‘Dinkheller’ documentary tells the real story

'Dinkheller' documentary tells the real story

Deputy Kyle Dinkheller was approaching the end of his watch on January 12, 1998, when he made a traffic stop on a road adjacent to Interstate 16 in Laurens County, Georgia. That stop would mark Dinkheller’s End of Watch in capital letters, after Andrew Brannan first danced in the road and taunted Dinkheller to shoot him, then returned to his truck and produced an M1 rifle that he used to murder the deputy. Kyle Dinkheller was 22 years old when he died, and left behind a pregnant wife and a two-year-old daughter.

The stop and the shooting were captured on Dinkheller’s patrol car dashcam, and have been a staple of police academy curricula and officer survival training sessions ever since. The graphic video is painful to watch, and it’s more than most people close to Kyle Dinkheller can manage. That short video, and some rumors attached to Dinkheller’s story, have been what most of us thought we knew about Kyle and his tragic, premature end.

Getting the real story

Not being satisfied with that, former Atlanta police officer and filmmaker Patrick Shaver set out to produce a more comprehensive record of Dinkheller’s murder and the circumstances surrounding it. While he didn’t intend his project to grow into what it has become, he wound up with “Dinkheller,” a full-length documentary of the incident and the events that have followed.

This is Shaver’s second documentary film. His first, “Officer Involved,” depicts the impact of a shooting on the law enforcement officers who pull the trigger. “Officer Involved” includes interviews with law enforcement officers who were involved in a deadly force situation, focusing on the effect that experience has on their personal and professional lives. It has seen a limited commercial distribution, but is available on DVD from Shaver’s website and via streaming on Amazon.

Patrick Shaver didn’t know Kyle Dinkheller. He became aware of Dinkheller’s story when he was in the Atlanta Police Academy, as the video and the facts surrounding it are standard fare for the Atlanta Police Department academy and many of the regional academies in Georgia. Shaver did hear the same stories about Dinkheller’s career, including an incident a few weeks prior to Dinkheller’s death that might have caused him to react less aggressively to the Brannan’s threat, and that allowed Brannan to gain the advantage.

Urban myth

The story is this: Dinkheller was assigned to a highway interdiction team that operated out of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office, making traffic stops on the interstate with the goal of impeding the drug trade that used the interstate as a conduit between Florida and the northern states. He was a relatively junior deputy, and it was unusual for someone with so little experience to be assigned to such a detail. On a stop some weeks before Dinkheller’s death, the deputy drew his gun on what he perceived to be a threat to his safety. The motorist on the stop complained to the sheriff, and Dinkheller was reprimanded for overreacting to the threat. This incident caused him to be more hesitant to react decisively to threats, and as a result, he didn’t draw and fire on Brannan when doing so might have saved his life.

It’s a plausible story, to which many law enforcement officers can easily relate. It’s always difficult to find the right balance of force and restraint in a threat environment, especially for young, inexperienced officers.

It didn’t happen.

No one seems to know how this urban myth began, other than that some people needed to fill in information to round out the tale. During the many interviews Shaver conducted, on- and off-camera, he pursues the real story, and provides the viewer with some tentative closure as to Dinkheller’s professional record and the impressions of people who worked with him directly.

Shaver has been taking “Dinkheller” around the country, showing the film at venues usually sponsored by local police associations. I saw the film at a screening sponsored by the Longview Police Guild at Lower Columbia College (home of the Fighting Smelt) in Longview, Washington. Shaver makes an appearance at the screenings and conducts a Q&A afterward. “Even though Kyle Dinkheller has been gone for 20-plus years, I came to know him through my work on this film,” Shaver said. “I've also come to know his family and friends and they've welcomed me in their lives. I can't describe what it feels like for me to have been able to help keep his memory alive in a different way. By the end of the film, I felt like I did know him. It's been a privilege to be able to tell his story all these years later and bring his humanity back.”

I was impressed by the even-handedness and lack of preaching in the film. At a time when police, especially police involved in deadly force situations, are demonized, this is a way of reminding people that law enforcement officers are just people with difficult, sometimes dangerous jobs, who have to make quick, critical decisions with no notice and very limited information. The film illustrates the effect these incidents have on the family and associates of the officer, and on others as well.

Patrick Shaver is actively seeking sponsors and venues to show “Dinkheller.” If you belong to a law enforcement employees or boosters association, please give some consideration to reaching out to him and setting up your own screening. It’s an effort worthwhile for your officers and your community.