Killings of officers increases stress for SoCal law enforcement
The series of slayings have forced many LEOs to become hyperaware of their surroundings, especially as more cops are being scrutinized for their actions
By Beatriz Valenzuela
San Bernardino County Sun
LONG BEACH, Calif. — When Long Beach police Lt. Steve James first heard that three Palm Springs police officers had been gunned down Saturday afternoon, he immediately texted a friend at the desert town department.
James, the president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association, endured some tense moments when he believed his friend could have been one of the officers shot. He eventually learned his friend was safe, but two officers — each at opposite ends of their careers — had been killed and a third wounded.
“I’m devastated no matter who it is, but I didn’t happen to know those two,” he said.
The deaths of officers Jose “Gil” Vega and Lesley Zerebny, came only three days after Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen was fatally shot during a burglary call in Lancaster.
“It was terrible,” San Bernardino police Lt. Mike Madden said Monday morning of the two separate incidents that took the lives of three law enforcement members.
So far this year, 102 law enforcement officers have lost their lives nationally, according to the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund. Last year, 123 were killed.
“Every time it happens, we feel their grief and their sorrow because it happened to us, and so we grieve,” said Cindy Bachman spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Bachman was referring to the death of Deputy Jeremiah MacKay, killed Feb. 12, 2013, during a standoff with disgraced ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner.
The series of officer deaths have forced many in law enforcement to become hyperaware of their surroundings, especially as more officers are being scrutinized for their actions, especially when it comes to officer-involved shootings, according to police officials.
“The stress level is obviously a lot higher, but it’s important for patrol supervisors to know the makeup of their teams and be able to identify if the stress becomes too high for any involved officer,” said Torrance police Lt. Robert Watt. “Proactive and overall good police work continues among the men and women of the Torrance Police Department and that is definitely a tribute to them.”
Riverside police patrol Sgt. Debbie Foy, who’s been in law enforcement for 32 years, said she tries to put the recent incidents in perspective and feels only 1?percent of people have serious problems with law enforcement.
“The other 99 percent of people who support us are the people I’m out there for,” said Foy. “And I’m proud to be part of that community. I’m proud of my job, and I still honor my job.”
While she says she isn’t fearful when doing her job of choice, she says she is more cautious.
“I make sure I have the appropriate resources to back me up,” she says. “I don’t go into something blindly when I can wait for backup officers.”
According to National Institute of Justice research, minorities are less trusting of law enforcement than whites. The research agency of the U.S. Department of Justice notes the suspicion may stem from their own personal interactions with police and exposure to media accounts of police misconduct.
“It creates a situation where your senses are working overdrive,” James said of the recent attacks on officers. “You’re concerned about everything: the person walking up behind your police car, anything that doesn’t feel right on a call.”
Many within law enforcement say attacks on the police came to a head July 8 when 25-year-old military veteran Micah Johnson ambushed and killed five Dallas police officers during what had been a peaceful protest against the fatal police shootings of black men, specifically in Louisiana and Minnesota, shootings many demonstrators say were unjustified and point to a systematic problem between law enforcement and the black community.
“I think the mind-set that the police are biased and the police are racist, I just don’t believe that,” said Madden, a 25-year law enforcement veteran. “When we do wrong, we have to acknowledge it, but there seems to be a segment of the community that I think believes we brought this on ourselves and nothing could be further from the truth. We have officers who go out there and do their jobs and do it honorably and professionally. That’s how we combat that mind-set.”
Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association President Brian Moriguchi agreed, adding the majority of officers are “good, honest people trying to make the streets safe.”
“When you hear the stories about Sgt. Steve Owen and two Palm Springs officers,” said Moriguchi, “these people are outstanding individuals which the media digs into when they die. But that is the vast majority of police officers out there.”
For Madden and others, this is exactly why good community relationships are essential for change.
“It’s important to have that connection there but much earlier than when things like this happen,” Madden said. “Trust isn’t just granted, it’s earned and we have to do what we can to have those positive contacts and build the trust with a community. It has to be a two-way dialogue.”
In Los Angeles, LAPD Deputy Chief Bob Green, commanding officer of Operations-Valley Bureau, says he’s seen a deliberate effort by Chief Charlie Beck to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings in the city by using less-lethal force, including stun guns, and the use of body cameras. However, even the use of alternatives means may still garner ire from the community, Green said.
“We saw in Burbank where they Tased the individual instead of using deadly force and he died,” he said. “There was still an outcry over that. At what point do officers get to protect themselves? It’s a good discussion, but there’s got to be an honest discussion. I think all of our discussions have got to be balanced.”