The Trigger And The Choice

Part 1: Two decades later, a traffic stop on a country road is still teaching police officers about deadly force – and the cost of hesitation.

Issue

Those three minutes went on, even after the blood washed away. They joined a woman alone in her bed as she remembered the sound of her husband’s breath. They followed a girl who wondered why Santa Claus wouldn’t bring Daddy home. They kept the sheriff looking over his shoulder, even in the shower, and they told him his deputies needed bigger guns.

If you want to know why cops shoot people, you can find one of many answers in those three minutes on Whipples Crossing Road. There, on January 12, 1998, Deputy Kyle Dinkheller of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office made the final traffic stop of his brief career.

The sun was setting over Middle Georgia as the three minutes began. It was 5:34 p.m. About halfway through the first minute, Dinkheller called for backup. His partner, Deputy Don Matecun, careened along the gray-white ribbon of Interstate 16, pushing his Ford Crown Victoria to the edge of its capabilities, but he was still roughly 15 miles away. The second minute began. Dinkheller called for help again, voice tinged with fear, as if the situation had gotten worse. When he called a third time about 20 seconds later, he spoke so fast that the words ran together: “Radio got a man with a gun!”

Don Matecun

Matecun wove through traffic, swerving on and off the grassy median, calling his friend on the radio. You 10-4? You 10-4? No answer. The third minute passed. By the time he saw Dinkheller’s patrol car, the other vehicle was gone. The radar display flashed 98, the speed that caused the traffic stop. An unwritten ticket sat on the hood.

He found Dinkheller lying behind the car, fringed with blood and spent ammunition. Matecun knelt, looked into his eyes. The light had gone out. When he’d finished crying, Matecun said he was sorry for getting there late.

Another patrol car arrived, and another, until a small army had gathered in the deepening twilight. Sgt. Darren Mitchum was Dinkheller’s supervisor and had a key to Dinkheller’s trunk. He had to stand above the body while opening the trunk to retrieve what would become one of the more consequential pieces of evidence in the history of American law enforcement.

Darren Mitchum

The agency had recently installed dash-mounted video cameras in its patrol cars. Mitchum unlocked a steel case in the trunk and pulled out a VHS tape. The lawmen found a VCR at a friend’s house up the road. Such were the circumstances that led Sheriff Kenny Webb and a few other investigators to gather around a television on a winter night and bear witness to the murder of a young man they loved. The video had a strange power, one that would grow with time and radiate across the country. There in that room, in its first-ever showing, it compelled the sheriff to cry out loud: “Kyle, run, run, run, hide, hide!”

Ten miles away, the telephone rang at a bowling alley. The call was for Kirk Dinkheller, a heating-and-air technician playing in a Monday-night league. The caller said his son had been shot. Kirk went to the hospital, where one look at the sheriff’s face told him Kyle was dead.

He could close his eyes and see Kyle the little boy, oiling his first baseball glove. He could see Kyle the young man, taking down his first deer. He could see Kyle the new husband, kissing his bride at the courthouse, and Kyle the new father holding a girl in his arms. He would always have their last afternoon, when Kyle stopped by the job site to shoot the breeze and borrow a cigarette. He could hold on to the last words he said to his son:

Kirk Dinkheller

“Be safe. Be careful. I love you.”

And to the ones Kyle said back: “I will. I love you too.”

Now he would add a new memory, a horrible one, the last three minutes of Kyle’s life. No one told him about the dash-cam video. He just knew, because he knew Kyle had a camera in his car. The sheriff was Kirk’s friend, and he warned Kirk against watching the video, but Kirk insisted. And so, at the sheriff’s office the next day, with the chaplain and the major present, Sheriff Webb played the video for Kirk with the sound off.

“OK,” Kirk said at the end. “Now turn the sound on.”

They turned on the sound and played it again.

The video shows the open sky and ubiquitous pines of Middle Georgia, the drab weeds of a road shoulder in mid-winter, the cruiser’s flashing lights reflecting in the tailgate of a white Toyota pickup truck. The cruiser stops. The truck’s door opens, and a man gets out.

