The shot reported around the world

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Some preliminary thoughts in the aftermath of the accidental shooting New Year’s Day in Peachtree City that received global news coverage.

First, the good news. Margaret McCollum, 58, of 103 Autumn Leaf, is recovering from a gunshot wound to her back, her medical condition having been raised to “good” as of Tuesday.

The other good news — after initial sketchy reports fueled ominous speculations — is that the shooting of Peachtree City Police Chief Will McCollom’s wife in their bed at 4 a.m. Jan. 1 was an accident, a terrible accident.

According to the chief’s account in the 911 recording released Friday, he was sleeping with his service handgun, a Glock 9mm semiautomatic, in the bed beside him.

A few minutes after 4 a.m., the chief handled the Glock — with a live round already chambered and ready to fire, as is typical with Glocks — intending to put the weapon on a bedside table, according to his 911 call.

Somehow, the trigger — which contains the weapon’s only safety — was pulled in that attempted transfer, causing the weapon to discharge. The single shot lodged in Mrs. McCollom’s back. The chief then called 911 and sought medical help for his wounded wife. There was no second shot, Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesperson Sherry Lang, said at a Thursday news conference.

After being interviewed by GBI agents, McCollom left his home to begin a bedside vigil with his wife at Atlanta Medical Center, who was at first listed in critical condition.

Interim command of the Peachtree City Police Department passed to Captain Stan Pye, second in the chain of command, who has been running the department since the chief was placed on administrative leave within hours of the shooting.

The Citizen’s police beat reporter Ben Nelms got the news by mid-morning and called me at home. “The police chief has shot his wife,” he said, in that headline style that news folks use to communicate.

Immediately, bad headlines formed in my mind. “What happened?”

And that’s what Ben spent the rest of that day finding out. Officials of every sort were giving out almost no new information beyond the terse email from the police public information officer.

Here’s the entirety of that release from Lt. Mark Brown: “On January 1st, 2015 at approximately 4:17 AM officers responded to 103 Autumn Leaf, Peachtree city, GA in reference to a person shot call. The victim was transported to the Atlanta Medical Center by air helicopter where she is listed in critical condition. The investigation into this incident has been turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation due to the husband of the victim being the Peachtree City Chief of Police. The Chief of Police has been placed on administrative leave by the City Manager pending the completion of the investigation and an internal review. Any further inquiries regarding the investigation need to be directed to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Fayette County District Attorney.”

See how that can raise troubling questions? Not a single name was used in that email. And there’s no mention of the crucially important word, “accidental.” Yet the word “accidental” was the eighth word used by Chief McCollom on the 911 call. He answered the first question by the dispatcher with his address, “One-oh-three Autumn Leaf,” and the second query about what was going on with this: “Gunshot wound. Accidental.”

How hard would it have been for the Peachtree City Police public information officer to add just that one word to the news release? That would have shut down a lot of wild speculation in the hours before the news conference, online and elsewhere. The deliberate omission of that one clarifying word from the 911 call was just tight-lipped bad judgment.

And then there’s the spectacularly bad information from the 911 dispatch to the GBI about two shots being fired, which caused raised eyebrows everywhere. The GBI had to say at the news conference that information was wrong.

In the first 15 seconds of the call, the chief reported, “A gunshot wound.” That’s not plural. In response to the question, “Where is the person shot at?” the chief replies, “In the back.” Then the dispatcher asks whether it’s a man or woman and her age. (HER AGE?!?)

Then the facts go off the tracks. While the dispatcher is asking the second time how old the female is, the chief seems to say at the same moment in the background, “In the side.” The dispatcher responds, “She’s shot in the back and the side?” And the chief answers, “Yes, and she’s numb in the back, come on.”

I can empathize with a distraught husband who just wants the dispatcher to shut up with the irrelevant questions and get an ambulance rolling.

The dispatcher’s questions on the 911 recording remind me of a bored ER clerk who demands the name of your insurance company while you bleed out on the floor in front of her.

Change the almighty “protocol.” How about saving the question about the victim’s age until after the victim is safely placed in the ambulance? Worry about your paperwork protocol later.

But that’s how it went out worldwide after Atlanta TV stations got the GBI on the phone and were told the chief accidentally shot his wife — twice.

That’s the headline on an Australian website (news.com.au on Jan. 2, still our Jan. 1): “Georgia police chief says he shot his wife accidentally — twice.”

We included that “reported” allegation in our online story before the GBI news conference at 2 p.m. I wish that I had not done that. But with a big story and exceedingly tight-lipped officials, us news folks go with what we can get.

In this case, two words: “accidental” and “twice.” One accurate and one so terribly inaccurate. Those two words changed everything.

Calls and emails came in to me over the course of that day, all wanting to copy photos of the chief from our website. I said yes to all who asked (many did not ask): ABC News, 11Alive, NBC News, to name a few. The story was lead on USA Today online and CNN, and showed up on Fox News, Huffington Post, New York Times, the Daily Mail in the U.K. and was viewed on the Today Show and Good Morning America. Few places in the civilized world now have not heard about Peachtree City on the first day of the new year.

Peachtree City has never experienced a news event like this, and in all my years in news, I have never covered such an event. It’s sad for so many people.

It was an accident. But what happens next will involve somber, deliberate decisions. I am sorry for Mrs. McCollom and her husband. I am sorry for all who must make those decisions and for all who will be negatively affected by those decisions.

Peachtree City has been wounded. Whether that wound will be grievous enough to permanently damage the city will depend on the quality of leadership the city receives over the next several months. Not “management.” Not tight lips. Not poor judgment. Not cronyism. Leadership.

[Cal Beverly is editor and publisher of The Citizen. As a radio news reporter, he covered the police beat and civil rights demonstrations in a Georgia city beginning in 1969.]