August 2, 2018 10:40:17 AM
Bart Lawrence said he wasn't at The Princess Theater, the downtown restaurant he owns, early Wednesday when an off-duty Columbus police officer and an armed robbery suspect exchanged gunfire just after midnight.
However, he said he'll be eternally grateful to the officer.
"Absolutely I think he's a hero," Lawrence said.
Investigators with Columbus Police Department are still looking for three suspects who Chief Fred Shelton said were robbing citizens sitting on the restaurant's outside patio. The officer, who authorities have not named but who Lawrence said was playing pool with some friends, was near the entrance. According to a CPD press release, one of the suspects fired at the officer and the officer returned fire. The officer then chased the suspect about a block before the suspect got away.
No one was reported injured.
Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is investigating the case as an officer-involved shooting, while CPD is investigating the armed robberies. While investigators initially reported that the officer exchanged gunfire with one suspect, police now believe there were three people committing robbery at the scene, Shelton said. He added investigators do not know if the second suspect was armed.
Investigators have surveillance video from both The Princess and new high-resolution cameras installed by the city which over look Fifth Street.
"We are analyzing the video footage now and we hope to release some still photos of the suspects from the videos," Shelton said in a press release Thursday.
"We now know that we are looking for three suspects from the incident," he added. "We will also have a better description of their clothing after our analysis. We can tell you that the suspects arrived on foot from one block South of the Princess and they walked North. They then left into the same direction -- going South."
Lawrence has also watched his surveillance footage of the shooting. He said the suspects approached customers on the patio and people in nearby vehicles to take money and possessions.
"It's not like they were customers," Lawrence said. "... These guys showed up with one intent, and that was to rob people."
Policies for off-duty police officers
While MBI has not released details of the investigation into the officer-involved shooting, a CPD press release Wednesday said the officer was "legally armed with an off-duty weapon." Moreover, police officers are expected to take action when they see a serious crime being committed, whether on- or off-duty.
CPD general orders and its code of discipline require officers to report illegal activity they learn of off-duty and say officers have "the same responsibility regarding detection and prevention of crime and the preservation of crime."
"Although we're off-duty and out of uniform, we still have an obligation as a law enforcement officer," Shelton said. "We may be off and not working on the clock, but we have a duty as a sworn law enforcement officer to still, if we see something of a serious nature, to take action or at the minimum, pick up the phone and call on-duty officers to come and respond to it."
Police officers also, like everyone else, have the right to defend themselves, Shelton said.
Walter Armstrong, Natchez police chief and president of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, said while he doesn't know the details of the investigation in Columbus, a robbery is exactly the sort of situation an off-duty officer is expected to act to prevent.
"The majority (of law enforcement officers) are not going to stand idle and let someone commit violent acts in their presence," Armstrong said.
That said, the officer in that situation would not be the arresting officer. Instead, Armstrong said, they could make a citizen's arrest, or hold the suspect in place with a weapon or other means, until an on-duty officer arrives to process the scene and take the offender into custody. That's true both in and out of the officer's jurisdiction.
"Now it would probably involve that officer making a sworn statement as well as a written statement as to what happened," Armstrong said.
"That officer is not (necessarily) operating under the color of the municipality or law enforcement agency that he or she works for," Armstrong added. "He has his weapon for his protection and the protection in the event that some innocent person is being victimized, regardless of where the person may be."
Was alcohol involved?
The caveat is that officers "should carefully consider the risk to himself and to others that may be caused by sudden confrontations with armed criminals or suspects," according to CPD firearms regulations procedure. However, Armstrong said, it would most likely fall to the court system to determine whether the officer acted recklessly or had impaired judgment -- for example, if an officer has been drinking while off duty and witnesses a crime.
"Any time alcohol and weapons go together is a bad combination from the word go," Armstrong said. "I don't think those two combinations go together any more than a person who is under the influence of alcohol get behind a wheel of the car as a driver. Those two doesn't go together well either. That would be a situation ... to be determined in a court of law, to determine whether or not the officer used good judgment because of the fact of the officer being perhaps impaired or at the very least under the influence."
Shelton said he could not speak to whether the officer involved in Wednesday's shooting had anything to drink, but generally he expects officers who are off duty and witness a crime to call on-duty officers if at all possible.
"When the officer's trying to handle a major situation, he doesn't have the resources he would have as a police officer," Shelton said. "I.e. he doesn't have a vest, he doesn't have handcuffs if you do have a suspect, he doesn't have a radio, he doesn't have a Taser, he doesn't have a body camera, he doesn't have equipment he needs. So theoretically I would suggest that you safely try to be a good witness. Monitor what's going on.
It also depends on how much an officer has to drink whether his or her judgment is impaired.
"Some people can drink four or five beers and it wouldn't bother them," he said. "Another can drink two beers and ... be very uncoordinated. We don't know. That's all part of the investigation and that will be brought out at some point."
However, he said, in a life or death situation, that's not always something the officer can do.
"If someone is getting ready to shoot someone ... and an officer sees it, I would absolutely expect them to take action," he said.
Lawrence said he does not know if the off-duty officer at the scene was drinking before the shooting, but as far as he is concerned, the officer is still a hero. There's no way to know what the suspects were planning, he said, but there's no reason to believe they wouldn't have tried to kill anyone.
"It was incredibly brave," Lawrence said. "He did what I feel like he probably felt what it was his duty to do. ... He very well may have saved everybody's life."
Previous Fifth Street shootings
There have been other highly-publicized shootings on Fifth Street outside The Princess in the last two years, including one in March 2017 when two suspects shot at several occupied vehicles. At the time, city officials and Lawrence compromised so that Lawrence temporarily closed The Princess several hours earlier and closed off a back section of the restaurant that housed 325 people, reducing the restaurant's capacity from 488 people to 163. Meanwhile the city installed surveillance cameras bulbs to increase lighting along Fifth Street before the restaurant/club returned to normal operations.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said he has no plans to have Lawrence take the same steps again. Lawrence said he is diligent in letting Shelton know when he plans on having large events that will increase the number of customers so Shelton can assign foot patrols in the area. He didn't do that Tuesday night because it was a typical day for business and there were no special events.
"From my standpoint is that this is just an unfortunate incident that happened there, so I can't blame the owner there," Smith said.
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