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Government, Politics & Issues

Danger increases for first responders

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 7, 2008 - More black bunting draped over the entrance to a police station, a firehouse.

Another cop has been killed. A fireman slain.

The St. Louis metro area has been rocked by five slayings since February of so-called first responders" -- three police officers, two firemen.

The policemen were shot without warning by angry gunmen who walked up and opened fire. One fireman was ambushed by a sniper at a truck fire. The other was shot to death by a carjacker who may have mistaken him for a policeman.

In many ways, law enforcement officials believe that the bad guys have an "us against them" mentality -- a gunman who thinks he's at war, in essence, with authority. The Halloween murder of a police sergeant could be a case in point.

University City Police Sgt. Michael King, 50, was killed execution-style as he sat in his police car on Halloween night in the Delmar Loop. He is among the 37 law enforcement officers shot to death nationwide so far in 2008.

The suspect in King's murder, Todd L. Shepard, spoke to his girlfriend frequently about wanting to kill a police officer and "ending the unfair treatment of blacks and lower-class people by the government," according to a federal affidavit. Shepard was arrested Tuesday near Kansas City and has been charged in federal court with being a felon in possession of a handgun. State murder charges are pending.

Per capita, St. Louis is in the top five cities in the country for assaults on police officers, said Kevin Ahlbrand, president of the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police.

"This violence is just not here, it's across the country,"  Ahlbrand said. "It mirrors how society feels about authorities figures as a whole. There's no respect for the badge."

Other than Sgt. King, the grim death toll of "first responders" this year includes:

In February, in a rampage by a disgrunted Kirkwood resident, two Kirkwood policemen were shot to death before other officers killed the gunman. The officers -- Tom Ballman (far right), 37, and Sgt. William Biggs, 50 -- were among six city officials fatally shot that day.

In July, Maplewood firefighter Ryan Hummert, 22, was killed and two Maplewood police officers were wounded. The three were shot by a sniper, a resident who set a truck on fire and ambushed firefighters and the police officers when they arrived. The sniper died when his house caught fire.

On Wednesday, the day after King's funeral, St. Louis firefighter Leonard Riggins, 52, was shot to death in north St. Louis County when he stopped on his drive home to help at a car-accident scene. But the accident involved a carjacker, who shot Riggins once in the chest and then ran over his body with Riggins' vehicle.

The carjacker may have mistaken the firefighter for a policeman since Riggins wore a badge and was dressed in a dark-blue uniform, police say. Riggins' assailant, Christopher Brandon, 19, of St. Louis, was killed moments later by police.

'A Sign Of The Times'

Lt. Col. Tim Reagan, chief of detectives for the St. Louis Police Department, said he's seen respect for cops nearly evaporate since he was a rookie officer three decades ago.

"As a young guy, at 21, just out of the Police Academy, I remember stopping a man on the street, and he said to me, 'Yes sir,' " Reagan recalled. "I thought, 'Holy cow.' In those days, when a policeman showed up at a scene of something, people stopped what they were doing."

Things are different now, he admits.

Reagan says he believes there is a correlation between violent crime, in general, and violence directed at police officers and first responders.

"Societally, we've seen an increase in the disregard for human life in recent years. The respect for human life has been desensitized," Reagan said. "Arguments now escalate to violence much quicker."

Violence in St. Louis is clearly on the uptick, says Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Serious violence is up considerably, he said.

"What's driving this overall rise in violence? When economic conditions get worse, illegal activity, such as the demand for stolen goods, heats up on the street," he said. "Generally speaking, the two trends of overall violence -- and violence directed at law enforcement -- do appear to be connected. And we see that in periods of economic decline. It's more complicated than that, of course, but that's the basic explanation."

Some cops think the court system has coddled some criminals, sending them back onto the street instead of to serving longer prison sentences. Others in law enforcement point to a feeling in some communities of disdain toward police -- fueled by some rappers who spout hatred for authority and showcased by a code of silence not to help the police by snitching on criminals.

