Police shooting deaths spike nationwide

"Cops are not going to be pigeons, they're not going to be waiting to be picked off."

By Andrew Maykuth and Barbara Boyer
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Read the P1 News Report: Police nationwide seeing more violent attacks

PHILADELPHIA — There are no moratoriums on shooting at police officers.

Just three days after the city buried Officer Chuck Cassidy in an emotional civic funeral, the bullets were flying at police again in Grays Ferry on Saturday when officers tried to break up a fight.

No officer was injured, though one gunman was wounded when police returned fire. But the latest shooting is an example of what experts say is an alarming reversal of a long decline in law-enforcement officers' being targeted and killed.

Not only have more police officers been shot at or threatened with guns this year, but experts say more are being targeted in a deliberate fashion, as Cassidy was -- with close shots to the head.

"Something has transformed the mentality of these inner-city kids that killing a police officer is just the price to be paid for doing business of dealing drugs or robbing a store," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington.

"We're seeing more and more of this kind of thing," said Williams, a former police director in Newark, N.J. "They're deliberately shooting for the head they know the police wear body armor."

So far this year across the country, 63 officers have died from gunshots, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a total up 40 percent over the same time last year.

Including the Saturday night shooting, there have been 72 incidents so far this year in Philadelphia in which people pointed guns at, fired at, or shot police officers, surpassing the entire-year totals of the three previous years.

The rise in police shootings prompted Gov. Rendell and House Speaker Dennis O'Brien to call for legislation that would mandate a minimum 20-year sentence for anyone who shoots at a police officer, whether the bullet hits or misses.

As the shock from Cassidy's death subsides, Philadelphia police are closely analyzing the events leading up to his killing, along with other recent shootings of officers that have put the force on high alert.

"We have to Monday-morning quarterback any time something like this happens," said Chief Inspector William Colarulo of the Internal Affairs Unit. "That's the only way we learn."

With an increasing number of police officers shot locally and nationally, and Mayor-elect Michael Nutter promising more aggressive police action to quash violent crime, Philadelphia may face more wrenching weeks like the one that passed with Cassidy being buried the day after the alleged killer, John Lewis, 21, was arrested.

Could Cassidy's shooting and others have been prevented with more training or different policies? Or has gun violence become so prevalent, and criminals so cavalier, that more police casualties are simply the inevitable price to be paid?

"There's really not much more we can do," said John J. McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said training is excellent and police are acting aggressively but responsibly. The problem, he said, is a tolerance of guns.

"What we need to change is the people out there carrying guns," he said. "If there's any pattern, change that pattern, and it would be a lot safer for the officers and the community."

Officers are trained to expect the unexpected.

"We teach the recruits how to handle themselves in a number of situations, but you can never prepare for something like this," said Chief Inspector Jose M. Melendez, head of the department's training bureau.

Going into this year, police deaths nationwide were at modern lows -- far below 1973, when 134 officers were killed feloniously in the line of duty, according to the FBI. Last year, the FBI said, 48 officers were killed, including Gary Skerski, the Philadelphia officer who was shot in the face when he interrupted a robbery in progress.

Before Skerski's killing last year, the Philadelphia Police Department had gone 10 years without losing an officer to gunfire in the line of duty. The last decade was relatively peaceful compared to historic numbers of attacks on police -- in six separate cases in 1919, assailants shot and killed seven Philadelphia police officers, including one whose body lay at Ninth and Christian Streets for nearly a half-hour until a tipster finally called the station house.

This year's violence bears a disturbing resemblance to the past. Cassidy was the fourth Philadelphia officer shot in two months. One of the other officers shot, Brian Decoatsworth, received a close-range blast from a sawed-off shotgun. He lived because the gunman used birdshot rather than more lethal ammunition.

There was also the ambush killing last month of two retired Philadelphia police officers, Joseph Alullo and William Widmaier, who were working as armored-truck guards.

Law enforcement believes it is under fire.

"What happens is that cops are not going to be pigeons, they're not going to be waiting to be picked off," said Williams, the Police Foundation president. "It's going to influence the force mentality, and they end up ratcheting up the force."

A more aggressive police response, he said, can undermine community support.

Williams called for the federal government to step in to get more guns and violent gang members off the streets.

"The federal government has been so totally focused on international terrorism, they're not watching urban violence," Williams said.

Philadelphia police are analyzing the most recent shootings to determine whether a new approach is needed.

Officers receive annual in-service training including one day on the firing range and are retrained in officer safety every several years.

During in-service training, Colarulo said, officers view videotapes of police who are wounded or killed in the line of duty, usually from cameras mounted on squad cars. Although difficult to watch, Colarulo said, the tapes provide valuable lessons.

It's too early to know whether the dramatic surveillance tape from Cassidy's killing on Oct. 31 will be used as a training tool, but it has been analyzed closely by commanders.

Those who reviewed the video said Cassidy appeared to follow procedures, but never had a chance.

A bystander told Cassidy that "something" was happening in the doughnut shop on North Broad Street it could have been a disturbance. Cassidy believed it was enough of a threat to unholster his Glock semiautomatic, which he was pointing at the ground when he entered.

As Cassidy, 54, entered the store, the stocky robber wearing a hooded sweatshirt, alerted by a ringing door bell, fired a shot at the veteran officer. Cassidy was beginning to raise his gun when he was hit.

It's a "cop's worst nightmare" to interrupt a robbery, said Capt. Charlie Bloom, a 30-year member of the force.

It was over in an instant. Cassidy died the next day.

By training, officers can use deadly force only if they believe they must protect themselves or another "from imminent death or serious bodily injury." They may not fire if it will "unnecessarily endanger innocent people."

They must also consider retreating: "It is often a tactically superior police procedure rather than the immediate use of force," the department instructs officers.

Colarulo said that most disputes end abruptly with the arrival of a uniformed officer. But a robbery in progress is the biggest threat -- the assailant may size up an officer before the officer is able to assess the situation.

Chief Inspector Anthony DiLacqua of the Patrol Bureau said policy and safety are also addressed daily during roll call, when officers are reminded to keep alert even during the routine motor-vehicle checks or when checking businesses, as Cassidy was doing.

Officers need to be particularly alert when making routine pedestrian stops, he said.

"Any one of those," DiLacqua said, "could turn bad. Any one of them."

Copyright 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer

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