This will sound like a Hollywood movie screenplay but it’s real and it happened here in Talladega. In November 2018, police officers were told to be on the lookout for a particular vehicle possibly involving a kidnapping. That particular type of call might seem urgent and should get special attention but in law enforcement it happens regularly.
Officers keep that information in the back of their minds in the likelihood they run into a vehicle matching the description, however in most cases the situation resolves itself in another city or county. In this instance on this early November morning a patrolman spotted a vehicle matching the description almost instantly at Walmart and verified it with a tag number. What happens in the next few minutes is the stuff of nightmares in police work.
Talladega police Lt. Tommy Pettus left his house for work at around 5 p.m. to get to his scheduled 6 p.m.-6 a.m. shift. He passed his wife on her way in the house as she came home from work, kissed her and drove to the station. Tommy is a perfectionist. His uniform is spotless, you can see yourself in his shoes and his trouser crease will cut you if you were to touch it. Tommy inspects his men and passes on a few words of wisdom, then sends the shift out for patrol duties. With over 30 years in law enforcement, he believes he has seen it and done it all. This night will prove him wrong on both instances.
The officer who makes initial contact with the suspected vehicle at Walmart follows proper procedure and calls for backup and a supervisor. Backup arrives as well as Lt. Pettus. Tommy accesses the situation and decides to try and speak with the possibly armed suspect to determine exactly what’s going on. He approaches the car, identifies himself and asks if everything is OK. His intentions are to de-escalate any potential hostage situation or to determine if he needs to call for a S.W.A.T. team. He never gets a chance for any other scenario to develop. Almost immediately, a man emerges from the vehicle and fires a round into Tommy’s face. He is knocked backwards by the force of the blow. He is confused and in pain as well as in the early stages of shock.
Here is where guts and training take over. Tommy immediately thinks of his men who are all around him in various exposed positions so he returns fire at the man until his people could get under hard cover to return fire of their own. He is exposed for a few seconds more by his actions. He is injured and hurting, but his thoughts and actions reveal a selfless act of heroism that will inspire officers for generations to come.
The big question for all officers when they think of themselves in this situation is: “What will I do? How will I respond?” Act like Lt. Tommy Pettus. Step above yourselves and your pain and do what is necessary to survive and save lives.
Because of his direct actions, there is no doubt that lives were saved that day. Tommy has told me that he feels no animus towards the man who shot him. He does not hate him but rather forgives him. That is another great indicator of a hero. I know he will hate to read this. He does not like to think of himself as a hero. But what else could you possibly call him? By his intentions, his actions, and his demeanor, no other word comes to mind. Tommy Pettus is a hero, plain and simple.
The end result of this November morning’s events have been well-publicized in the paper. A woman lost her life that morning. A man shot a police officer in the face. A man lost his life. Those are the cold hard facts. What has gone unreported is the cost involved with the officers who have suffered both physical and emotional injury. They still need our support. They were there. They saw and heard everything. They will live with this event, which they had no chance to stop, for the rest of their lives. They saw death up close. They saw their leader injured in the line of duty and will live with that image. But most of all they will have the extra emotional baggage that comes with a violent encounter.
One good thing they may take from this is witnessing a man stand up and show strong courage against adversity, an example most never witness in that way during a career. They saw a selfless act of heroism.
Thank you, Tommy Pettus. We love you and are grateful for your actions.
David Sparks is the Talladega city court clerk and former Talladega police officer.