2009 was a deadly year for cop shootings. Law enforcement authorities believe attention should be paid.
Four police officers were sitting in a coffee shop just outside Tacoma, Washington, preparing to start their shifts on November 29, 2009, when an ex-convict, who posted bail just a week earlier, turned from the counter and opened fire on their table.
All four officers – three men and one woman who ranged in age from 37 to 42 – were killed instantly, while the gunman fled the scene. A couple days later, during a run-in with Seattle police, the suspect, Maurice Clemmons, was shot and killed.
The daylight attack on the unsuspecting police officers capped a deadly year for cop killings. According to FBI statistics, 45 officers were killed by gunfire in 2009–ten more than the year before.
“It seems we were on a very, very bad run of luck,” says retired D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Charles Miller, who coordinates the FBI's annual data collection of the number of officers killed and assaulted at agency headquarters in D.C.
And the worst may be yet to come.
The number of firearm-related police fatalities this year is already on track to surpass last year's figure. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, (NLEOMF), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that organizes National Police Week each May to honor fallen officers, as of June 11, 28 officers have been killed by gunfire this year, compared with 20 over the same period last year. Figures on firearms related assaults on police officers for 2009 will not be available until this October, but there were 2,244 reports of such assaults in 2008.
Reversal of Trend
That reversed what seemed to be a declining trend. The number of on-duty officer deaths had dropped from 138 in 2008 to 116 in 2009, temporarily easing fears that officers were increasingly becoming targets even as violent crime rates were reaching record low levels. “There just seems to be that there’s a greater willingness on the part of these bad guys to take out a police officer,” Miami Police Chief John Timoney told TIME magazine in a September 2007 story.
But the spate of multiple-officer shootings in the last year has raised new alarms. There were at least four incidents in 2009, in addition to the Seattle-area incident, in which more than one officer was shot during a single episode. Over a cumulative five days in 2009, separate incidents in cities such as Pittsburgh and Oakland led to a staggering 15 lives lost in the law enforcement community.
The so-called cluster killings of cops by a single gunman “happened so quickly, on top of each other, it really gave people some pause,” says Law Enforcement Memorial Fund spokesman Kevin Morison.
Not surprisingly, police around the country are disturbed and worried. In an interview with The Crime Report last December, Michael J. Carroll, newly elected president of the International Association of Police Chiefs, said one of his key priorities would be to ensure police around the country are equipped with bullet-proof vests.The IACP hopes to get federal funding for a Center for the Prevention of Violence Against the Police that will study how police can take better steps to avoid serious and fatal injuries.
Nevertheless, experts caution that the rise in felonious cop killings between 2008-2009 should be viewed in the context of the last 10 years. In 2000, there were a reported 51 incidents and 70 the following year. In 2003, there were 52 such incidents and five more in 2004. The year 2009 had the second-lowest number of such killings – 48 – in the entire decade.
“It's important we don’t get carried away with short-term increases,” says James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Boston's Northeastern University. “There is a certain degree of random variability inherent in any figure like that.”
No More Coffee Stops
Still, it has already begun to change cops' behavior in subtle ways.
“Police officers are deciding not to stop and have a cup of coffee with their buddies,” says Suzie Sawyer, executive director of Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc. (C.O.P.S.), a Missouri-based, 26-year-old non-profit organization that provides outreach to victims' families. “They're not real comfortable with gathering anymore, to share information. We hear it with officers in rural areas.”
Multiple-officer shootings comprised nearly one-third of all felonious killings against cops in 2009.
The first occurred March 22, 2009 when two Oakland, Calif. police officers were shot and killed while pulling an individual over in a routine traffic stop. Later, during a standoff with the 26-year-old male suspect, two additional officers from the SWAT team were killed as he opened fire. A fifth officer was shot and wounded.
All of the officers were wearing bullet-proof vests, according to the Oakland Police Department.
At the time of the shooting, the gunman, Lovelle Mixon, was on parole for assault with a deadly weapon. He had an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a parole violation.
Just two weeks later, two officers with the Pittsburgh Police Department responding to a domestic disturbance call in the Stanton Heights neighborhood were shot and killed by a man hauling an AK-47 assault rifle, a .22 long rifle and a pistol. They both were wearing bullet-proof vests. A third, off-duty officer who responded to the scene was killed from the AK-47. He was not wearing a vest.
