Shoot, don't shoot experience affects activist

Rev. Larry O'Hara 'got a better perspective,' wants to share that with others

WAYCROSS, Ga. – A NAACP activist said his recent experience participating in real-life situations with sheriff's deputies has motivated him to encourage city leaders to seek change.

Rev. Larry O'Hara was one of four people invited by the Bradford County Sheriff's Office to participate in scenarios in which they had to decide if their lives were in danger and if they should pull the trigger. The other three participants were News4Jax reporters Heather Leigh and Vic Micolucci and News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith, a former police officer.

During a traffic stop exercise, O'Hara shot an unarmed man who was reaching for his wallet.

Scenario 1: Domestic dispute | Scenario 2: Suspicious activity | Scenario 3: Traffic stop | IMAGES: Shoot, don't shoot scenarios

"I felt it was justified because I felt my life was actually in danger," O'Hara said. "And when I fired, that was at the last, the very last. I wouldn't have fired right away."

In another scenario -- a domestic dispute -- O'Hara was shot by a suspect.

O'Hara, who lives in Waycross, Georgia, said after the experience he has a better understanding of the decisions police officers make. He said he is setting up a meeting with the mayor and other leaders in Waycross to share his experience and encourage them to work to find ways to build more understanding between police and members of the community.

"I had no idea the pressure that the policeman or policewoman is under," O'Hara said.

After the exercise, O'Hara told Smith that he would have to look at things differently when it came to police-involved shootings. He said his mindset has changed since the experience, and he hopes others can learn from it as well.

"If I was in the public, those people, they probably would have thrown whatever they had at me and said, 'Murderer, murderer,' but we can't take those chances," O'Hara said.

Smith said the exercises were a reminder of the dangers officers face every day.

"Even sometimes with the best training, police officers can get shot like I was shot in the scenario," Smith said. "You're talking about a life-and-death situation. So you're looking for signs, you're looking to see based on behavior, based on background -- also if you know anything about the person. But many times and cases you don't know."
O'Hara said he will continue to work as an activist, but will be a better-informed one.

"I got a better perspective on the way that I should come across to police when I have to talk to them about an issue," O'Hara said. "I can go out and talk to the community and help them get a different perspective."