Ahlbrand, head of the Fraternal Order of Police, is also a detective sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department. He said the disrespect for law enforcement is noticeable.

"You can see it driving down the street," Ahlbrand said. "A friend of mine, a Fifth District sergeant who is an outgoing, friendly type who waves to everybody, told me about the disdainful looks he gets. It's unbelievable."

Ahlbrand recently worked a murder case in Jennings, and that experience provided yet another anecdote about what he sees as the public's attitude toward police.

Ahlbrand was deputy commander for the Major Case Squad, investigating the murder of a 21-year-old man who was shot to death while walking home from a convenience store. The squad handed out more than 200 posters in the community, asking for information about the killing and offering a $1,000 reward.

"We got zero calls," he said. "It astounded me, but it's a sign of the times."

Tracing Violence Against Cops

In one of the most comprehensive analyses of its kind, a three-year study in 1992 by the FBI examined 54 cop killings and summarized who the offenders were. 

  • The average offender was a 26-year-old man.
  • Six out of 10 offenders were white.
  • More than half were single and six in 10 had a high-school degree.
  • Most had had trouble with the law before. Seventy-two percent had a previous arrest for drugs.
  • Nearly 3 of every 4 carried a gun regularly; 80 percent considered themselves to be "instinct" shooters.

A .38-caliber revolver was the gun most often used. Nearly half of the cop killings happened in a southern state. About one in four took place in the Midwest, according to The Police Policy Studies Council.
A 2003 article in the California Journal of Law Enforcement traced the history of violence against police officers, starting with the first recorded murder of a deputy sheriff in 1792. Its author, Heather Jackson, says only about one officer was killed every year until the early 1850s. Fewer than 50 a year were being killed up until the 1900s, she said.

But jump ahead to the late 1970s. The number of cops killed on duty had jumped five-fold, she said. What happened?

Jackson's piece uncovered three extreme peaks.

  • The first was in the late 1920s and 1930s, presumably as a backlash from prohibition, when the nation saw those deaths climb from 150 a year to 246 in 1930.
  • The second peak came in the 1970s, when the all-time high of 271 deaths was recorded in 1974. Some attribute the death toll to a time of political and social conflict: a poor economy, a breakdown of traditional authority and the Vietnam War.
  • The third peak was, of course, 9/11 when about 70 officers died in the World Trade Center in 2001. That year 240 officers died in the line of duty, making it the third-deadliest year for police officers in U.S. history.

Statistics on "officers killed" include things other than shootings, such as motorcycle crashes, car crashes or being struck by a car. Historically, though, about 55 percent of cops killed on duty are shot.
The Washington-based National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says that the number of officers killed by gunfire increased dramatically in 2007. Sixty-eight died by gunfire. That's up 26 percent from 2006.

"There are more cold-blooded, heinous criminals on the streets of America today," said Craig Floyd, who is chairman and chief executive officer of the Memorial Fund. "I've seen an uptick in violent crime the last few years."

Last year, he said, there were 59,000 assaults on police officers in the United States. The average in recent years had been 57,000, he said.

"There's definitely a trend here," he added.

Backstoppers

Ron Battelle, executive director of BackStoppers Inc., said the number of killings has put a strain on his organization. It's a nonprofit that comes to the financial rescue of the survivors of fallen police officers and firefighters in the St. Louis region. It pays off mortgages, covers college costs for the kids and provides other financial support.

BackStoppers currently is helping 43 families, which include 42 children, said Battelle, who also is the former chief of the St. Louis County Police Department. The group's major fundraiser, the Guns 'N' Hoses boxing match, is coming up on Nov. 26. For information on how to make a donation, go to the group's website, www.backstoppers.org .

Battelle echoed the opinion of others in trying to explain the violence against first responders.

"We're living in a violent society now. I don't have any answers," he said. "I just pray for the police officers and firefighters to be safe."

Bill Bryan covered the police beat in St. Louis for more than 30 years with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Globe Democrat. 

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