U.S. police slayings raise pressure on officers at time of tension

By Scott Malone
A statuette of a police officer holding the hand of a boy is seen near other mementos and messages left at the scene of a policeman's shooting in Houston, Texas August 30, 2015. REUTERS/Harris County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters

By Scott Malone

(Reuters) - The officers' deaths came within a span of less than a week, but more than 1,000 miles apart: One was fatally shot while filling his police cruiser's gas tank outside Houston, Texas, the other was killed in pursuit of three suspects in rural Illinois.

Their deaths marked the 23rd and 24th fatal shootings of officers in the United States this year, and come at a time when relations between the public and police departments have been strained by cases in which officers used excessive force, sometimes fatally, in arresting suspects.

It is an atmosphere that some rank-and-file officers say has made them more fearful for their safety on the job.

Experts caution that the number of police killed on duty this year is not out of the ordinary, and the reasons behind the deaths are a complicated mix of factors that go well beyond the current climate.

But, heightened attention given to police deaths, and a perception amongst police of growing hostility towards them, is taking a psychological toll on officers, law enforcement leaders and police advocates say.

“We’re telling our people from the time you put that uniform on to the time you walk in your house your head needs to be on a swivel and there is no downtime anymore, no getting lunch and relaxing for a few minutes," said Richard Beary, chief of the University of Central Florida Police, who also serves as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

"What worries me as a law-enforcement executive is that extended period of hyper vigilance on our employees, that’s going to take a toll emotionally."

At the current rate, the number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty this year would fall short of the 51 who died last year. On average, 64 officers have been killed annually in the United States since 1980, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data.

"We have seen violence strike at all segments of our community. It is a sad fact now that no one is safe," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a housing-related conference in Washington on Wednesday. "This wide violence against all of us, regardless of what uniform any of us wear, has to end."


There are few parallels between the deaths of Police Lieutenant Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year-veteran officer who was shot last week while pursuing three suspects in Fox Lake, Illinois, and that of Harris County Deputy Darren Goforth, who was killed on Tuesday in an ambush-style attack while at a gas station.

Police in Illinois were engaged in the second day of a massive manhunt on Wednesday for Gliniewicz's killers, while a suspect in Goforth's shooting was turned in by his mother hours after the attack.

The number of incidents in which police officers are fatally shot is dwarfed by the number of people killed by police. While no central U.S. agency tracks the number of people shot and killed by police, a Washington Post analysis found that some 662 people have been fatally shot by U.S. police so far this year.

Those shootings, and particularly the high-profile killings of unarmed black men in Cincinnati, Ohio; North Charleston, South Carolina, and Ferguson, Missouri, have triggered more than a year of anti-police-violence protests across the United States.

They also inspired an Atlanta man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, to travel to New York in December and kill two police officers as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn, in an attack that he indicated on social media had been intended as an act of retribution for police killings of unarmed black men. Brinsley went on to fatally shoot himself.

That atmosphere has added to the stresses on officers, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, a labor group representing some 325,000 U.S. law enforcement agents.

"People need to have a hard look at not just the psyche of the shooters but the psyche of the enablers, and those who would encourage or celebrate this kind of activity," Pasco said. "There is an element in the community which encourages violence against police officers and others who might be inclined to feel that way are enabled by what they see."

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Andrew Hay)