A Surge in Cop Killings

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Nuri Vallbona / AP

Miami Dade police officers carry the casket of slain police officer Jose Somohano, who was killed in the line of duty.

Correction Appended: October 2, 2007

Despite a recent small uptick in violent crime, most Americans are still by and large safer than they were in the crack-fueled early 1990s. The one notable exception is the people whose job it is to combat crime on a daily basis — the nation's police officers, who are being targeted and killed in greater numbers than at any time in recent years.

"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. "I see that locally here. Then you look at it nationally, there's [also] been a huge increase."

Statistics seem to bear out Timoney's assessment. Police officers killed in the line of duty surged to the highest midyear count in nearly three decades, in part due to a surge in fatal shootings, according to figures kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. As of September 18, the memorial fund showed shooting deaths up nearly 60% over last year, from 34 in 2006 to 54 this year (the worst year for such killings was 1975, when there were 99 deaths in the same period). Not only are officer shootings up, but the number of multiple deaths is also on the rise this year, says memorial fund president Craig Floyd. In the first nine months of 2007 there were six cases of more than one officer gunned down during the same shooting spree, up from just one in all of last year.

"You have to come to the conclusion that some of these heinous criminals just don't care," Floyd says. "Earlier in our history there was a code of some sense of respect, even among the most heinous criminals, that you would never harm a police officer, certainly never kill a police officer."

South Florida, along with the rest of the Southern U.S., where guns are easier to come by, has been particularly hard hit. In the past six weeks, two officers have been killed, and one recently got off life support after a gunman on a motorcycle shot him in the head. On Sept. 13, Miami-Dade police Sgt. Jose Somohano died and three other officers were injured by an assailant armed with an AK-47, three years to the day after the expiration of the Federal Assault Weapons ban. On August 6, a motorcyclist shot Broward Sheriff's Det. Maury Hernandez in the head when pulled over during a routine traffic stop. Although Hernandez survived and is recovering in a local hospital, his colleague, BSO Sgt. Christopher Reyka, who was shot just four days later while checking on stolen cars, did not.

"I don't understand exactly why in 2007 we have found ourselves in a position where we've had this many police officers shot and killed," says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens, who also serves as president of the Major Cities Police Chiefs. "It's a big jump over the past year. We've had two officers killed in Charlotte on April 1. The last time we lost an officer who had been shot was in 1994. We went almost 14 years between that."

Timoney's answer to the emboldened attacks on his colleagues is to give them matching firepower. Although it had been in the works prior to officer Somohano's death, the day after the fatal shooting Timoney signed a new police directive authorizing Miami patrol officers to carry AR 15s, a military-grade assault weapon. "Cops understandably feel they are outgunned," Timoney says. "Nine, ten months ago we looked at what can we do to give the officers a fair chance."

Criminologists point to a wide range of contributing factors to the sudden spike in cop killings. The continuing proliferation of military-grade firearms often leaves police outgunned, while some gang initiations now include the express targeting of police — such as in April of 2004, when California Highway Patrol Officer Thomas Steiner was randomly shot outside a Pomona courthouse by a teen trying to prove himself to a local gang. Other experts and activists cite the desensitizing effect of popular culture, most notably violent video games, as a key reason that more young people have no compunction about opening fire on a man or woman in uniform.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Combat and On Killing, who trains the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, subscribes to that controversial notion. Grossman relates how officers raiding methamphetamine labs and gang hangouts often find violent video games left behind. "Every time they take down a gang house, there's always one thing that will always be there," Grossman says. "It's a video game. The video games are their newspaper, their television, their all-consuming narrative. And their video games are all cop-killer, criminal simulators."

One way to counter the criminals, of course, is to match their firepower. But Fred Shenkman, professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Florida, thinks a better idea would be for police to focus more on training and improving their accuracy, since they miss their intended target some 70% to 90% of the time they fire in the line of duty.

"It's much easier to buy stuff than better officers, to an extent," says Shenkman, who maintains that the average police officer is undereducated and undertrained. "We haven't really decided on what makes a better police officer, but we have a better idea as to what better equipment is."

Perhaps the biggest change in police training came in the 1970s, when police departments across the country formed specialized units such as SWAT teams. The idea was to sit back and wait until the experts arrived at the scene. But after the Columbine High School massacre, many police departments rethought their approach and reverted to the old way of letting the officer on the scene take control.

Other than giving them more firepower, police departments around the country don't think they have a lot of other bright ideas to combat the recent spike in cop killings. Miami Police Chief Timoney says the most important thing is to make sure officers are staying vigilant and thinking before they act, even when the patrol work becomes seemingly monotonous.

"We still think officer safety first," Timoney says. "We talk constantly about waiting for backup, taking defensive postures. Our biggest enemy is complacency. There is no such thing as a routine car stop."

The original version of this article gave the incorrect title of a book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. It is On Killing, not On Violence.