun, and he told them he would use it if they tried to come inside.

"I assured him that we had no interest in coming inside," said Lamia, who was able to reach the man on his cellphone.

He listened to the man's complaints about the Sheriff's Office, which had issued him a traffic ticket a few years earlier that he was still mad about.

Lamia let the man talk about his financial and psychological troubles and told him deputies could get him help. After Lamia learned that the man had served in the Air Force, they even chatted about their shared interest in airplanes.

Finally, by about 4 a.m., Lamia said, "I think I wore him down."

The man left his house with his hands up and his shirt raised to show he didn't have a pistol tucked in his waistband, Lamia said.

"I came up to say 'Hi' and shook his hand and patted him on the back to tell him everything would be all right."

For that, I'd say, Lamia deserves a medal.

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