On New Year’s Day just after 4 A.M., the police chief of Peachtree City, Georgia called 911 to say he’d accidentally shot his wife.
Admittedly, the first thing I thought of was the Brame homicide from 2003. Domestic violence occurs at a higher rate in law enforcement families than the general population, twenty to fifty percent of them depending on which study you’re referencing.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has released the 911 tape, and while I don’t think the public should be listening to the victim’s cries of agony, comments all over the web are addressing the chief’s rather detached demeanor as he speaks to the dispatcher.
How law enforcement agencies in Georgia respond to this incident is critical at a time when cops are being executed in America’s streets. This is a time at which objectivity must prevail and there can be no hint of the wagons circling to protect a member of the law enforcement profession. To preserve or restore people’s faith in policing, this police chief should not get any special treatment.
This what I sincerely wish the unions that back officers no matter how dark their deeds and government officials would keep in mind– if you make exceptions for your uniformed personnel, you are stirring up public distrust and endangering the lives of your officers, including your decent ones. Murderous thugs and terrorists do not differentiate; they just see a faceless body in a uniform. They don’t see a dad or a brother or a daughter or fellow human being– they see a target.
Do we know what happened on January 1st in the McCollums’ bedroom? No. We can’t instantly condemn this man as the next David Brame or Drew Peterson. That’s not right. But do I understand why so many people were instantly suspicious that the shooting was not accidental? Yes. As a survivor of police officer-involved domestic violence that involved repeated firearms threats, including in bed, who went on to study OIDV as the focus of my M.A., I get it.
According to some unverified information I found, Chief McCollum has been married four times and twice to his current wife. He’s been a police officer for about 30 years and is or has been a firearms instructor. I do not know if there are any previous allegations of domestic violence, and it’s not unusual for cops to be married multiple times. He’d only been the chief of police in his town for a short time. Please correct me if you’ve heard otherwise.
Given his professional qualifications, I have a hard time with the claim that he accidentally shot his wife in the back in bed while he was moving the gun. That violates basic firearms safety rules that he was well-acquainted with. Even if this is determined to be an accident, he could still face charges for his negligence, especially if there was alcohol or drugs involved.
Listening to the 911 call, initial information seems to indicate that the victim was shot twice, which was widely reported in the media. McCollum does say, “yes” when the dispatcher asks him if the victim was shot twice. Later the record was set straight– Margaret McCollum was shot once.
While he claims they were asleep when this happened and said, “the gun went off in the middle of the night,” he tells the dispatcher his wife is alert after first asking, “are you having trouble breathing, dear?” (My knee jerk reaction when I heard that was, “dude, who asks someone gasping and crying that after they’ve just been shot, and calls them dear instead of by their first name?”)
McCollum had to be told by the dispatcher to put direct pressure on the wound, something he should already know. He could be in shock and not thinking– many of us are quick to criticize until we’re in that situation. Trauma can easily stun us. Also, people respond to emergencies in different ways, especially when it involves family members. I’ve been in a family situation in which I immediately called 911 and began first aid before a first responder present acted.
On that note, if this were me I hope my first aid training would kick in and I’d already be applying direct pressure to that wound as I’m on the phone with 911. Personally I tend to slip into Army general mode in certain emergencies as well– you do this, you do that, do it now. Again, we’re all different, yet I find the chief’s robotic responses odd, like he’s just standing there looking at his wife instead of helping her. It could be shock. I also considered that it could be satisfaction or gloating over her suffering.
Here’s where the public is going to need assurance that GBI is doing their best– it would be very easy for a well-liked, high ranking police official to claim that this was an accident. This wouldn’t by any means be the first time that a law enforcement officer has claimed his spouse was shot accidentally, or with his/her service weapon. Cops, unfortunately, do sometimes try to hide behind their badges when committing acts of violence against family members.This makes conditions arguably more dangerous for the victims of OIDV than other victims.
Reports say that Chief McCollum has been at his wife’s bedside as she lies in critical condition. Some citizens are asking whether, if he were just a regular guy, he’d be locked up. I don’t know how they do that in Georgia. As for me, I’m thinking that if this was domestic violence and/or attempted murder, how utterly horrific for Margaret McCollum that he’s right there with her, monitoring everything she might be able to say.
I think back to another situation in which the victim was doped up after the alleged accident and passed away without being able to communicate. It happened at an extremely questionable time and was one of a string of incidents with a Munchausen syndome by proxy (technically Factitious disorder imposed on another) flavor. In that case I’d told others for years that their life was in danger, but so far, it’s still considered an accident. It can be difficult to prove otherwise.
Any investigator worth their salt will look into not only the suspect’s history but also the victim’s. Had there been hints of abuse before, in any form? Abuse escalates; it might start as verbal or financial and in time become physical. What’s the victim’s relationship history? Was he/she attracted to a certain type? Had their been other accidents in their life and the lives of others associated with the suspect? In this case, why was this the second time they’ve been married and why were they divorced before? That one’s a red flag.
Had there been any recent financial or insurance changes? Do they make more money or have a higher paying job than the suspect? Were they considering a breakup or divorce? Had they ever tried to tell anyone that things weren’t right in the relationship? Did they feel marginalized or controlled? You have to build a complete picture of everyone involved in order to prove guilt or innocence.
