By Ed Brock
Like most others in their profession, Clayton County Police Officers William Ibarrondo and Dwayne Penn think very little of their own needs.
When Penn was shot in the face by a man he and Ibarrondo were trying to arrest three weeks ago at Riverwalk Apartments on Riverdale Road, his first thought was checking on his partner.
"I wanted to make sure he was all right," Penn said.
As for 35-year-old Ibarrondo, a five-year veteran of the department who was training Penn, a rookie on the job for only three weeks, the night of July 27 was his first time to use fatal force. He shot and killed 22-year-old Favor Thom, the suspect in the prowling call that had brought them to the apartment complex just north of Riverdale.
His recovery from that experience is directly connected to 29-year-old Penn's recovery from his injury.
"My progress is Officer Penn's progress," Ibarrondo said.
That's the way it is for anybody who chooses to wear a badge and steps up to enforce the law, both men said.
The two of them come from similar backgrounds. Ibarrondo, a native of New Jersey, grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of drug use. Penn, who hales from Allendale, S.C., faced a similar situation.
"A lot of friends I knew, their parents and families, were on drugs," Penn said. "With all of us being close, it seemed like it wasn't right."
But Penn didn't want to get into police work in his hometown where he knew too many people, so he went to play on the practice squad of the Detroit Lions in 1997. He also played arena football for a while before joining the Clayton County force.
Ibarrondo joined the Navy and served as a military police officer for 10 years. His last duty station was in Jacksonville, Fla. so he stayed there for a while, working as a sheriff's deputy and as a corrections officer.
Ibarrondo had been training Penn.
"Since the three weeks he'd been with me we'd been in dozens of situations just like (the one leading to the shooting)," Ibarrondo said.
Together they had made 35 arrests.
"He taught me a lot," Penn said. "He always stressed safety. It seems like people target the police. We've got to go home, too."
Because the incident is still under investigation, the officers can't talk much about the shooting.
Essentially Ibarrondo and Penn, along with a third officer, responded to the call around 12:45 a.m. When they approached the apartment of the resident who had reported the prowler, they saw a man who ran when they shined their flashlights at him. The officers began a search, and finally Penn saw Thom lying on his back in some bushes.
As they tried to drag him out of the bushes Thom resisted, rolled onto his stomach and when he rolled back onto his back he fired a gun, hitting Penn. Ibarrondo grabbed the gun and struggled with Thom as Thom fired two more rounds. Ibarrondo then drew his gun and when Thom pointed the gun at Ibarrondo, Ibarrondo shot him four times in the chest, according to the report.
Thom continued to struggle and point the gun at Ibarrondo so Ibarrondo fired twice more, hitting Thom in the neck and killing him.
After the shooting Ibarrondo's first thoughts were also for his downed partner.
"I got on the radio and said I needed an ambulance now," Ibarrondo said. "I didn't even want to roll him over."
But Penn had been extremely lucky. The bullet burrowed under the skin of his cheek and exited behind his ear without penetrating the skull. The impact did cause a vein in his skull to rupture and doctors had to operate to relieve the pressure.
Both officers said they received tremendous support from the department. Clayton County Police Chief Darrell Partain even returned from a conference in Savannah to visit the injured officer.
Penn's brother, Kato Hickson, is also training to join the Clayton County police force. Seeing his brother in the hospital was scary, but it hasn't dissuaded him from wanting to join the force. His older brother's own confidence inspires him, Hickson said.
Penn has been recovering from the surgery at home and should know by the end of the month when he will be able to return to duty. He said the shooting has left him a little nervous, but "now I'm always prepared for it."
"I can't take anything for granted," Penn said. "I just have to come home."
Ibarrondo is also back on active duty after a short administrative leave that is always required after an officer is involved in a shooting. He's no stranger to being injured in the line of duty.
Two years ago this November Ibarrondo was working the scene of an accident on I-75 when a driver hit him as he was standing on the side of the road. He suffered numerous injuries, including two broken legs, but after a month and a half of intense, self-imposed rehabilitation he was able to return to work.
"I had a goal set for myself to be back before January was over," Ibarrondo said.
He's been dealing with the emotional impact of the incident, of having to kill a suspect and of having a fellow officer hurt.
"Everybody I work with on my shift, they're family. I want them to get home," Ibarrondo said. "For somebody who rides with me to get hurt, I take it extra hard."
But Penn said he would prefer to ride with Ibarrondo again, and Ibarrondo said he will cope with with what happened.
"I had to do what I had to do in order for us to get home," Ibarrondo said.
Ibarrondo said he isn't telling his story for personal fame. Law enforcement officers are more than just enforcers, they're mediators and counselors who have to make split second decisions.
"The people don't have to know us, they just have to know the job," Ibarrondo said.
Ibarrondo says that when he goes home at night he's at peace and he still considers police work to be the most satisfying job he could have.
"It has to be in your heart and it's in my heart," Ibarrondo said.