Experts: Ambushes of officers rare but still concerning

Experts say it's hard to determine if the number of ambushes are going up or down because no one tracks shootings aimed at cops resulting in no injuries

By Beth Burger
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus officers in one of the city's busiest precincts flooded South Linden the day before Thanksgiving looking for suspected robbers. It would be more than an hour before the sun would rise.

A green Kia Soul spotted circling through the neighborhood was stopped shortly after a robbery near East 17th and Louis avenues just before 6 a.m. There were extra officers there as backup.

What would normally be a routine stop took a sinister turn as gunfire sounded toward officers. Though it was another close call, no one was hit.

Experts and investigators say ambush shootings targeting officers are rare. However, it's hard to determine if the numbers are going up or down because no one tracks shootings aimed at officers resulting in no injuries.

"There is no good research evidence on whether ambushes are increasing," said Ed Maguire, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University. "There is certainly a sense in the field that they are increasing but we cannot be sure about that until we study it."

Maguire has studied whether there has been increasing violence — both fatal and nonfatal assaults — against police since Michael Brown, a black man, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. That and several other high-profile, deadly force incidents have led to protests in recent years, fueling a civil rights movement that has called police tactics into question.

Maguire reviewed nonfatal assault data from January 2010 to December 2015 from 5,089 police agencies in the United States that submitted their data to the FBI between 2010 and 2015. He also examined fatal assaults against police from January 2010 to March 2016.

"There is also a strong sense in the field that fatal and nonfatal assaults against police are increasing post-Ferguson, but our research evidence shows this not to be true," he said.

Maguire said he will update his research in 2018 to "determine whether the downward pattern has persisted."

On Nov. 22, Columbus police Officer Phillip Stevens was leaning on the front passenger side window talking to the driver, 24-year-old Brandi Watson, when the first shot was fired.

Seconds later, a rapidly fired barrage of gunfire — about nine shots — followed. An unknown person who ran between homes fired the shots off with a handgun.

Stevens dropped to his stomach and crawled to safety behind the car, according to video capturing the incident that was viewed by The Dispatch.

Two other officers approached with guns drawn. All three took a defensive position. Neither Watson nor Stevens were struck.

As officers removed Watson from the car, cocaine fell next to the Kia Soul. Watson, of the Northeast Side, was later arrested on a drug possession charge, according to an arrest report.

Sharissa Cook, 24, was asked to exit the front passenger seat before the shooting took place. Cook, an East Side resident who had open warrants, was led to a police cruiser. The front passenger seat where she had been sitting just moments earlier had a bullet hole at heart level.

The neighborhood where the shooting targeting police happened has had other incidents that have sparked protests at City Hall and calls for police reforms.

Henry Green, 23, was shot and killed by plain clothes officers Jason Bare and Zachary Rosen in June 2016. Green fired off six shots and officers returned fire, killing him.

On April 8, Officer Rosen was caught on cellphone video stomping once with his left foot on a suspect who was lying stomach down and handcuffed by another officer at the end of a driveway in Linden. The suspect was accused of shooting up a house and assaulting the arresting officer. Rosen was fired, but is going through the arbitration process to get his job back.

Most residents in the city's South Linden neighborhood are minorities and one-third of them are unemployed, according to Census data. There are also higher crime levels in the neighborhood compared to other parts of the city.

Officers don't believe last week's shooting is indicative of tensions between officers and residents, Columbus police spokeswoman Denise Alex-Bouzounis said.

"Most people in the higher crime areas tell us they want more officers out patrolling their neighborhood," she said.

Incidents like this tend to happen in "extremely disadvantaged communities," said Nicholas Corsaro, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati. "These incidents are symptomatic of greater problems."

Officers have been targeted in South Linden before.

In July 2016, officers responded to a report of a firearm discharged into an apartment in the 1100 block of Windsor Avenue. Officers found two apartments and multiple vehicles struck by bullets. As officers held the scene for investigators, someone opened fire on them using a high-caliber gun. A suspect was never identified in that case.

"Anytime an officer is fired upon extra precautions are taken," Alex-Bouzounis said. "Whether it be two officers per cruiser or other safety measures."

There's not much officers can do to prevent attacks, said David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and a former Los Angeles police officer.

"When tensions are high and there's word on the street that ambushes are contemplated, police officers are alert and aware, but you still have to do your regular work," he said. "They can be extra cautious and pay a little more attention, but quite frankly police officers ... need to be cognizant at all times that they are a target."

Detectives are still working on leads to identify the gunman in the latest shooting.

Shell casings recovered at the scene were matched to another shooting that happened nearly four hours earlier on the Near East Side, near East Main Street and Berkeley Road. A man and woman suffered minor injuries after a gunman in a car opened fire on them.

Anyone with information about the shootings is asked to contact Columbus police assault detectives at 614-645-4141 or remain anonymous by calling Central Ohio Crime Stoppers at 614-461-TIPS (8477).

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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