Fear of 'war on cops' has police on edge

The animosity being directed at police officers has had a ripple effect across the country

By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino County Sun

LOS ANGELES — Deon Filer understands why some people do not hold police in high regard. As a teenager growing up in South Central Los Angeles, some of his early encounters with police were less than favorable.

He recalls a time, when he was 14, when he and two friends exited a public bus and were confronted by two jittery police officers, guns drawn, who ordered them to lie on the ground. Filer noticed the exposed red dot on the safety select of one of the officer’s guns, which meant the safety was unlocked and the gun was ready to fire.

Filer said he feared for his life.

It turned out be a case of mistaken identity. The officers were looking for several youths matching the description of Filer and his friends, who eventually were sent on their way, without an apology.

“All they did was get in their car and drive away. They didn’t even say they were sorry. I remember how that made me feel. I remember it to this day,” said Filer, 40, a 16-year veteran of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department who works as the department’s community liaison deputy. “I saw the need for that change in this field. It definitely goes with my reason for joining (law enforcement).”

Anti-police rhetoric that has proliferated on social media amid several high-profile deaths of mostly black, unarmed men at the hands of police, coupled with a spate of killings of police officers and sheriff’s deputies this year, have forced police to be more vigilant than ever and work harder at fostering trust in their communities, according to Filer and other law-enforcement officials.

While the debate continues on whether civilians have waged a “war on cops” after the deaths last year of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, police say social media has been a game-changer in influencing public perception with the abundance of anti-police rhetoric being disseminated.

“Obviously, this is causing a great divide between law enforcement and the community, and the worst part is trying to figure out where it starts and where it’s going to end,” Filer said.

On Edge
On Sept. 11, CHP Officer Felix Serpas was shot during a traffic stop in West Covina. Suspect John Alfred Garcia, 30, was chased into Fontana, where he resides, and was arrested in connection with the crime. He pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of attempted murder on a peace officer, assault on a peace officer and felony evading of a peace officer.

Serpas suffered injuries to his arms and face as a result of being sprayed by pellets from a shotgun blast, said CHP Officer Rodrigo Jimenez, who works out of the CHP’s Baldwin Park office. He said Serpas was released from the hospital Tuesday and is recovering from his injuries.

The shooting of Serpas reflected the undercurrent of tension that has been roiling among law enforcement in the past year.

“We are always on edge, always very alert,” Jimenez said. “This isn’t just affecting the officers, it’s affecting their spouses, their kids, and it’s affecting the community at large.”

Garcia’s arrest in Fontana underscored what Fontana Police Chief Rodney Jones said was an uptick this year in people resisting arrest and fleeing from officers. Whether that was related to the increased scrutiny and fear of police was not clear, but Jones suspects there’s a connection.

“You can’t ignore the fact that the timing is consistent with the media coverage of what has occurred in Ferguson and in New York and in other cases. The timing is fairly consistent,” Jones said.

In the past month alone, four police officers or sheriff’s deputies were killed in the line of duty across the country, and at least one of the killings was a suspected execution.

On Sept. 1, Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year veteran of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department in Illinois, was fatally shot in a marsh while chasing three people. On Aug. 28, Darren Goforth, a 10-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department in Texas, was filling up his patrol car at a gas station when a man approached him from behind and shot Goforth several times in what authorities said was an execution-style killing. Shannon Miles, 31, was arrested in connection with the crime.

On Aug. 26, Louisiana police Officer Henry Nelson was shot and killed after responding to a domestic dispute. Three days prior, on Aug. 23, Steven Vincent, a senior trooper with the Louisiana State Police, was shot in the head and killed after approaching a man inside a truck that was in a ditch.

On Dec. 20, New York police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot to death, point blank in the head, while sitting in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street corner. Police said the man arrested in connection with the shootings, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, was looking to assassinate police officers to avenge the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Ripple Effect
The animosity being directed at police officers has had a ripple effect across the country. Earlier this month, an employee at an Arby’s restaurant in Florida refused to serve a Pembroke Pines police officer who dropped in for a bite. And on Sept. 6, emergency dispatchers at the Aurora Police Department in Colorado received a call from a man who threatened to shoot police officers because they were “evicting innocent people,” according to published news reports.

Statistics-wise, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty from Jan. 1 through Sept. 18 was up 14?percent for the same period in 2014, but 34?percent of those officers died in traffic-related incidents, while officers killed in firearms-related incidents declined by 22?percent compared with the same period in 2014, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that honors fallen officers and tracks officer deaths.

“Those are the facts, but, having said that, I think it’s true that police officers are more on edge these days than they have been for quite awhile,” said former Redlands Police Chief Jim Bueermann, now president of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement think tank.

“It’s difficult to make a broad, sweeping statement or conclusion, but these incidents are alarming to police officers nationwide and cause almost all police departments to have conversations with their officers about being careful,” Bueermann said.

The anti-police rhetoric, Bueermann said, is potentially explosive given that it could prompt someone who is mentally imbalanced and has access to a gun to act out, such as was the case in Brooklyn in December and last month in Harris County, Texas.

“The overwhelming majority of people suffering from a mental illness, even those who have access to firearms, never engage in a violent event with a gun,” said Bueermann, “But there are a small number of people who are violently predisposed, full of uncontrollable rage, and have access to a firearm, who get pushed over the edge and act out. Some of the violent police rhetoric may have incited them to commit that kind of action.”

He said the polls show that the public’s confidence in police has dropped to a new low, maybe an all-time low.

“I think this presents an opportunity for police chiefs nationwide to have conversations with the communities they serve and their own workforces about the need for respectful, and constitutionally correct, policing practices, and the creation of partnerships between the community and police to co-produce public safety,” Bueermann said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said that an increasing crime rate in his county following 10 years of decline, further complicates things, and that police need to own up to their mistakes, fix them and improve community relations if they want to see things turn around.

But the onus isn’t just on the police. Community leaders need to step up to the plate and work with police and citizens in a joint effort to identify the problems and improve the quality of life in the community and relations with police, McDonnell said.

“Policing has never been so complex and so challenging as it is today,” McDonnell said. “We realize there’s work to be done, however, we need to put it in reasonable context of what’s going on in America. What we’ve seen in the last year — the anti-police rhetoric and it going viral through social media — has been dysfunctional for America. Nobody wins.”

Copyright 2015 the San Bernardino County Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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