“Come on back here for me,” Kyle says, voice clearly audible through his wireless microphone. The man shuts the truck door. He pulls on the lapels of his jacket. A dog barks inside the truck. The man walks toward Kyle and stops 10 or 15 feet away.

“How you doin’ today?” Kyle asks.

“OK,” the man says. “How you doin’?”

And then, in the first of many provocations, he puts his hands in his pockets.

“Good come back here keep your hands out of your pockets,” Kyle says.

“Why?” the man says, leaving them in.

“Keep your hands out of your pockets, sir,” Kyle says.

The man turns away, as if returning to his truck, and begins a profane and menacing tirade. Kyle steps forward, right forearm entering the frame, right hand ready to draw his gun. The man turns toward Kyle and raises his hands.

“Come ‘ere,” Kyle says.

The man dances, waves his arms, sings like a taunting child:

“Here I am, here I am. Shoot me. Shoot me!”

Here is a strange fact about the muskets left behind on the battlefield at Gettysburg: Most were still loaded. Nearly half were double-loaded, even though the gun was designed for one shot per load, and many other barrels were jammed with five, 10 or even 20 loads. In his book "On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman surmises why: “The obvious conclusion is that most soldiers were not trying to kill the enemy.” To keep up appearances, the reluctant soldier tore open a cartridge, poured in the powder, rammed home the bullet and pretended to fire.

Most humans would rather not kill, even when society asks them to.

Most humans would rather not kill, even when society asks them to. This is why warriors in New Guinea removed the feathers from their arrows before going to battle, rendering them inaccurate, and why skilled riflemen in other battles fired more than 100 bullets for each enemy they struck. It is also why most police officers try to avoid pulling the trigger.

Kyle Dinkheller was a gentle soul, a man who kissed his wife every morning and kept a fishing pole in the back of his truck. When Angela was pregnant with their daughter, he got down on his knees, faced Angela’s midsection and said, “Hi, Baby, it’s your dad, and I love you so much.”

Ever since childhood, Kyle wanted to be a cop. He started as a jailer at 19, earning $519 every other week, and in a performance evaluation he wrote, “I enjoy my job and I get along great with fellow employees. I never plan on leaving.” The following year he moved to road patrol, and 12 months later he won a coveted place in the Interstate Criminal Enforcement unit. The deputies hunted for drugs, guns and drunk drivers along I-16, the main corridor between Atlanta and Savannah. At just 22, Kyle was doing some of the most dangerous work in law enforcement -- and usually working alone.

The last decade had drastically changed his profession. Camcorders altered the balance of power between citizens and officers, corroborating allegations of misconduct that might previously have been ignored. Officers were caught on tape beating protesters in New York and beating Rodney King in Los Angeles. The brutality scandals continued in 1992, when an FBI sharpshooter killed a woman holding an infant during the bungled standoff at Ruby Ridge. The Waco siege of 1993 left more than 80 people dead. And the consequences rippled into Laurens County, Georgia, where deputies heard frequent warnings about liability.

“Make sure that if you shoot, it’s a good shoot, and if not you’re probably gonna lose everything you’ve got.”

“Make sure that if you shoot, it’s a good shoot, and if not you’re probably gonna lose everything you've got,” Sheriff Webb says they were told during training sessions. “Plus you’re probably gonna go to prison.”

There is some disagreement over the legacy of Sheriff Webb, chief lawman of Laurens County from 1987 through 2004. “He was a good man, and a good boss,” says Carson Knight, a longtime member of his command staff. But in the late ‘90s, some rank-and-file deputies believed he wouldn’t stand by them in a crisis. This was partly due to an incident that involved Kyle Dinkheller just a few months before he died.

