The patrol life of a trainee is never easy. But when you don't have the luxury of getting along with your training officer, it can be damned difficult.
Such was the life of Deputy Sheriff Arthur Oubre in Polk County, Florida, on December 3, 1989.
But then, Oubre's prior law enforcement experience hadn't afforded him the self-assurance of his training officer, a man as seemingly sure in his knowledge of all things worldly as he was of Oubre's ignorance.
But Oubre did know one thing: In a battle between trainee and training officer, the T.O. tends to come out ahead. Already having had his training period extended for exercising common sense in a "no common sense" zone, Oubre had resigned himself to a winter of intermittent ass-chewing.
Oubre and his T.O. had just rounded up a stray cow and returned it to pasture when they received a call of a "signal 56"—person shot—in the small community of Nichols.
My Daughter's On Fire!
They pulled up outside of 4685 State Road 676. The residence was typical of the area: a humble wood frame home set above the ground on concrete blocks and fenced in with chain link. Just outside the property near the roadway stood a small group of people, anxious expressions all around.
His training officer directed Oubre to find out what the bystanders had to say while he went around back to investigate. Normally, Oubre wasn't one to split partners on a "shots fired" call, but he knew there'd be hell to pay if he questioned his T.O.'s orders. It was a conditioned response considering the reaction he'd received whenever he previously suggested some alternate course of action. And so Oubre approached the throng.
He didn't get far.
Just as Oubre made contact with the group, he heard yelling from the rear of the property where his training officer was. Oubre immediately darted for the backyard. As he did, an elderly black lady stuck her head out a door and yelled, "Help me! Help me! My daughter's on fire!"
Oubre tried to digest this latest bit of information. Shots had been fired. His training officer was possibly involved in some manner of altercation. And now someone was on fire?
But the Louisiana native had been raised to be polite, and as incongruous as he thought the words might sound, he told the woman, "Ma'am, I'll be with you in just a minute."
Oubre rounded the corner of the house. In the backyard, his training officer stood at the tailgate of a small Nissan pickup truck. Beyond him, on the driver's side, one elderly black male held up another against the truck's bed. The T.O. yelled, "Drop the knife or I'll kill you!"
Oubre brought his Smith & Wesson 9mm out of its holster and trained it on the threat, 77-year-old Elton Williams. Williams suddenly dropped the knife into the bed of the truck.
With the knife out of the picture, the man who'd been pinning Williams against the truck relinquished his grip and quickly stepped away from the line of fire. As he did, Williams suddenly produced a chrome-plated revolver from his waist area.
"Drop the gun or I'll kill you!"
The words were his training officer's, but for once Oubre felt the man was speaking for both of them.
Oubre raised his gun to go for a head shot, then reconsidered. He suspected that if he shot the guy when he wanted to, his training officer might try to get him fired by claiming that Oubre had overreacted and couldn't handle stress.
But for Williams, there was no ambiguity about how the situation was going to end.
"You're going to have to kill me."
And with that, Williams opened fire.
Oubre heard a gunshot, then heard his training officer yell, "I'm hit! I'm hit!"
Oubre didn't see his training officer fall, or know how badly he was injured. Tunnel vision set in, and his visually acuity was sharpest where it was needed—on the suspect—and blurred at the periphery.
He immediately engaged Williams, firing over the bed of the truck at the suspect, as his T.O. returned fire from where he'd fallen near the tailgate.
Oubre's volley was quick, but focused, which made the lack of visible effect frustrating.
As Williams started to round the front of the truck, Oubre dropped down behind the rear passenger tire for cover.
Peering beneath the underside of the truck, he saw Williams' feet by the tires.
If I could hit him in the foot, I could knock him down, the young deputy thought. He fired, striking Williams' ankle and blowing off his shoe.
But the wound was hardly crippling; in fact, Williams didn't seem to miss a step. As he came around the front of the truck, Oubre squeezed off two more rounds.
It was the first thing Williams had said since he'd told the officers they were going to have to kill him. He advanced two more steps, faltered, then collapsed.
Oubre approached the old man. Already, Williams' eyes were clouding over and he tried to say something, but Oubre couldn't make it out.
As Williams took his last breath, Oubre caught his with a sad realization: Oh my God. I've killed somebody.
Oubre checked on his training officer who told him to handcuff the suspect. Oubre secured Williams' wrists, then used a second set of cuffs to mark where the suspect's gun had fallen.
Oubre retrieved the suspect's gun and placed it next to his T.O. for evidence tracking, then transmitted an update to let responding units know that there was a deputy down and fire rescue was needed.
