On the afternoon of April 5, after giving three lessons at his alma mater, Kenton Ridge High School, 22-year-old Eric Barga drove to Covenant Presbyterian Church for practices of the bell choir and arrived half an hour early, at about 6 p.m.
Although the temperature was in the mid-50s, after years spent in claustrophobic practice rooms while working toward his degree from the exclusive New England Conservatory in Boston, Barga pulled the custom-made Fox 610 red maple bassoon out of its case, sat on the trunk of his car in the refreshing air and began playing scales.
“There was a nice orange sky in the background,” he recalled. “It was one of the first nice days.”
About seven minutes later, Springfield police received a 911 call reporting that a white male in a jacket and jeans was sitting on the back of his car in the church lot with what looked not like an oboe, the instrument Barga says it’s most often confused with, but a long rifle. Listed under “additional information” on the dispatch form is what, in retrospect, must be considered a grace note: “Unknown of it was for sure.”
In an unofficial review of the incident at the request of the Springfield News-Sun, Springfield Police Chief Lee Graf said the difference in how police calls turn out in this era of heightened awareness of the danger of firearms begins with the dispatchers.
“They’re filtering everything through their experience,” he said.
Among the filters is the emotional state of the caller.
“In this case, you have a citizen saying, ‘Hey, it doesn’t look right to me,’” along with a stated uncertainty about whether the object was a rifle, he said.
With this information, “The officers know it’s possible” that there is a threat, he said, “but it could be something innocent.” Another piece of information on the dispatch records communicates a lower level of threat, he said. Instead of being classified as a call involving a weapon, the call was dispatched as a “possible suspicious activity.”
Dispatched at a few seconds before 6:09 p.m., two units arrived on the scene just before 6:12 p.m., one with Officers Tim Melvin and Sgt. Bill Sanders, a second with shift supervisor, Sgt. Bill Evans.
“They didn’t immediately approach me,” Barga said. “I saw a police car, it’s a big police van, roll up really slowly” in a parking lot between the west side of the church and the east side of a former fitness center and previous Habitat for Humanity ReStore. “I wasn’t concerned that I was doing anything wrong.”
But moments later, as that van pulled into the covenant lot from in front of him, another unit he hadn’t noticed pulled up behind him.
Graf said that while the word tactics can seem like a “hardcore” term, it involves a common-sense and thoughtful way police use to approach a potentially dangerous situation. In the many years he spent on street patrol in Springfield before becoming chief, a simple tactic he used on a burglary call was to stop his patrol car a few houses down from where the crime was supposed to have been taking place so he could approach the house at an angle rather than straight on.
As they approached Barga, the officers were using such a tactical approach, and, though the intent may not have been hard core, Barga remembers the feeling of the moment.
“At this point, I realize they’re confronting me,” he said. “I put on a little dopey smile and said, ‘Did somebody call the cops on me?’”
Although he felt slightly tense, “I didn’t really feel threatened,” he said, adding, “I don’t get nervous. Years of music school (performance) beats that out of you.”
He nonetheless did notice that all three officers were wearing protective vests, which, as it turns out, is standard procedure, although not what people who experience it for the first time consider a standard experience. He also recalls that while two left their car, another stayed in his.
Barga had no idea why the police were there. Searching his mind, he wondered if he had somehow violated a noise ordinance. The notion that someone might have mistaken his bassoon for a rifle “never crossed my mind.”
“In the right kind of light, it looks like a bazooka,” he said, “but I don’t think it was the right kind of light.”
His tension quickly faded.
The officers “were all giggling” by the time they came to a stop, Barga said. One even asked him the classic question: “Is that a bassoon or an oboe?”
Graf said that although it may have been apparent from across the parking lot that Barga had a musical instrument, “You’re still going to talk to the person to make sure everything’s OK. You want to follow through on the calls,” in part because the 911 caller may be viewing the scene and otherwise conclude the officers didn’t properly respond.
Less than four minutes after their arrival, the officers were gone.
Sensitivities involved in these calls come from every angle because of the number of well-publicized mass and individual shootings at traffic stops that have taken place since the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
The world has changed since the term “active shooter” came into the social vocabulary, Graf said. Particularly after school shootings, “the phone starts ringing” at the police department with request for visits by a team that trains civilians in what to do in those situations.
Naturally, he said, officers also “can’t help but be interested” in reports of controversial officer-involved and shootings of officers. “It does remind us that this is a very dangerous profession.”
While not wanting to discourage people from making 911 calls, Graf said that in this atmosphere, “we’d love it if citizens could slow down to get a very accurate depiction of what they’re seeing” so the initial information police receive is more accurate.
In his years working on street patrol, Graf has been on a scene where a 911 call indicated there was a gun and none was present. He recalls asking someone on the scene about that once and being told there had never been a gun involved but the caller mentioned one in hopes of getting a quicker police presence with no thought to the potential consequences.
In the current atmosphere of heightened tensions about gun violence, Graff hopes the community as a whole can stop to consider something police are taught in training.
“We always ask officers to kind of understand what people are going through, to kind of see the world through their lens. I would ask citizens to see the world through the officers’ lens, too,” he said.
The events that transpired shortly after 6 p.m. April 5 in the parking lot at Covenant Presbyterian Church ended on some conciliatory notes.
As the police were departing, Barga raised his custom made Fox 610 and starting played a piece identified by a number that might easily be misunderstood.
As it turns out, K-191 is not a weapon. It’s the number assigned to Mozart’s only bassoon concerto.