According to five law enforcement officers who spoke on the record with CNN, Kyle was on his way to a crash scene with his lights flashing when he came upon a vehicle whose driver wouldn’t move aside. Because state law requires civilians to yield in those situations, Kyle spoke harshly to the man, who turned out to be a good friend of the sheriff. The man complained to Webb, who told Kyle to write a letter of apology. (When CNN asked Webb about this, he said, “I just don’t remember that.”) Kyle initially refused to write the letter. He told fellow deputies that the sheriff ordered him to write it or face severe consequences.

“I’d have told him to roll that damn letter of apology up and I’d have shoved it up his ass,” Deputy Matecun says he told Kyle at the time. “But I’m not you. You’ve got a baby and a wife at the house, and you’ve got people you’ve got to feed.”

Skip Lowery

Kyle wrote the letter. His colleagues say the sheriff made him re-write it and deliver it by hand. The incident weighed on him. When he saw Deputy Skip Lowery at the gas pumps, Kyle would say things like, “Y’all write any letters of apology today?” Two days before he died, in a friendly visit to the home of Special Agent Alan Watson of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Kyle mentioned the apology. His colleagues are convinced it was somewhere in the back of his mind during his final traffic stop. He knew he was being watched, and he’d learned that being right was not always enough.

“Please, please give me this as a Christmas present,” a woman said to Kyle when he stopped her for speeding about a month earlier.

“Ma’am, that would be one heck of a Christmas present,” Kyle replied. “OK? If I was found out, if my boss found out that I let someone go at 93 miles an hour, I would be in trouble.”

“I won’t tell anybody,” the woman said.

“Yeah,” Kyle said, chuckling, “but see that camera right there on the hood of my car?”

One can view the entire Kyle Dinkheller video as a primer on the use of physical force -- more precisely the underuse of force, and the catastrophe that follows. For all the recent talk of de-escalation by police officers, of compassion and listening and gentle persuasion, policing experts say it is Kyle’s failure to properly escalate that puts his life at risk.

The man dances, sings, kicks up his heels and turns to run toward Kyle. “Shoot me,” he says. “SHOOT ME!”

This is not the time for deadly force, according to several law enforcement officials who have seen the video, but it is high time to take control. Kyle seems rattled, alternating between commands to come here and get back. The man advances, retreats, advances again, obviously unintimidated. Kyle extends his aluminum baton.

“SIR, GET BACK NOW!”

“NO!”

“GET BACK!”

“F--- YOU!”

They stand at the edge of the frame. Kyle keeps yelling commands, and the man keeps ignoring them. And then, as the man informs Kyle that he is a Vietnam combat veteran and doesn’t have to take this, a faint sound of contact can be heard. Kyle has struck the man with his baton, investigators will later conclude, but he has struck him gently. The man backpedals, re-entering the frame, and turns to go back to his truck.

The man is 49 years old, about 160 pounds, no physical match for Kyle’s stout 220. Kyle could chase him down, tackle him, pin him to the asphalt and slap on the cuffs. Instead he keeps shouting commands, waiting for a surrender that will never come.

The man has returned to his truck. He seems to be rummaging for something behind the seat. Kyle backs away, leaving the frame again, apparently taking cover.

“Get out of the car, now!” Kyle says, but the man is busy with his ominous task.

“I’m in fear of my f---ing life,” the man yells.

“I’m in fear of my life,” Kyle replies, as if making sure the camera knows.

Recruit Brenda Walden wipes away tears during class at the Peace Officers Training Academy in Augusta, Georgia, while viewing a training video featuring the shooting death of Kyle Dinkheller.

Deputy Matecun was never the same. It was as if he’d been shot too, his calm resolve obliterated. Routine complaints made him furious. He found himself drawing his gun more often. Less than a year after Kyle’s death, Matecun quit law enforcement and took a job as an aircraft mechanic.

The video made Maj. Carson Knight weep like a baby. It made Sgt. Maurice Jordan yell, “Dink, put him down! Why you ain’t put him down, Dink?” It made Kirk Dinkheller scream under his breath: “Shoot him! Shoot him! Shoot him!”