With the arrival of a third deputy on scene, Oubre went into the house to check on the injured party. On the floor lay the body of a deceased black female. The charred remains told only part of the tragic story that had preceded their arrival.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a picture began to form. Earlier that day, Williams had picked up a friend to do some work around the house. Around noon, Williams—who'd recently begun exhibiting signs of dementia—entered the kitchen as his wife, Adell Williams, 59, was cleaning greens.
Adell turned to her husband and saw a gun in his hand.
"Go put that thing away."
They were the last words the poor woman ever spoke.
Williams raised the gun and shot his wife in the back of the head. She fell down, knocking over a kerosene heater. As flames enveloped her body, Williams turned his aggressions on his friend, precipitating a fight that migrated outside the house to the pickup where the deputies had engaged them some 45 exhausting minutes later.
A different picture was also emerging, that of Oubre's training officer's version of events. It was a picture not only markedly different from what Oubre had experienced that wintry day, but one that also put the trainee in a most unfavorable light.
Oubre first heard it at a party given for his training officer. The guest of honor's tale had it that while Oubre crawled around like a worm on the ground to save himself, it was the training officer who succeeded in saving the trainee's life by killing the suspect.
That his T.O. claimed to have killed the suspect was a minor irritation. Part of Oubre would have been perfectly fine with the belief that he wasn't responsible for taking a man's life. Even then, he knew that was unlikely. For if his training officer had been responsible for the rounds that killed the suspect, he would have shot right at the back of Oubre, who stood between the two.
Be that as it may, it was the manner in which he was being caricatured, as a coward who hadn't responded to the threat as he should have, that bothered Oubre.
"The only thing that you have in this job is your reputation and your integrity," Oubre says, recalling how he felt at the time. "I'm the new person, and he's trying to ruin my reputation."
But still, he was a trainee. He bit his lip.
There were awards and ceremonies that followed. Both deputies were given Deputy Sheriff Runner Up Officer of the Year. The Sheriff's Office instituted a Medal of Valor program and both were also awarded the Medal of Valor on the same day.
"My training officer got an award from the County Commission for getting injured in the line of duty," recalls Oubre.
"When the Sheriff got up, he told everybody the T.O. was getting an award for saving some rookie," Oubre says.
But the training officer's account of the events was about to be seriously challenged by an official report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Ballistics and coroner's examinations determined that all of the bullets retrieved from suspect Williams' body had in fact been fired by Dep. Oubre. While no ballistics were conducted on other bullets retrieved at the scene, there were numerous rounds fired into the tailgate bumper and mudflap of the Nissan truck where the training officer had been lying. Given that the suspect had only fired two rounds himself, it's likely that the training officer shot the truck.
Oubre says that the captain told his training officer, "You didn't kill the guy. Arthur saved your life. You need to shut up."
Months later, the training officer asked Oubre if he had his Class A uniform ready for the following day.
"No," Oubre replied. "Why?"
"Well, never mind."
The next day, Oubre was walking out of the office when a co-worker said, "Hey, rookie, how's it going?"
Oubre noted the emphasis on the word "rookie."
"What are you talking about?"
"The Sheriff just gave an award to your T.O. for saving some rookie's life."
Oubre felt a fresh wave of anger wash over him. He went upstairs and talked to one of his superiors. The man tried to placate him.
"We're going to get you an award."
"I don't want an award," Oubre protested. "I have enough awards. I just want someone to let the Sheriff know I'm either coward or a cop."
"We know that. The problem is he got the wrong story and we're all afraid to tell him the truth."
Oubre was disgusted.
He still is. "The problem is if you have a $41 million organization and you're afraid to tell the head man the truth, you've got a serious problem."
Nothing further was done on the matter. The training officer is no longer in law enforcement. Dep. Oubre now serves in Marion County, Fla.
Reflecting on the shooting's impact on him, Oubre says, "I really think in a way it helped me because I focused on that rather than letting the shooting get me down. It gave me somewhere to channel my energy. So I tried to turn it into a positive thing: trying to be the best deputy that I could; really pushing officer safety.
"We had a thing where they wanted us to start doing goals—short-term and long-term goals we had to write out. My one goal was, I will finish my shift in the same physical condition I started my shift in. I had daily goals. That was one goal. Everybody who wears a uniform in Polk County goes home that day. That's another goal. It just made me focus more on the job and taking it seriously."
Which is something Oubre says he continues to this day.