Officer down: Shot in the line of duty and lucky to be alive

Officer down: Shot in the line of duty and lucky to be alive

(WECT) - Dozens of children are without a father and several wives became widows as law enforcement deaths by gunfire spiked 78 percent in the first half of the year.

Amidst headlines of anti-law enforcement protests and use-of-force backlash, the stories of those lost and those who have survived shootings fade into the background.

Of the 39 men and women shot and killed in the line of duty this year, none are a household name though they died defending someone else.

Each officer was killed while responding to an emergency call. Some were murdered with their own gun when it was swiped and turned on them; fourteen were killed in an ambush-style attack.

Survivors of shootings are now watching their fellow officers become open targets for violence and death threats.

Eric Bryan, Stephen Lanier and Mike Fey are three such men.

Detective Eric Bryan

We met Eric Bryan on the side of Highway 53 in White Lake at the intersection Bryan nearly breathed his last breath.

Bryan was heading to work at the Bladen County Sheriff's Office on July 16, 2002, around 9 a.m. when a "10-65" came across his radio - an armed robbery.

He found the suspect's car stopped on the side of the road with the driver's door wide open.

"I see a figure of a man jump from the vehicle and run really really fast towards my vehicle," Bryan recalled.

The suspect started barreling toward Bryan with his gun raised.

"He shot me through the right side of my nose," Bryan explained. "It came out and re-entered and came out in front of my ear. I had blood coming out of my ear, blood coming out of my nose, blood coming out of my mouth."

Bryan pushed open his door to knock the suspect back but the man kept firing as he lay on the ground. Despite the close range, Bryan avoided another bullet by twisting and writhing in every direction.

"This man was about to finish me off," Bryan said. "I was thinking 'Is this how I'm going to end? Is this how it's got to end for my family?'"

When the suspect ran out of bullets he fled, leaving Bryan bleeding out on the pavement.

"They're not shooting you to get away," Bryan said. "They're shooting at you to kill you."

With the side of his skull shattered, Bryan faced several surgeries and a rough recovery. The physical wounds healed faster than the mental and emotional.

He did not the anticipate PTSD and depression that would rob him of sleep and happiness.

Yet 13 months later, Bryan was back on duty at the Bladen County Sheriff's Office. Today he has retired from law enforcement and has pursued a second career.

In February of 2016, his son who followed him into law enforcement, was involved in a shooting but was not injured. Bryan says he felt time stop when he got the call.

Sgt. Mike Fey

July 25, 2005, started out like any night on duty for former Sargent Mike Fey at the Wilmington Police Department.

A call came out for an armed suspect in Houston Moore off 16th Street. That area wasn't Fey's territory but he turned his patrol car around to provide support to the officers who would be responding.

Amnesia erased any memory Fey had until a month after the incident. He is able to retell the details of that night through witness accounts.

"I got into a foot chase that night and I went to taze him," Fey recounted. "Only one of the hooks hit him so it was useless. At that point, he turned around and shot me with what I think was a 45 -caliber and hit me in the neck."

He must have been leaning forward since the bullet trajectory came down his neck, bounced off the front of his chest and then exited his body through his back.

Fey died six times between the ambulance ride and inside the emergency room.

The man who shot his was taken down by the other officers.

Fey's biggest regret was trying to use non-lethal force against an armed man.

"If I took out the tazer I did it because, 'Am I going to get scrutiny?'" Fey said. "I ended up paying the price. Not him. He's dead because of HIS actions but my life is screwed up for the rest of MY life because I chose not to live under scrutiny. And I almost died because of it."

Fey, like most officers, will tell you that public outcry against lethal force has been around since that kind of force was employed.

Today, social media has taken any debate over use-of-force to feverish levels with officer/suspect events being streamed live, shared, Tweeted and posted across the internet immediately before any facts about the case are investigated or released.

Years later, Fey still deals with severe memory loss. He was able to return to the WPD two years after the incident but ultimately had to end his policing career in 2009.

RELATED:  A detailed account of Sgt. Fey's injuries 

Lt. Steve Lanier

A search warrant executed by the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office on Oct. 5, 2001, ended at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

At the time, now-Sheriff John Ingram was the Lieutenant of the Drug Unit and Agent Stephen Lanier, who is now a lieutenant, was relatively new to the force.

The unit had evidence supporting a drug operation between two men living in a house in Winnabow. They had also received information from informants that the men intended to fight if law enforcement approached them at their home.

What's more, Lanier knew the two men inside. They had gone to high school together.

After setting up a perimeter around the property, a team of agents made entry into the home with Lanier heading to clear one portion of the mobile home.

"As I turn, about three feet in front of my face I see a silver revolver and the FLASH,"  Lanier said. "I remember falling back and hitting the ground."

Lanier kept firing back but was severely injured on the ground.

"I felt blood rush into my mouth," Lanier recalled. "I couldn't feel the right side of my body. My whole body started shutting down."

He was able to crawl back to his team who took down the shooter.

"We realized with every heartbeat that blood was coming through his neck," Ingram. said.

Lanier, who is both tall and has broad shoulders, was in no condition to walk and his team could not physically lift him. Quickly losing blood they had no choice but to drag him from the mobile home to the nearest van.

Footage shot that night inside the home showed a thick, dark, red trail of blood marking the path his body traveled.

"I saw this look in his face like, 'I'll see you tomorrow,'" said BCSO's Tommy Tolley.

Suffering permanent nerve damage to his neck and hand, Lanier still returned to his law enforcement career just 41 days later.

Officer involved shootings around the country

For these men, their families and other officers around the country, emotional wounds have reopened with every new line of duty shooting death. Black mourning bands over their badges have become a permanent fixture.

"There was a respect, there's not a respect anymore," said Sgt. Sheldon Caison who was there when Lanier was shot. "We're the ones they call to take care of their problem, and they're the ones that want to shoot us."

After the officer shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, patrol officers throughout the country were on high alert.

At the Brunswick County Sheriff's Office additional meetings and training helped to remind both new and experienced deputies how critical every step of approaching a vehicle is to ensure they make it home that night.

After each of the shootings, not a single deputy at BCSO called off of work.

"Our families can be a target, our friends can be a target," said Lt. Brian Chism of Brunswick County Sheriff's Office. "I had the conversation with my wife, I've asked her not to wear anything that has to do with law enforcement outside of the house. It's sad we have to do that."

Calls to target law enforcement are routinely made across social media. Some, are a general anti-cop statement while others are sent directly to officers as a warning to their and their family's safety.

"When we have an officer that falls to gunfire in our country it's pathetic," Bryan said. "And those people pulling the trigger are pathetic and these people that are cheering, they're pathetic as well."

Even in times when public sentiment may not be on their side, they can always count on their fellow brothers in blue and on the quiet contingent in our community who shows support.

Ask any officer and they will smile when they tell you about the "Thank you" and handshake from a stranger, the smile and nod from a passerby, or the surprise receipt at lunch that came back paid in full - a short note at the top reading "You are appreciated!"

These simple pay-it-forwards have kept a lot of our officers and deputies going after tragic law enforcement deaths. They're a reminder of why they pledged to take the risk to protect and serve the rest.

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