The director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center called the sheriff to ask for a copy. Webb resisted, out of respect for the family, but the director kept calling, and Kirk persuaded the sheriff to send one over. The three minutes proliferated from there, becoming a part of law-enforcement training curriculum across the country.

Ron Barber, owner of a training company called In The Line of Duty, called it “the most overwhelming incident of horror ever caught on video,” and he turned it into a training film that was approved for official use in at least 27 states. The accompanying lesson plan encouraged officers to “determine when lethal force is justified” and to “always remember your life is worth more than a lawsuit.” According to Barber, the reaction to those three minutes is often the same:

“You get a group of veteran cops in a room, never seen this before, you will hear screaming and shouting. ‘Shoot the sonofabitch! Shoot him!’”

A training company called MILO Range turned the video into an interactive scenario that gives officers a simulated gun and invites them to virtually shoot the man who killed Kyle Dinkheller. At the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office in Cartersville, Georgia, Capt. Richey Harrell used this training machine to test more than 100 officers’ willingness to use deadly force. If an officer waited too long to fire, Harrell asked, “What are you doing? What the heck are you doing?”

Fatal shootings of officers by civilians have decreased in the last 40 years. And while there are no official national statistics on civilians shot to death by officers, The Washington Post counted almost 1,000 per year in 2015 and 2016. From that statistic, a back-of-the-envelope calculation can be made about how often these fatal encounters might happen. Jim Glennon, a former police lieutenant who owns a police-training company called Calibre Press, says there are about 450,000 patrol officers in the United States. He says if those officers interact with 10 civilians per shift, a conservative estimate, and work 200 shifts per year, that still amounts to only about one fatal shooting per million encounters.

Experts and activists keep calling for de-escalation training, less-lethal force, anything to stop an officer’s bullet from taking flight. But a beanbag shotgun won’t fit on a utility belt. A baton has very short range. Pepper spray can blow back in your face. A Taser might not work on a suspect in a heavy coat. And in a nation with nearly as many guns as people, the Kyle Dinkheller video tells officers there could be a time when pulling the trigger is the only way.

“It has saved innumerable officers’ lives, in my opinion,” Ron Barber said.

Kirk Dinkheller believes the same thing, which is why he regularly visits police academies to expound on its lessons. He says several officers have approached him over the years and told him the video saved their lives. Its full effect is impossible to calculate. Many thousands of officers have seen it, and they’ve been in innumerable tense situations, and perhaps in some of those situations the video has made them a little quicker to fire. Is this a good thing? That is also unknowable. The line between firing too slowly and too quickly can be very, very thin.

In 2014 an officer in Minnesota watched the Dinkheller video at a Calibre Press training seminar. His name was Jeronimo Yanez. In 2016 he killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. He would be tried for manslaughter and found not guilty. Along with the killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, the Castile shooting appeared to be the precipitating event that led a gunman in Dallas to kill five police officers and wound seven others in the deadliest single incident for American law enforcement since 9/11.

None of this made the Kyle Dinkheller video seem less relevant to police trainers. Today they find it more relevant than ever, because many of them believe the police are under siege. Kirk Dinkheller says things like, “Until you have the balls to put on a badge, you need to shut up.” Sometimes he sees a traffic stop in the distance and pulls over a quarter-mile behind the patrol car and sits there until it’s over, just in case the officer needs a hand.

In April, he visited the Peace Officers Training Academy in Augusta, Georgia, as he had done about a dozen times before, so he could tell a group of cadets not to make the same mistakes his son made. He sat in the back of the room as the video played. One cadet put her head down. Another tried to hold back tears.

“Remember this video. Be safe, do what’s right, come home every night to your family, and just so y’all know, I love you all.”

“Remember this video,” Kirk said when it was over. “Be safe, do what’s right, come home every night to your family, and just so y’all know, I love you all.”

Afterwards, in the parking lot, the cadets practiced traffic stops. The academy director, Maj. Eric Snowberger, played the role of a speeding driver. A young woman in uniform approached his window, but she walked too far forward, beyond the rear edge of the door frame, into a theoretical line of fire. He pulled out a blue plastic gun and pretended to blow her away.

