Domestic disturbance calls: Always dangerous and sometimes deadly

Three out of every four officers who died during domestic disturbance calls were fatally shot

By Craig W. Floyd
Reprinted with permission of the author and American Police Beat

When a woman called the Beaufort County (SC) Sheriff's Office on January 8, 2002, to say that her friend was being held by a man against her will, Lance Corporal Dana L. Tate, Sr. and Corporal Dyke "A.J." Coursen raced to the scene. The woman who placed the call said later, "I told them my friend needed help."

The woman inside the home, Kimberly Blake, had been physically abused by the man who had fathered her child. When Deputies Tate, 43, and Coursen, 35, arrived on the scene, the man hid in a bedroom closet with a high-powered SKS assault rifle. As they searched the bedroom, Deputies Tate and Coursen were each shot multiple times and killed. The man briefly escaped, but was soon found and ultimately sentenced to death — small consolation to the families of Deputies Tate and Coursen.
Beaufort County Sheriff P. J. Tanner reflected on the loss of his two deputies, saying, "These officers meant everything to this department, to the citizens of this county. They paid the ultimate price." He added, "A domestic call is probably the worst call an officer can get because emotions run so high."
The records of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) tend to support Sheriff Tanner's assertion about the dangers associated with domestic disturbance calls. Since 1855, when New Haven, Connecticut Night Watchman Thomas Cummins became the first officer ever to be killed on a domestic disturbance call, 546 other officers in the United States have suffered the same tragic fate.

Most recently, on September 8, 2007, three Odessa (TX) police officers were shot and killed when responding to a domestic violence call where a woman had reported being hit by her drunken husband. Corporals Arlie Jones, Scott Gardner and Abel Marquez were attempting to gain entry into the home when the suspect opened fire, killing Corporals Jones and Gardner. Corporal Marquez was critically wounded and he succumbed to his injuries four days later.

A look at the FBI's report on law enforcement officers assaulted and killed confirms the fact that no assignment poses more uncertainty and danger to an officer than a domestic disturbance call. More officers by far are assaulted or injured during domestic disturbance calls than any other circumstance. In 2005, 30 percent (17,534) of the 57,546 assaults on law officers occurred during disturbance calls, according to the FBI. The next highest category, "attempting other arrests," resulted in only 17 percent (9,602) of total assaults against officers.
In addition to the highly emotional state of the crime victim and assailant in domestic violence situations, alcohol or drugs are also often involved. In fact, of the 547 officers killed during domestic disturbance calls throughout history, alcohol and/or drugs were a contributing factor in more than one-third of those cases. One of those cases involved the shooting death of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sergeant Henry Prendes, 37. On February 1, 2006, Sergeant Prendes responded to a residence where a man was accused of beating his girlfriend with a stick. Sergeant Prendes was the first officer to arrive on the scene and he was shot and killed by a man on drugs, armed with an assault rifle. The man would fire more than 50 rounds at Sergeant Prendes and other arriving officers before he was finally shot and killed. 
On February 11, 2002, New York State Trooper Lawrence P. Gleason, 28, responded to a domestic disturbance call and was interviewing the female who filed the complaint when the suspect arrived at the residence and killed Trooper Gleason with a high-powered assault rifle. He then murdered the woman, before committing suicide.

During the early morning hours of November 13, 2005, Dallas Police Officer Brian H. Jackson, 28, responded to a domestic disturbance call at a local residence. The suspect had threatened his ex-girlfriend and fired a handgun inside the home. When Officer Jackson arrived on the scene the suspect fled and hid in a dark alley. As Officer Jackson approached, he was shot and killed.

Oxnard (CA) Police Officer John Adair was on patrol on October 7, 1980, when he received a domestic disturbance call. His wife was in the car with him as a "civilian ride-along." When he arrived on the scene, he left his wife in his patrol car and walked up to the house. While Officer Adair was speaking with a woman outside her front door, the woman's husband suddenly emerged from the house brandishing a handgun. The man started shooting immediately, striking Officer Adair, who along with his partner returned the fire, killing the suspect. John Adair died soon after and his wife witnessed the entire incident from her seat in the squad car. 
Roughly three out of every four officers who died during domestic disturbance calls were shot to death, but there have been some unusual exceptions. On February 6, 2004, Orange County Deputy Sheriff Mariano Lemus, Jr., responded to a domestic disturbance call and was bitten by a suspect later confirmed to be infected with the Hepatitis C virus. Deputy Lemus contracted the disease and died a year later. In 1976, Medina County, Ohio, Deputy Joseph Baca responded to a domestic disturbance call and became involved in a fight with the suspect. Although he was not injured by the suspect, he did receive several bee stings during the struggle. The stings caused a fatal allergic reaction and he died.
It was one in the morning on December 28, 1985. Meridian, Mississippi Police Officer Alma Walters, 29, had just arrived on the scene of a domestic disturbance call. She had been to the house before. It was the home of John Lanier, 29, and his 51-year-old girlfriend, Catherine Smith. Lanier had fought with Smith because she had hidden his vodka bottle. Lanier became enraged and pushed his girlfriend out of the house. Smith called police and Officer Walters responded.
Officer Walters told Lanier to go for a walk with her to cool off. Lanier testified at his trial that he had been drinking and taking drugs for 18 hours prior to his outburst of anger. When they got to the driveway a fierce struggle occurred. Officer Walters was beaten badly. Lanier took her gun and dragged her inside. Moments later a back-up officer arrived and Officer Walters bravely warned her colleague to stay outside, yelling, "He's got my gun." Lanier then took the gun, placed it at the back of Officer Walters' head and pulled the trigger, killing her instantly.

When asked to comment on the case a couple of years later, Meridian Deputy Chief Steve Thomas said, "Domestic disturbances have always been and still are the most potentially dangerous call for a police officer."

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