Police concerned that attacks on officers may spawn copycat plots

Officer deaths this year have jumped by 112 percent since March 2009


By John Asbury
Press-Enterprise

HEMET, Calif. — Two recent assassination attempts on Hemet gang task-force officers add to a national trend of more brazen and sophisticated attacks on police, often by gang members, law enforcement experts say.

The attacks on the Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force headquarters come amid an increase of violence against police nationwide this year that could reverse a trend of declining officer deaths.

A Pennsylvania State Police honor guard folds the flag over the casket containing the remains of Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul G. Richey during a memorial service. Richey, a 16-year veteran, was killed by a gunman lying in wait while answering a domestic call. (AP Photo)
A Pennsylvania State Police honor guard folds the flag over the casket containing the remains of Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul G. Richey during a memorial service. Richey, a 16-year veteran, was killed by a gunman lying in wait while answering a domestic call. (AP Photo)

Both attempts in Hemet failed, but were characterized as unusually violent. Last week, a bullet fired by an altered gun narrowly missed an officer opening a parking lot gate at the task force's building, a block from the police station.

On New Year's Eve, the same building was targeted when a gas line was rerouted to rig the building to explode when officers stepped inside.

Experts say attacks on a police facility, such as the ones against the Hemet Gang Task Force building, are nearly unheard of. The FBI has joined the task force in the investigation of the attacks. While Hemet police have not identified any suspects, they believe the threat may involve area gang members now under investigation.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved up to a $100,000 reward for information in the case that leads to an arrest or conviction.

The gang task force includes Hemet police, Riverside County sheriff's deputies, district attorney's investigators and probation and parole officers, and is one of eight teams throughout the county.

Nationally last year, 125 officers were killed, the lowest number since 1959. Already this year, 34 officers have been killed in the line of duty in shootings and traffic fatalities, including three in California in the past week. That is more than double the rate of slain peace officers in the same period last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund.

"Right now we are averaging an officer dying in the line of duty just about every other day," Law Enforcement Memorial Fund spokesman Kevin Morison said. "We still have men and women get up and know their next call could be potentially life-altering or life-ending."

Criminals have stepped up their attacks on officers who may be cracking down or moving in on their territory, said California State Sheriff's Association Executive Director Jim Denney.

Booby traps have been planted to defend marijuana fields. Tripwires have been connected to explosives or shotguns. A suspect with a live grenade was captured in Northern California before an attack was carried out, Denney said.

One of the greatest concerns for police is the recent attacks on several officers at once, as in the four officers fatally ambushed in November in a Lakewood, Wash., coffee shop. Last year's shooting deaths included 15 officers killed in five separate incidents.

Law enforcement is now concerned that recent coordinated attacks on officers may be spawning copycat plots, Morison said.

"The planned assault on peace officers has become more prevalent and is definitely a cause of concern," Denney said. "As law enforcement becomes more active in enforcing criminal activity, criminal organizations are becoming more sophisticated in avoiding detection and organizing assaults on police."

Officer deaths rise

Officer deaths this year have jumped by 112 percent over the 16 fatalities nationwide through March 1 last year. Three deaths have come in California in the past week. Two Fresno County officers were killed during a shootout while serving a search warrant. A San Diego County deputy died Sunday while in pursuit of a wrong-way driver.

Authorities say there has been an increase in the violence of the attacks on police. Shooting deaths increased in 2009 by 23 percent, taking a toll of 49 officers across the country, compared with 39 officers killed in 2008. More officers have died from on-duty traffic collisions than any other cause for the past 12 years.

The last Inland officer killed was U.S. Border Patrol Agent Robert Rosas, who was ambushed in July in El Centro near the Mexican border. Previously, Rialto police Officer Sergio Carrera Jr. was fatally shot in 2007 while serving a search warrant.

Hemet police and San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies in Highland came under fire in December during separate shootings that struck patrol cars.

Hemet Police Chief Richard Dana said the gang task force has not been deterred by the assassination attempts.

"It's a very real threat. Someone is actually seeking to kill our officers," Dana said. "This required some real time and effort to potentially kill a police officer. It's not OK."

Increased penalties

Authorities have improved training and procedures to reduce fatalities from the numbers of decades ago. In the 1970s, police averaged 228 deaths annually, while this past decade the average has been 162 officers killed each year. On Sept. 11, 2001, 72 law enforcement officers were killed in the terrorist attacks on the United States. It was the single deadliest day for authorities.

Additional training, body armor and protective equipment and less lethal options, including Tasers, have better protected officers and helped keep situations from turning deadly, Morison said.

"The reality is with all those protections, when you get people hell-bent on killing police officers, there's no magic wand to protect officers from those types of attacks," Morison said.

Riverside County District Attorney Rod Pacheco said gangs have become more aggressive in carrying out attacks on law enforcement, which Pacheco compared to attacks on Mexican authorities on the border. Additional threats have been made against the district attorney's office and prosecutors.

The district attorney's office has a prosecution unit dedicated to peace officer assaults, attempted murders and murders. In each case, prosecutors have imposed a hard-line, no-plea-bargain policy and pushed for the maximum sentence.

Two state laws increased the penalty for assaults on peace officers, following the deaths of Riverside County sheriff's deputies Michael P. Haugen and James Lehman Jr. in an ambush in 1997 near Whitewater.

The two bills, authored by Pacheco, require 15 years to life in prison for attempted murder of an officer, and at least life without parole, or eligibility for the death penalty, for a murder conviction.

"It's honorable work. Every member of law enforcement accepts that risk," Pacheco said. "You address it aggressively. It's not a casual occurrence; it is in essence a nuclear attack. You don't tolerate it; you respond with everything you've got."

Copyright 2010 Press Enterprise

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