Less than halfway through the three minutes, Kyle sees the rifle: an Iver Johnson .30-caliber carbine, far more capable than the pistol in his own right hand. We know he sees this rifle not because of what Kyle does, but because of what he says: “PUT THE GUN DOWN!”

Kyle is an expert marksman, one of the best target shooters in the department, but officers will tell you firing at paper is nothing like shooting to kill. Kyle has seen the man reach into his truck, watched him for 22 seconds as he retrieved what turned out to be a rifle, ordered him to drop the rifle, and still the man has not complied. From this point on, law enforcement experts say, deadly force is not merely justified, it is required. And still Kyle holds his fire.

“I gotta man with a gun,” he says on the radio. “I need help! PUT THE GUN DOWN!”

“No!” the man says, crouching between the cab and the door, taking a military-style defensive position.

“PUT IT DOWN NOW!”

Seven more seconds pass.

“PUT THE GUN DOWN!”

Three more seconds.

“DROP THE GUN NOW!”

The man moves up and down in his defensive position, apparently lining up a shot. Kyle does not fire, does not fire, does not fire. He breathes heavily into the microphone. Six more seconds. Kyle pulls the trigger.

Andrew Brannan

Kyle Dinkheller

There are several theories about Andrew Brannan’s motivation. His defense attorneys said he was mentally ill, with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and could not tell right from wrong because of a Vietnam combat flashback. Prosecutors said he felt disrespected by Kyle and wanted to teach him a lesson. This theory convinced the jury, which found Brannan guilty of murder.

Another theory arose during Brannan’s appeal, in the testimony of his psychiatrist.

“When I saw the videotape, what struck me immediately was that it appeared to be an attempted suicide by cop. Essentially, it appeared to me that Mr. Brannan was trying to have the officer shoot him, to engineer his own death.”

“When I saw the videotape,” Dr. Keith Caruso said, “what struck me immediately was that it appeared to be an attempted suicide by cop. Essentially, it appeared to me that Mr. Brannan was trying to have the officer shoot him, to engineer his own death.”

Brannan spent three years as an Army officer in Vietnam, where his company commander was blown apart by a land mine, and Brannan never really came home from the war. The sound of a bottle rocket sent him diving under a couch. He left college after a nervous breakdown. He couldn’t hold a job. He got married and divorced. He tried walking alone in the woods, from Mexico to the Canadian border or from Tennessee to New York. On the trail in 1986 he wrote a postcard to his father: “I wish to thank you for being the being that means the most to me. You have set a good example which I only now am getting better at following. But I will keep on going. Better to keep going than stop.”

Then his father died of cancer, and he withdrew to a hideout in the woods of Laurens County, and in early 1998 he ran out of the medicine that treated his depression and stabilized his moods. By January 12, when he met Kyle Dinkheller, he’d been unmedicated for five days.

Caruso viewed the first minute and 44 seconds of the traffic stop as one continuous suicide attempt, from the hands in the pockets to the spoken demands for gunfire to the aggressive motion toward Kyle to the leisurely and provocative retrieval of the gun. Then Kyle fired, and missed, and the sound of the gun may have set Brannan off.

“In someone with PTSD,” Caruso said, “it’s much more likely to trigger an automatic behavioral response.”

Kirk Dinkheller is a leading authority on both his son and the dash-cam video, which makes him a kind of expert witness, which gives him every right to advance his own theory about his son’s first shot. Which he believes was an intentional miss, a warning shot, one last attempt to end the encounter without spilling blood.

Now the old soldier goes to work, pinning down his enemy with suppressive fire. Silvery cracks appear in the patrol car’s windshield. Kyle returns fire, smashing the window of Brannan’s truck. He has a shotgun in the car, a rifle in the trunk, but no time to retrieve them. Brannan fires, ducks, runs around the right side of Kyle’s car. The second minute ends with both men outside the frame. There is a horrible scream, apparently from the shot that breaks Kyle’s leg. Then Kyle gives Brannan one last command, which also registers as a desperate plea:

“STOP NOW!”

