Too many Floyd County residents this past week say they were more terrified by some of the more overzealous "tactical team" state police officers searching for Steven Dale Branscome than they were of Branscome himself.
"There were rude, menacing and frightening," says one Indian Valley resident who asked not to be identified when she contacted Blue Ridge Muse.
John McEnhill, executive director of The Jacksonville Center and another resident of Indian Valley, says fatique-clad cops came onto his property, pointed their weapons at him, and demanded to know who he was.
"I put my hands up and tried to explain that this was my land," McEnhill said. "I was afraid they were going to shoot me."
Such stories have poured in via email and over the phone during the week long search for Branscome, who wounded a State Trooper after a car chase ended in West Virginia.
Cops pull out all the stops when one of their own is shot. The trooper’s wounds were relatively minor and he was back on duty this week but the rule is simple: When a cop goes down — either wounded or killed — the response is immediate, massive and often intimidating.
Yet one Floyd County Deputy told me privately this week that he is embarrassed by the aggressive attitude of some the cops in the Branscome manhunt.
"It’s overkill," he said, "but if Branscome was willing to shoot a police officer that makes him even more of a danger to civilians."
Perhaps, but was a career petty criminal like Branscome worth the presence of 16 different police agencies, SWAT teams, armored vehicles and a presence that seemed more like an armed camp? Would the response be the same if Branscome shot a "civilian?" Those are questions that must be answered after Branscome is captured.
Sheriff Shannon Zeman says he is "grateful" for the help of other police agencies in the hunt for Branscome but the officers who routinely patrol the roads of Floyd County are a far-cry from the swaggering, over-aggressive group that invaded the county over the past week. Even worse, I sat a table away from these state tactical team officers at breakfast a few days ago and heard them make jokes about the "local yokels" and brag amount "scaring the piss" out of some county residents. They also denigrated some of the Floyd County deputies, calling them "jokes" and "Barney Fifes."
I’m sure that most of the officers involved in the hunt this past week treated residents with respect and conducted themselves in a professional manner but the handful of over-the-top members of the State Police Tactical Team damaged the reputation of all who came to help.
As the week ended, most evidence pointed to a successful escape by Branscome from both Floyd County and Virginia. The truck he stole in Indian Valley turned up in Statesville, NC, and he is believed to have stolen at least two other vehicles since dumping the truck. He’s gone but you wouldn’t know it by the continued police presence here in the county. It will be up to the U.S. Marshalls to catch Branscome.