By Michael Jacobs
Tom Doane’s three-decade career with the DeKalb County Police Department nearly came to an early end.
“I almost was accidentally shot by an old lady. Instead, the guy standing next to me got it,” the 50-year-old sergeant and North Precinct Officer of the Month for February recalled recently.
Doane was a patrol officer in the central part of the county in the early 1980s when he went to an old farmhouse in Scottdale in response to the owner’s concerns about the health of his elderly tenant. Because of the way the front and rear screen doors were latched, Doane could see someone was inside, but no one responded when he shouted “Police!” and pounded on the door with his nightstick.
He and the homeowner, who joined him, feared the woman was dead, so they decided to go inside. Doane used a coat hanger to push through the screen and pop the eye-and-hook latch, then moved aside so the owner could unlock the deadbolt.
“About the time the deadbolt turned, ka-pow, here comes a shot right through the door, and he pulls his hands to his stomach, and there’s blood everywhere, so I thought he’d been shot in the stomach,” Doane said. He grabbed the man and jumped off the porch just as another shot was fired, and they took cover behind a tree.
The blood Doane saw was from the homeowner’s hand, not his stomach. The bullet had deflected off his thumb. Otherwise, standing in the same spot Doane had occupied moments earlier, he would have taken a .357-caliber slug right in the chest.
The shooter proved to be the elderly, partially deaf woman, who never heard Doane’s shouting and pounding and was terrified at what she thought was a break-in. By the time she came out of the house, at least eight police cars surrounded the place, and her life was in peril because the officers didn’t know the intent of the woman walking toward them while holding a powerful handgun she’d just fired at a cop.
“Everybody’s yelling at her on the speakers, ‘Drop the gun! Drop the gun!’ And here I am thinking, ‘Oh, my God …I’m going to have to shoot an old lady,’” Doane said. “Everything worked out OK, but it was a tense moment.”
It was one of those “someday we’ll look back on this and laugh” moments. Now that Doane is set to retire April 1 after 30 years on the force, that day has arrived.
“It wears you out,” he said of the police profession. “When I started out, they said that police officers are notorious for having chronic back pain … because of the weight of the gun belt. I thought, ‘Man, I can walk all day in this thing, and it doesn’t bother me.’ That’s not the case anymore.”
Doane followed his older brother, Steve, into the profession. Now retired himself, Steve was a police officer in East Hampton, N.Y., and told wild stories about the job while Tom was in high school on Long Island.
Tom, who now lives in Alpharetta with his wife, Jan, and their two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Frankie and Winnie, followed another sibling, sister Kathy, to the Atlanta area.
“In a one-week timespan, I got fired from my job because I broke up a fight between the two owners and one owner fired me. I broke my hand, my car got stolen, and my girlfriend left,” said Doane, who had just finished a criminal justice course at the State University of New York. “I came down here for a vacation and never looked back.”
His first badge was with the Emory University campus police, but he moved to the DeKalb force at the first opportunity within a couple of years. He has happily remained in the uniform division ever since, moving around the county precincts but spending a total of 20 years in the North Precinct, which includes Brookhaven. Doane added a supervisory role to his patrol duties in 1999.
“Sgt. Doane displays a professional image with the citizens he engages, which is a positive reflection on the department,” the precinct’s lieutenants wrote in recognizing him as the February Officer of the Month. “Sgt. Doane is a positive influence on the officers he supervisors and has earned the respect of his supervisors and peers.”
“I like being out on the street and being the first one on the scene,” Doane said, explaining that he couldn’t handle detectives’ paperwork. “I like being in the action.”
One example of that action came in late winter in 1986 or 1987 when a man decided to go sailing with his young daughter in a rowboat with no keel at Murphey Candler Park. In heavy winds, the boat capsized in the middle of the lake, and Doane and another officer, Joe Fagan, responded to the call of a possible drowning.
Doane said the firefighters on the scene were stymied because they couldn’t swim to the boat in the cold water, and they had to wait for their rescue boat to arrive from Lithonia. But Fagan knew about an old catamaran in the woods on the other side of the lake, so the two police officers used that boat, a 2-by-6 board and a broken canoe paddle to carry out the successful rescue even though the old catamaran was taking on water.
“Rather than get any kind of commendations, we got called into the precinct commander’s office and got chewed out because we didn’t take off our gun belts before we got on the boat in case it sank,” Doane said with a chuckle.
The action back in his early days also included calls to clear cows from a road in the Lithonia area — if he got any calls during the weekend day shift when he patrolled the eastern part of the county. Because of the county’s explosive growth, an area he used to cover with one patrol car now could have 15 police cruisers and still not have enough, Doane said.
While the police work is basically the same as when he started, the workload in DeKalb and the attitudes of many in the public have changed, he said. “It’s a different world than it was when I started, that’s for sure. … People don’t have the fear or respect, whatever you want to call it, of law enforcement anymore. They’ll taunt you.”
Doane doesn’t have any firm plans for retirement, although he’s sure to devote time to his love of classic cars. The current object of his affection is a 1937 Packard. He fixed the engine and replaced the master cylinder, but the car remains a “paperweight in the garage” because of a blown-out wheel cylinder. “Hopefully, one day soon after retirement, I’ll have it on the road.”
A more modern model, a Mazda Miata, also has caught Doane’s fancy: He and a friend are getting one of the sports cars ready for road racing at tracks like Road Atlanta in Braselton.
He said his wife, who sells jewelry at Solomon Brothers in Buckhead, is not happy about Doane’s new pastime. “She says, ‘Man, you’ve been a cop for 30 years, and you’ve survived. And now you’re going to retire, and you’re going to go kill yourself in a car wreck on a racetrack.’ Well, I’ll try not to.”