The suspect, Richard Poplawski, wore a bullet-proof vest during the standoff. According to news accounts, he had privately expressed fears of a gun ban under the Obama administration. He is charged with three counts of homicide, nine counts of attempted homicide and currently awaits trial.
On April 25, 2009, a pair of sheriff's deputies in Okaloosa County, located in Florida's Panhandle, were fatally shot after responding to a domestic assault report at a gun club. They both were wearing bullet-proof vests.
The suspect, Joshua Cartwright, 28, was carrying a concealed firearm. He was later shot and killed by other deputies following a vehicle chase.
On July 26, 2009, two sheriff's deputies in Seminole County, Oklahoma were serving an arrest warrant at the suspect's home for a domestic assault charge when they were shot and killed by that suspect. He eventually surrendered to authorities.
Those officers were not wearing bullet-proof vests, as an ordered supply had not yet arrived to the department by then, according to the Seminole County Sheriff's Office.
Four months later, the Seattle-area police shootings shook the law enforcement community.
In an effort to prevent future attacks on cops, advocates are pushing for tougher laws and regulations. Cathy Hill, a Houston-area resident, lost her husband, Deputy Sheriff Barrett Hill, in December 2000 when he was shot multiple times and killed while handcuffing a suspect in Texas' Harris County. Hill believes the appropriate response to such behavior lies squarely in the criminal justice system.
“We're going to have to get tougher on crime, period, and follow through on those punishments,” she said. Her husband's killer was convicted of capital murder and now sits on Death Row in Texas.
One troubling statistic is how few law enforcement agencies actually require officers to wear bullet-proof vests, despite their ubiquity within departments, according to a September 2009 report.
Out of a total 782 participating agencies surveyed by the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, 99 percent reported providing body armor to their officers. But only 59 percent require the armor be worn at least some of the time.
The long-term pattern, according to Morison of the Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, indicates that “the percentage of officers who are actually wearing their vests have increased over the last decade.”
According to the study, however, most bulletproof vests don't protect against high-caliber weapons or rifles, whose availability is a constant cause for concern among gun control advocates.
These groups insist on tighter regulation of firearms, beginning with the reinstatement of a federal assault rifles ban that expired in September 2004.
How much are weakening gun control laws in states contributing to the number of cop shootings? Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, believes there is at least a direct correlation with threats to the public at large.
“We constantly argue that the first responders in the country are the ones who know best about the impact of weakening gun control laws,” he said. “Criminals get their guns from out of state. Illegal gun trafficking is successful because states with strong gun laws create markets for gun traffickers to sell guns from states that have weak gun laws.”
The Brady Center recently released a report showing that states with weaker gun laws, like Mississippi and Georgia, supply guns to criminals at a rate five times higher than states with stricter gun laws.
The argument that career criminals are going to obtain guns regardless of stricter controls on firearm purchases, therefore, is “ludicrous and defeatist,” says Hamm, given the sheer volume of trafficking that takes place.
He believes there also needs to be fewer loopholes in state laws so as to prevent handguns from getting into the wrong hands.
“[Richard Poplawski] was a walking dictionary definition of someone who shouldn't have had access to firearms,” he said.
The Lakewood episode led to the passage of stiffer laws by the Washington State Legislature this year. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a measure strengthening the monitoring of felons on parole or probation who move to the state. She also signed a measure that would give voters the chance to pass a constitutional amendment in November granting judges greater flexibility to deny bail. Clemmons had posted bail on charges of rape of a minor and battery on police officers just a week before the shootings occurred.
The rise in officer fatalities also raises questions of whether disgruntlement against authority, particularly during a bad economic spell, is playing a part.
“I think we go through a cycle of time where law enforcement is appreciated and when law enforcement is seen as a symbol of authority and a symbol of establishment,” says C.O.P.S.'s Sawyer. “We're going through tough times. Who better to blame than police who represent the establishment?”
The FBI's Miller said law enforcement officers may inadvertently send messages to perpetrators determined to act on a “perception of opportunity” against those who take an oath to serve and protect.
“If we're perceived as being weak or sloppy or inattentive, that furthers that perception on their side,” he said. “An innocent civilian isn't going to take their freedom away and put them in jail.”
Suevon Lee is a freelance writer and reporter based in Ocala, Florida.
Photo by bp5131 via Flickr.