Special report: SWAT broadens protocol

MOULTRIE, GA (WALB) - A deadly police shooting last year led to some major changes at a South Georgia police department.

Moultrie Police are now leading a shift in how officers deal with mentally ill people.

They began focusing on that issue after a man with mental problems was killed during a SWAT standoff.

Officers and community advocates say it's made a big difference in a short time.

Gunshots ended the life of 51-year-old Wayne Peterson.

"It affects the whole community, and it did," said Chief Frank Lang, Moultrie Police Department.

On September 5th, 2011, Peterson got angry at a clerk at a store in his Moultrie neighborhood. He threw a brick through a store window then locked himself in his home.

As SWAT team members approached his door, one of the officers said "Put the knife down Wayne. Open the door."

Peterson lunged at them with a knife then the officer said, "Wayne, I don't want to hurt you."

When a taser didn't work an officer fired five shots.

Moultrie Police Sergeant Rob Rodriguez was there that day.

"The officers were just trying to do things they were trained to do, and unfortunately the end result was not what anybody wanted," said Sgt. Rob Rodriguez, Moultrie Police Department.

Moultrie Police Chief Frank Lang was determined to make sure the shooting didn't destroy the community's trust in his department.

"We started having neighborhood input meetings immediately after the shooting," said Lang.

And he wanted to improve how his officers deal with people with mental health problems.

"We are encountering persons with some type of mental disorder daily," said Lang.

The department began Crisis Intervention Training.

"We wanted to be the first ones in southwest Georgia to get all officers CIT trained," said Lang.

So far about 40 percent of his officers are CIT certified. They completed training to learn about mental illness, how to communicate more effectively with people like Wayne Peterson, and how to de-escalate a tense situation.  There was also a change in policing philosophy.

"When I first got into this business, it was all about locking people up and putting them in jail and that was it. We didn't address the problem," Rodriguez.

Now, it's all about getting people with mental illness the help they need.

"We have seen definite benefits," said Lynn Wilson, Mental Health Advocate.

Lynn Wilson is the volunteer chair of a mental health advocacy community coalition that works closely with the police department.

"So we're looking to make a cultural change, you might say," said Wilson.

That effort paid off ten months after last year's deadly SWAT shooting.

"We were out here for 12 hours," said Rodriguez.

In July, Sgt. Rodriguez and the SWAT team were involved in another standoff across town with another man with a mental disorder.

"The difference, I think more so than anything else, was the officers had the confidence of the training that they had received," said Lang.

62-year-old James Ridley locked himself inside his home after neighbors reported he fired a gun.  The situation was similar to the previous standoff, but with a much different outcome.

"Nobody was hurt and everybody got to go home safely," said Rodriguez.

"It's a pretty stark reminder that CIT is important, and we need to continue getting other officers trained," said Wilson.

And that's a top priority for Chief Lang.

"That training has made a world of difference for us," said Lang.

So his officers can make a positive difference in the community they serve.

The officer who shot Wayne Peterson, Eric Fries was cleared of any wrongdoing and is back on the force.

Moultrie firefighters, dispatchers and Colquitt County deputies have also gone through the Crisis Intervention Training.

Chief Lang encourages people in Moultrie who have relatives with mental issues to call his department and give them some basic information about the person.

If first responders get called to the person's address dispatchers can let them know what they may encounter.