After the gunfight, Brannan returned to his hideout in the woods. He’d been shot once, a flesh wound to the abdomen, and he curled up with his dog in a tarp in the bushes and waited to be caught. “I kind of asked God if I could lay there all night,” he told detectives, “maybe I would bleed to death.” In the same interview at the hospital, after deputies captured him without incident, he said, “Ah, well, I might die. That would be cool.” Then he said, “I wouldn’t blame you if you just threw me on the side of the road. Or throw me in one of those Dumpsters out there.”

“You show Andrew Brannan the mercy that he showed Kyle Dinkheller that day.”

Two years later, in his closing argument at the sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney Craig Fraser told the jury what to do: “You show Andrew Brannan the mercy that he showed Kyle Dinkheller that day.” And the jury did, with a sentence of death.

The appeals took 15 years, and when they were over Kyle’s close friends and relatives gathered at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison to watch the execution. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Don Matecun said. “If they’d have let me put the thing into his veins myself, I would’ve done it.”

Just before the needle went in, Brannan said, “I’m certainly glad to be leaving.” Then the executioner did to Andrew Brannan what Kyle Dinkheller could not.

“Let me see how I can put this,” Kirk Dinkheller says at his kitchen table in Louisville, Georgia, when asked why he chose to watch the video. “Ohhh. I just wanted to see -- I mean -- my son was murdered. I wanted to see -- and not in a morbid way -- I wanted to see how my son was executed. I mean, did it make sense? No. But does it now? In some ways, yeah. Because, I mean, it’s like, my son and my daughter and their mama, they’re remembering Kyle as Kyle, their brother, and her son, how he was.

They don’t wanna see how he was executed, or murdered, or however you wanna put it. Because then that’ll be in their head like it’s in mine every day. It’s like I told you before. I don’t have to watch the video to tell you what happens. I can sit here and tell you, frame from frame, minute to minute, what happened. What chain of events led to this, led to that. I live with that every day. People say, ‘Well, you gotta be depressed.’ No, I’m not depressed. I go through my daily routine like everybody else. But it’s different. Three quarters of me is dead, or gone, with Kyle. And I don’t want my daughter, or my son, or, for that matter, Kyle’s mama, to have to go through what I go through. I’m the dad, I’m the father, I take that responsibility because I choose to take that responsibility. And I show this video to help other officers, so they can go home to their loved ones.”

He is asked how often he sees the video in his mind.

“All the time,” he says. “There might be a few minutes here and there that I don't think about it, but for the majority of the time, I think about it.”

Does he wish it would stop?

No, he says.

“I’m afraid that if it stops, or I stop thinking about it, then Kyle’s gone.”

“I’m afraid that if it stops, or I stop thinking about it, then Kyle’s gone.”

And so it plays again, the first minute, the second, the third, and the bullet shatters Kyle’s leg, and Kyle screams, and tells Brannan to stop, and Brannan does not stop, and Kyle screams again, and again, and Brannan keeps firing, and Kyle makes a soft, desperate agonal sound, somewhere between a breath and a moan, and Brannan keeps shooting him, cursing him, telling him to die, and Brannan shoots him through the eye, the last of 10 wounds, and runs to his truck, closes the door, pulls away, the motor rumbling deeply, and Kyle tries to breathe, choking on blood, the sound going from the microphone on his chest to the camera in his car to the VCR in the trunk, on its way out to a thousand patrol cars, a terrible sound, a message without words, a reminder to have mercy, but not too much.

Photography by Melissa Golden.
Photo of Kyle Dinkheller provided by Laurens County Sheriff’s Office.
Photo of Andrew Brannan provided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Skin and text art by Alejandro Cardenas.

The Trigger and the Choice

Part 2: Did one police shooting help raise the nationwide homicide rate? Observers disagree. But three years later, Ferguson and metro St. Louis are still paying a terrible price.

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