This past year has been punctuated by intense bursts of violence against our nation’s peace officers. Fifteen law enforcement officers have been shot to death over the last 12 months in just five separate multiple-death incidents.
The most recent of these heinous acts occurred just after 8 am, on Sunday, November 29, 2009, when a lone gunman walked into a Pierce County, Washington coffee shop and opened fire on four officers from the Lakewood (WA) Police Department who were going over plans for their upcoming shift. The four officers killed that day were Sergeant Mark Renninger, and Officers Tina Griswold, Ronald Owens and Greg Richards.
None of the civilians in the coffee shop was targeted or injured. All evidence in the case points to the fact that these four outstanding law enforcement professionals were murdered in cold blood simply because they were cops. The assailant was later shot and killed while trying to pull a gun on a lone Seattle police officer who had confronted him on a city street in the middle of the night.
Brian D. Wurts, President of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild, helped us all to have a better understanding of the four brave and devoted officers we lost on November 29. He said Mark Renninger was “the go to guy for everything. He was the most competent and tactically proficient man I ever knew in police work.” He called Ronnie Owens “the laid back dirt bike riding cop you would always want at a party or with you on any call.” According to Officer Wurts, Tina Griswold “was the toughest little cop I have ever known.” Greg Richards was described as “a great cop who cared about one thing above all else, his family.”
Records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, DC, reveal that more than 1,600 other law enforcement officers have been similarly ambushed and killed by cold-blooded assassins.
One of those fallen heroes was Jerry Haaf, a Minneapolis police officer who was shot in the back while having a cup of coffee. It happened during the early morning hours of September 25, 1992. Officer Haaf was nearing the end of his shift, and he stopped by a favorite cop hangout to get a cup of coffee and finish some paperwork. He never saw the two gang members enter the dimly lit restaurant. He didn’t even have a chance to draw his weapon. The murderers quickly walked up behind him, shot him twice in the back and then ran out the door. The entire incident lasted less than 30 seconds. It turns out that the gang members who committed the cowardly assassination didn’t even know Officer Haaf. They just wanted to kill a police officer.
Few law enforcement fatalities received more national attention than in 1988 when a 22-year-old New York City police officer named Eddie Byrne was assassinated while sitting in his patrol car guarding the home of a witness in a drug case. Prosecutors said the hit was ordered from behind bars by a jailed druglord. The man wanted a cop dead—any cop—and the killers were to split $8,000 for the job. Soon after his son’s murder, Eddie’s father, Matt Byrne, spoke to the citizens of New York City and offered a chilling assessment of his son’s assassination. He said, “If they can put five bullets in the back of my son’s head while he sits in a radio car, they can get you, too.”
In 1994, Bennie Lee Lawson was worried about his tarnished image among his fellow gang members. He had recently been questioned by DC homicide detectives about his suspected role in a triple murder. No arrests had yet been made, but word on the street was that Lawson was cooperating with police. He had been labeled a “snitch,” and to Lawson that was a fate worse than death.
So, around 3:30 pm, on November 22, Lawson walked into Metropolitan Police Headquarters determined to clear his name. Without saying a word, Lawson pulled out a Mac 11 assault weapon and began shooting. During the next terror-filled moments, more than 40 shots were exchanged between Lawson and the four officers in the room.
When it was over, four people were dead. They included DC Metroplitan Police Sergeant Henry Daly, and FBI Special Agents Martha Martinez and Mike Miller. Lawson did not know any of them. He simply wanted to kill some cops. When it was over, Lawson put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Ralph McLean did not know Bennie Lawson, but he did share his hatred for police. During the first half of 1995, McLean launched four separate attacks on DC-area law enforcement officers, killing two of them. On April 26, Prince George’s County (MD) Police Corporal John Novabilski was working off duty as a security guard for a local liquor store. He was in uniform and sitting in his marked patrol cruiser. Without any warning or provocation, McLean walked up to the car and opened fire. Corporal Novabilski was hit at least 10 times and died.
McLean would strike again a month later. Police had received a tip that McLean was stalking police officers, so they lured him to a school parking lot hoping to make an arrest. It was about 1 am. The team of 27 investigators were spread out so they wouldn’t be spotted. But McLean apparently sensed that the police were waiting for him. He silently emerged from the nearby woods and bushes, snuck up on FBI Special Agent William Christian and shot him several times through the driver side window of his car.
The other officers immediately gave chase and a furious gun battle ensued. When police had their suspect cornered, McLean turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. There was no motive in either murder, except that McLean hated police and wanted to kill them.
On October 12, 1999, a man bent on revenge because of a domestic violence arrest, faked a 911 call for help. As the law enforcement officers arrived on the scene one-by-one, he assassinated them and waited for more. When the shooting had stopped three officers were killed, including Texas Trooper Terry Miller and Atascosa County Deputy Sheriffs Thomas Monse Jr. and Mark Stephenson. Two other officers were wounded before the assailant committed suicide.
Brian Wurts summed up his feelings about the loss of his four friends and colleagues in Lakewood by saying, “As our Department weeps we know our brothers and sisters are in a place where people don’t come in a calm place and take your life because of the shield you wear or the basic oath we took.”
This article was originally published in the January 2010 issue American Police Beat, a national law enforcement publication. The article may be reprinted in whole, or part, with the following attribution: "Reprinted with permission of the author and American Police Beat."