Too often in cases that involve public figures we focus on whether the general perception of people in their world consider them “a great guy.” Many are quick to rush to defend those with fame or titles, acting like there’s no way that person could be capable of a crime because of their fame or title. Others want to instantly blame the victim for being “crazy” or provoking the incident.This is thinking with emotion rather than reason.
Instead, I would ask who involved in any given case had something to gain and something to lose, and ask who benefits. I also harp on the concept of “start by believing,” in which you take an allegation of abuse, sexual assault, stalking, etc. seriously and investigate objectively. You must always think beyond the obvious and consider all angles, whether or not they jive with your education and experiences.
It also helps, in incidents involving LEOs, to pay attention to those who aren’t so high-ranking or in the limelight. Rank and file officers, as well as civilian employees, often know a great deal about their department’s inner workings, politics, and secrets, yet aren’t called upon for their input. Investigators often go right to those at the top for information and leave it at that. This only allows those proverbial wagons to circle even tighter if it’s the type of agency that has wagons. And the faith of lower ranking officers in their agency’s leadership can falter mightily when the higher ups take care of their own.
So what really happened here? The GBI will have to find out. They have some notable talent, and it is prudent and necessary to have an agency at that level investigate. Too often departments get to investigate their own employees or themselves, or have a neighboring agency with a circle the wagons culture do it. I don’t know if this is SOP in Georgia but it was a good call. It’s also good that they’re not giving opinions one way or the other about what happened. They did not instantly defend Chief McCollum or talk about what a notable relationship he has with their agency that I’ve seen.
Was this just a terrible accident, a duty weapon “going off” in the middle of the night when being moved? Or was it someone who’s high on the power they’ve been entrusted with showing the victim of their wrath who’s boss? There are other possibilities as well, but my initial observations are that I won’t be surprised at all if it is domestic violence-related. We’ve seen it happen too many times before not to consider that might be the case (like in this case involving a former officer whose department wisely cut him loose long before). If it is a reckless accident, then the professionals will deal with it accordingly. Either way, us praying people should be praying for everyone involved.
Additionally, many of us have strong suspicions about accidental shootings that anyone commits. Yes, sometimes they happen, but generally not in bed during the high stress holiday season when domestic violence tends to peak. I used to do ride alongs on holidays, and inevitably there would be domestic violence call after domestic violence call. Family politics, finances, future plans, football loyalties, and more can work their way into a furious froth around Christmas and New Year’s.
Ultimately, this is an opportunity for this department and the GBI to show the public how just such an investigation is done. If the man is guilty, he needs to be held to the same standards as anyone else. Period. He is subject to the same laws. If he is innocent, then damage control needs to be done so that the anarchists and angry mobs with pitchforks don’t unjustly take their ire out on him and his family. The media already put their house and address on the news. No matter what he is, his wife should be afforded all the precautions, protections, and advocates necessary. No one should be assuming that she’s safe.
Frankly stated, the police in general need to be transparent when investigating members of their profession. This does not mean releasing all information on the victim. It does mean communicating with the outside world in bullet points while the investigation is going on and not being secretive about the rationale behind the findings. It does mean that department leadership must conduct itself in a way that commands respect from its officers and other employees. It does mean that the public should be confident that everything possible was done to protect the victim and seek justice. After all, the police are public servants.
Without increased doses of this transparency, integrity, and impartiality, widespread hatred of cops will continue to grow. Millions see them as a secretive brotherhood who always protect their own and believe they’re exempt from the rules everyone else is expected to live by. Not all are like this, but this is the lens many people see them through. Even a few bad apples can make the whole bunch appear rotten when they’re not.
This has to change. Officers are being painted with a broad brush even when they don’t deserve it. I’ll say it again– leaders who allow otherwise are putting their officers in danger. They are also making it very difficult for honest cops to stay safe and employed. I have people in that line of work– please do not make it more difficult for my people. One already lost his job when the wagons circled to protect a buddy of the higher ups. Years later some modicum of justice was achieved in court, but the costs to him and his family were catastrophic.
This is not the time or place in history to be causing your officers to face more threats than they already do. We have a world filled with terrorists and nut jobs and criminals who’d gladly take out an officer if it means not getting caught. It seems like we hear about another officer down every day. Leaders also must be accountable to the public. This is not optional. This is where many departments need help, and why I invite the participation of much-dreaded public review boards.
As I was writing this I thought about Frank Serpico, a former New York officer who paid a terrible price for speaking out against corruption in that department in the early 1970s. More than 40 years later, he still gets hate mail and death threats. In October he penned a piece for Politico called The Police Are Still Out of Control: I should know.
Whether or not you agree with his assertions– I value his insights and candid take even when I don’t see eye to eye on certain incidents or issues– he has a list of what the police should be doing towards the end of the article. Numbers four, five, and six are as follows, and I heartily agree with all six:
4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do – so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;
5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;
6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
Number four is obviously relevant to this situation in Peachtree City, Georgia. Now is the time for investigators in this incident to shine and so far they seem to be doing a great job. Even if this turns out to be a terrible and embarrassing accident, they can do a fantastic job proving it and cause others to be confident in their findings.
Overall, the curious case of Chief William McCollum is somewhat of a litmus test in police response during a very dangerous time for cops. If ever there was a time for the law enforcement profession to sincerely improve its image– regardless of how good a certain agency already is, and I know some good ones along with some amazing officers– it’s now.
Seek not greatness, but seek truth and you will find both. -Horace Mann
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