08/30/2007

Violent attacks against Central Fla. officers soaring this year

By Walter Pacheco
The Orlando Sentinel

FLORIDA More police officers are being kicked, punched and beaten across Central Florida this year, and local and state law-enforcement officials expect the numbers to keep rising.

Opinions differ on the reasons an increasing crime rate, a focus on thwarting violent criminals and even just having more law officers on the street. But officers and deputies agree on one thing: They're frustrated with the trend.

"A lot of people think that in our line of work getting beat up or attacked is part of our job," Leesburg police Lt. Rob Hicks said. "It is not. It should never be tolerated."

Orlando Police Department records show that criminals have battered 239 police officers since Jan. 1 a 22 percent increase from the same period last year, when OPD reported 196 battered officers, spokesman Officer Jim Young said.

According to the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, 400 deputies have been attacked in Orange County this year up 8 percent from the same period last year. Osceola has had a 43 percent jump from last year, with 80 deputies being battered so far.

"It feels like they [criminals] have a lack of respect for the criminal-justice system, as if it makes no difference if they batter a law-enforcement officer," Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Christie Mysinger said. Her agency reported the greatest percentage increase in attacks with the number almost tripling from six in 2006 to 17 so far this year.

The most recent known attack occurred Tuesday, when authorities said George E. Lawson, 25, jumped an Orlando police officer who was trying to handcuff him on a disorderly intoxication charge in downtown Orlando. Lawson was tackled by four officers and shocked several times with a Taser before surrendering to police. The arresting officer whose name has not yet been released was transported to Orlando Regional Medical Center with minor head injuries.

Just a few days earlier, Orlando Officer Shane Overfield responded to a domestic-violence call in Pine Hills. Alinton H. John -- a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound armed man -- punched Overfield several times in the face with both fists before another officer deployed his Taser to subdue the suspect, according to the agency's charging affidavit.

One of the most violent attacks happened in May. Two Orange County deputies were shot and wounded by suspected car burglars in the parking lot of the Caribe Royale Resort on World Center Drive while educators, law-enforcement officials and social workers gathered at the hotel for a national conference on crime.

"We get punched, kicked, spit on," Leesburg's Hicks said. "We get attacked with weapons. Anything violators can get their hands on. We're getting run over. We're getting shot."

Still, a few area police agencies have fared better this year.

Police in Oviedo, Casselberry and Winter Springs report a combined 19 battered officers since the beginning of the year, compared with 27 in 2006.

The Volusia County Sheriff's Office had a decline in attacks. It reported 47 since Jan. 1. In 2006, 51 deputies had been attacked.

In Seminole County, 27 deputies have been battered so far this year. That's the same number reported to this point in 2006.

Seminole Lt. Dennis Lemma said it's difficult to pinpoint reasons for the rise. "The increase in attacks might be because law-enforcement officers are charging people more accurately or because there are more deputies on the street," Lemma said.

Orange County authorities agree that the fight against crime has put more deputies in jeopardy.

"We saw these figures start to go up when the Orlando Police Department and the Sheriff's Office began their initiative against violent crime," division Chief Steve Jones of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said. "It's been an overall attack on crime. We've thrown more deputies into violent-crime areas, which has caused arrests to go up, but deputies are also more exposed."

Jones, an almost 30-year Sheriff's Office veteran, recalls being kicked in the face in 1981 responding to a call on Curry Ford Road and Conway Drive.

"I got six stitches on my eyebrow," Jones said. "The guy just got probation and no jail time."

Spokesman Randy Means of the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office says the numbers may not paint an accurate picture.

"I'd say 99 percent of the charges are legitimate battery against an officer, but sometimes they fail to meet the criteria," Means said. But he said he is surprised that the number of battered officers reported in the area isn't higher. He fears the number will continue to increase.

"Law-enforcement agencies are putting more police on the street because of the gigantic increase in crime. The number [of battered officers] will probably be higher next year," Means said. "Unfortunately, part of the process of being a police officer is that you risk getting battered."

Still, Orange County's Jones said, things could be worse.

"In the old days, we trained officers on 'verbal judo.' In other words, how to talk the criminal down from a possible attack on the officer," Jones said. "Now, having more than one deputy respond to a violent crime and carrying Tasers has helped cut down on injuries, not only to civilians, but also to our own deputies."

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