The Psychology of Police as Targets

In Indiana, it was a 31-year-old rookie officer shot on the side of the road after a traffic stop.

In Las Vegas, two officers were ambushed at a traffic light.

In Texas, a sheriff’s deputy was gunned down while gassing up his vehicle.

In California, a highway patrolman was shot while executing a traffic stop.

In Illinois, an officer was shot and killed while investigating three suspicious men in what is still a mysterious death.

And that’s just a few of the incidents this month where law enforcement officers have been shot and wounded, or killed, by members of the public who, increasingly, seem to be targeting police officers during criminal acts or, in some cases, with no reason at all.

Locally, there has been only one attack on an officer – in Revere – and that incident was not a shooting, but an assault. In that, Lt. Jeremiah Goodwin did suffer pretty serious injuries when inexplicably attacked and punched in the face while working an overnight detail assignment by a career criminal who was allegedly upset about the one-year Ferguson, MO anniversary.

That incident, but especially the violent ambush incidents of this year and last fall, have local officers trying to balance a new feeling of increased vulnerability with that of interacting normally with the people they have sworn to protect. It has become a balance that is hard to walk on a number of different fronts.

“The anti-police sentiment that has been rapidly evolving in some circles over the past year or so, and the small group of individuals that operate on the fringe that are negatively influenced by the movement, have brought a level of danger that is very real,” said Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes. “What we have all seen in the media across the country over the past year are many cases where Police Officers have been assaulted with dangerous weapons, shot and even killed simply by virtue of the fact that they wear a blue police uniform with a badge affixed to their chest. We as local police officers working in an urban inner city environment like the city of Chelsea are certainly well aware of what’s happening across the country where a number of police officers have been targeted for these specific reasons. As a result we continually stress to our personnel that this is not the time to be complacent anytime they are on or even off duty whether responding to a call for service, conducting a motor vehicle stop, walking a neighborhood, talking with a resident, directing traffic at a police detail, eating dinner on their break or even gassing up their cruiser. We realize that any situation can turn on a dime and anything can happen anywhere at any time. There is no doubt that this is certainly a tough and extremely stressful time to be a police officer anywhere in the entire country.”

Law enforcement deaths this year are down compared to last year, with 24 deaths to date.

Everett Chief Steve Mazzie noted that law enforcement deaths across the country are actually down this year, but the deaths that have occurred, especially in the last 11 months, are the kind that make officers cringe.

“I think that, year to date, the numbers are down,” he said. “I think it’s the types of killing that is a little more alarming. It’s targeted killings. It’s one thing if it’s in a line of duty action, a violent offender or a search warrant, but when you’re gassing up a cruiser or having a lunch break and get shot; when you see that, it’s not a good feeling. It’s discouraging.”

Mazzie said there are no specific problems in Everett, and no officers have been attacked – as happened earlier this summer in Revere – but he said they certainly train on how to de-escalate situations and be aware of their surroundings all the time.

“We are always more aware of things going on locally, but we do pay attention to national trends,” he said. “Roll call is a good time to have meaningful discussions…There are risks involved and everyone who puts on the uniform knows that. We don’t go around on the street paranoid or go out afraid, but we do make sure officers have good awareness of things around us. We do our job like we would normally do it.”

In Revere, Police Chief Joe Cafarelli said they talk to their officers about being situationally aware, and provide them with important training and equipment – including bullet-proof vests.

“I’ve always been sensitive to that – being situationally aware,” he said. “I think I am more sensitive now than ever. I have a family. I have to be cognizant of their safety now as well – going to school and going to church. There was an officer ambushed at his home in Texas recently. You can’t be paranoid. There’s a fine line, though. We’re walking on a tight rope. That’s not just the police; that’s society right now.”

Revere Lt. Amy O’Hara said officers on her shift, which is the overnight, are vigilant. Before the attack on Lt. Goodwin and after, they have thought about simple safety measures while on the street.

“We talk about safety every shift and to never ever become complacent,” said O’Hara. “We also have to think about, for instance, if I’m on my way to work in uniform, I have to stop for gas, so I try and make sure I am wearing a civilian jacket. Many of the officers leave their uniform and equipment at work and change into it before their shift.”

That borders in on the personal, harsh realities of being a police officer, as iterated by Cafarelli.

“It’s always been a dangerous job, but it seems more so now,” he said. “Not only the increased dangers, but how do police officers explain this to their children? These officers who have been killed and are on TV. How do our officers go home and explain to their families that what they saw on the news isn’t going to happen to them? That’s when you have to do some soul searching, when you have to explain that to your kids, because they’re going to want to know.”

Mazzie, Cafarelli and Kyes all agreed, too, that there is a bit of perception in the mix as well. With the 24-hour news cycle, these things are reported more frequently and society – including police officers – become more aware of incidents around the country.

“There have been a number of high-profile incidents around the country, but there’s also a 24-hour news cycle and all kinds of social media,” said Mazzie. “Between the news and social media, there’s a lot of repetitive reporting.”

Some of that reporting, which covers the anti-police sentiment in depth, also plays a part in the nature of the crimes that are being committed, Kyes said.

“I am of the opinion that everyone definitely has the right to protest any important issue and demonstrate peacefully to raise awareness in order to foster change,” said Kyes. “What I don’t agree with is where the particular tone and tenor of some protests, albeit a few, serves the purpose to incite violence to create unwarranted hatred towards a certain group of individuals – like the police – who then become targets by a select few dangerous individuals with ill-conceived motives. Then our police officers unnecessarily run the heightened risk of possibly never seeing their families again when they go off to work.”

The trickiest part of the entire issue, according to all three chiefs, is continuing to connect with the public, building good will and still being aware of personal safety. Such events as have happened nationally over the last month or two make it a tough balance for police to be vulnerable and also safe, said Cafarelli.

“You have to be aware and be vigilant, but you also have to be sympathetic to people’s needs – the people you have sworn to serve and protect,” Cafarelli said. “You do have to let your guard down. You have to let your guard down as a police officer to really help people.”

Added Kyes, “The tough balance that we must maintain is for our personnel to always be in this so-called ‘ready position’ in our minds in this heightened state of awareness practicing hyper-vigilance during our patrols while at the same time stressing to our officers that community engagement and community outreach in order to form formidable, long lasting partnerships to build a strong, vibrant, self-sufficient community remains one of our most significant priorities.”

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