A police officer who was shot in the sternum while training outside the department Wednesday morning remained in a medically induced coma at Vidant Medical Center Thursday afternoon, hospital officials and the victim’s family confirmed.
A fellow officer fired a bullet Wednesday during a training exercise that shattered 22-year-old Garrett Hardin’s sternum and ruptured three lobes of his lung, said Lee Anne Flanagan, Hardin’s aunt.
Flanagan’s words were subdued as she recalled the doctors’ decision to induce Hardin’s coma to preserve his health. Hardin, a Havelock High graduate, underwent extensive surgery Wednesday, she said, to remove bullet and bone fragment-riddled tissue scattered in his right lung. But she was uncertain how much tissue had to be removed.
“He has to be very still right now,” she said, adding that he will be in a coma for a few days.
Thursday afternoon, the family remained optimistic.
“Infection is our biggest fear right now,” she said.
Flanagan said it is her understanding that the training exercise was not intended to accompany ammunition and the shooting, which occurred in the parking lot of the police department, stemmed from an uncleared weapon’s chamber.
“It’s that tragic, that simple,” she said, adding that no final conclusions would be made until the SBI finished its investigation.
Flanagan said the officer who accidentally shot her nephew visited Hardin Wednesday night, and they are close friends.
“He was devastated,” she said, stating that Hardin’s mom and the whole family has an “enormous amount of empathy” for him.
The officer’s name has not been released.
Flanagan said her nephew, who will turn 23 on Nov. 10, has been on the Morehead City Police Department, his first job, for about two years.
“As long as I’ve known, he’s always wanted to be a police officer,” Flanagan said.
She said he trained for the job in Greenville and was offered a job in Havelock, his hometown, and Morehead City.
She said he chose Morehead City because wherever he goes in Havelock he always has people calling out his name, and he thought it would be easier to work as an officer somewhere where he didn’t know everyone.
“He’s such a great kid,” she said, mentioning that he is engaged to be married in May. “He has a lot to live for. He’s young. He’s strong. He’s completely healthy except for that bullet damage.”
Flanagan said that Morehead City Police Department has been supportive of the family since the shooting. She said they set up a hotel for the family to get rest and take showers after keeping vigil at the hospital in Greenville; they set up a cot in Hardin’s hospital room for his mother to keep watch.
She said officers are keeping a constant presence at the hospital to do anything they can for the family.
“The fraternal order of police, that’s what they do,” she said.
Noelle Talley, spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice, said the police department and the district attorney requested that the SBI investigate the incident. Thursday afternoon the investigation was still ongoing, and the SBI was consulting with the district attorney.
Police Chief Wrenn Johnson said in a Thursday press release that all commentary and details would be “deferred dependent on the resolution of the NC SBI investigation and or a change in the condition of Officer Hardin.”
The basic procedure for all SBI investigations is for agents to gather facts and then share them with the district attorney, who would then determine if any charges will be filed, according to Talley.
SBI has statewide jurisdiction and does its own independent investigation, but in a case such as this, Talley said the SBI had to be asked to do the investigation. As far as Talley knows, the SBI is the sole investigating agency.
Katie Hansen is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily News.