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A letter to the American public: Addressing the triple threat to law enforcement

A recent spate of LODDs requires immediate action against the rising incivility, failed criminal justice reforms and the mental health crisis that endanger police officers’ lives


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T.S. Eliot’s epic poem “The Waste Land” begins with the line, “April is the cruelest month” and that is how this season has so far been.

Over four days in upstate New York, two police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty in Syracuse and an Albany police officer was ambushed and shot during a traffic stop.

While the country was caught up with NCAA March Madness, a western New York sheriff’s deputy died after a felonious assault, an NYPD officer was shot and killed, and a State Police Investigator was seriously injured when run down while attempting to make an arrest.

During the same time frame, police officers were either shot and killed or wounded by gunfire in other parts of the country.


Lt. Michael Hoosock (left), of the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and Syracuse Police Officer Michael Jensen were fatally shot on Sunday, April 14, 2024 in Salina.

Provided photograph/TNS

The opening section of “The Waste Land,” eerily titled “The Burial of the Dead,” speaks of disillusionment and despair, yet that is not how we should end this month nor is it a way to honor the fallen as we move forward. Action is needed and, as an attorney, academic and retired police officer, I am heartened when I see those in the law enforcement community, along with my colleagues who once served as police officers, advocating for change. As a group they are intelligently, objectively and actively pushing for the safety of police officers who patrol our communities. However, continued, vigorous work is required to push back the falsehoods that have been allowed to seep into discussions around policing.

Three threats facing police

From the tragic and unfortunate deaths of our nation’s police officers thus far this year, I have noticed three common areas wherein officers have had to contend with situations on the street.

1. Our incivility and entitlement culture

The first is the growing, or more appropriately the fully matured, incivility and entitlement in this country.

There is a misconception that every right established in our Constitution is absolute and not subject to reasonable governmental regulation. Protests involving one politically charged issue after another have transitioned from the peaceful assemblies the First Amendment guarantees and devolved into wholesale anarchic festivals wherein protesters feel entitled to block roadways, bridges and other thoroughfares thereby preventing the unmolested passage of motorists. Police officers, often present to ensure the safety of protestors, become targets merely because of their uniforms and the job they perform.

The line-of-duty death of Genesee County Deputy Sheriff Thomas A. Sanfratello, though involving a different situation, is an example of the kind of incivility and entitlement that officers encounter.

Officer dies in struggle during arrest early Sunday at Batavia Downs

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family members of Sgt. Sanfratello and all the members of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office at this extremely difficult time,” Batavia Police Chief Shawn Heubusch said in a press statement.

Officer Down Memorial Page

Deputy Sanfratello, a 32-year veteran, responded to an altercation between two Batavia Downs Casino patrons. As he escorted one of the patrons out of the casino he was assaulted by the other. During a violent struggle, Deputy Sanfratello succumbed to a heart attack. These two patrons, presumably out to enjoy the night, could not control their drunken behavior and decided to turn their aggression on a police officer attempting to do his job. Emboldened effrontery toward the police has become endemic.

2. Failed criminal justice reforms

The second issue is politics and the failed criminal justice reforms that have washed over the country since the pandemic.

There is no argument that areas of our criminal justice system need repair and that policing must be ever vigilant to providing the best and fairest of services to all, but the removal of judicial discretion in bail hearings and sentencing decisions diminishes the role of judges in our common law system. Additionally, it relies on unrealistic formulas to assess bail risk, dangerousness and the need for incarceration. The death of NYPD police officer Jonathan Diller is an example of the tragic consequences of these reforms. His murderer was an ex-con recidivist with 23 prior arrests.

NYPD Officer Killed

This photo provided by the New York City Police Department shows police officer Jonathan Diller, who was killed in the line of duty on Monday, March 25, 2024, in New York. According to the city’s mayor and police, Diller was shot and killed during a traffic stop in the Far Rockaway section of Queens. The officer and his partner were part of the NYPD Critical Response Team. (New York City Police Department via AP)


3. The mental health crisis

The third issue is the mental health crisis in this country that has been increasingly left to law enforcement to contend with during street encounters. People who need treatment are being neglected. Many individuals in mental crisis who were discarded, either by family or institutions that should have been treating them, become rallying cries for police brutality when they die in an encounter with police. Instead of the failures of our mental health system, the focus is on the police officer who, it is suggested, should have known better.

Now, I will submit that policing needs to do more to train officers in their response to individuals undergoing a mental health crisis, but that does not mean that every encounter with such individuals, wherein the police find it necessary to use force, is unlawful. And, lest we forget, police officers have been killed by individuals in mental crisis. Indianapolis police officer Breann Leath in 2020 was shot twice in the head by a mentally ill suspect who had killed his girlfriend. That suspect was sentenced on April 4 to only five years for shooting Officer Leath with time served for good behavior and sentenced to 25 years for the murder of his girlfriend followed by a 15-year probation. I have yet to see any protests on behalf of Officer Leath, her son, or her family.

Breann Leath

This June 14, 2018, photo provided by the Indianapolis Police Department shows Indianapolis Police Officer Breann Leath. A man found guilty but mentally ill in the killing Leath has been sentenced to 25 years in prison Thursday, April 4, 2024, for shooting his then-girlfriend but to time served for killing the officer, a sentence the city’s police chief calls “deeply” disappointing. (Indianapolis Police Department via AP, File)


The police always have been and always will be caught between warring politics, except it has now gone too far. Reformist fiction would have the public believe that every police use of force encounter, particularly deadly force, is an indictable event. Unfortunately, there are district attorneys across the country who have fallen into this trap. There are some who have gone so far as to sharpen their prosecutorial fangs to focus more on police indictments rather than repeat felony offenders. They have forgotten Justice Robert Jackson’s address that the quality of a good prosecutor is one “who serves the law and not factional purposes.” Inquiries that have strayed from this quality have been biased and faulty. Jury verdicts clearing officers in use of force trials have been reflective of poisoned prosecutions. When a police officer has used excessive force, as in two incidents in Colorado last year, juries have returned proper verdicts.

Advocacy and common-sense application of the law are necessary to ensure law enforcement tragedies like those we’ve already witnessed are reduced. The promise of every April is renewal as we move into the warmer months. We best mourn our fallen not with disillusionment and despair of which Eliot writes, but with advocacy and professionalism.

Terrence P. Dwyer retired from the New York State Police after a 22-year career as a Trooper and Investigator. He is a tenured professor of legal studies at Western Connecticut State University and an attorney consulting on law enforcement liability, disciplinary cases, critical incidents, and employment matters. He is the author of “Homeland Security Law: Issues and Analysis,” Cognella Publishing (2024).