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Police Worry About Their Own Safety After Killings

During his 21 years in law enforcement, Cpl. Wayne Curry hasn't worried much about the approach of strangers.

By Joel Rubin, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard Winton

During his 21 years in law enforcement, Cpl. Wayne Curry hasn't worried much about the approach of strangers.

 

The Texas officer, like anyone who wears a badge, said he has had his share of run-ins with those who harbor a dislike of the police. But when people have stepped up to him, he said, it is "more likely they want to buy me dinner."

 

Curry is now thinking twice. He spoke as he watched over a crowd of about 1,500 people gathered at an impromptu memorial at a gas station in a Houston suburb, where an on-duty officer from a neighboring department in Harris County near Houston was gunned down Friday in an apparently unprovoked attack while fueling his car.

 

"This was an ambush, a coward that took advantage," Curry said.

 

The killing was the latest in a spate of deadly attacks in which police officers have been the targets. Last week, two Louisiana officers were killed in separate incidents and two officers in Mississippi died in May when they came under fire during a traffic stop. At least 25 police killings in New York, Pennsylvania, San Jose and elsewhere have rattled police already this year.

 

And although dozens of police officers are slain on duty in any given year, active and retired police officers across the country said the recent bloodshed feels different. As the nation has been roiled by strong currents of distrust and fear of police that surfaced after last year's killing of Michael Brown by a cop in Ferguson, Mo., an ugly byproduct of the turmoil has been a newfound willingness to do harm to those in uniform, many police officers say.

 

"The general public has a perception that we may or may not be the good guys," said Curry, 51, a law enforcement veteran who now works with the Harris County Constable's Office.

 

 

The scrutiny, some say, is coming in many forms. The U.S. Justice Department is overseeing the operations of several major police departments across the country; police are being sued, investigated, arrested and indicted; a routine traffic stop may be recorded by dashboard video, body camera or a nearby cellphone; an officer in full uniform can get shot while filling up his vehicle at a gas station. None of these are new, but their frequency and the ongoing national debate over policing have crystallized into a sense of being under siege on all fronts, officers said.

 

"Day to day, you're a little more aware of your surroundings, you're a little more skeptical of people," said Rick Perine, a 17-year veteran of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department.

 

 

Perine said he has found himself being "hyper-vigilant" since the killings in December of two New York City police officers, who were ambushed in their patrol car. Their killer had boasted on social media that he planned to kill cops in retaliation for the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner, who died during an arrest by officers in Staten Island, N.Y. Garner's and Brown's deaths — coming three weeks apart in 2014 — became part of a growing public outrage toward law enforcement.

 

"These days, if I don't know you, I'm going to be extra guarded around you," Perine said. "It is a different world."

 

The brazen nature of the shooting in Texas on Friday night echoed the New York City killings.

 

Darren Goforth, a 10-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff's Department, was in uniform as he pumped gas at a Chevron station outside Houston when a man approached him from behind and shot him several times, officials said. Goforth, 47, died at the scene, leaving behind a wife and two children, ages 12 and 5.

 

 

A suspect in the case, Shannon J. Miles, 31, was being held without bail on a charge of capital murder. Goforth was white and Miles is black, but police have discussed no racial motive in the attack.

 

Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman told reporters that the investigation so far has not uncovered any connection between Goforth and the suspect, and it appeared he was targeted only because he was a law enforcement officer.

 

Hickman referred to a "dangerous national rhetoric that is out there today," saying it "has gotten out of control."

 

He said Goforth's killer approached from behind and said nothing before opening fire.

 

It was, he said, a "coldblooded execution."

 

Social media sites, meanwhile, lighted up with posts speculating about a connection between Goforth's slaying and calls earlier last week for attacks on law enforcement on a Houston-area radio show.

 

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group that tracks police deaths, posted figures showing 83 officers have died while on duty so far this year, 10 more than in the same period last year. But, as is typical, traffic accidents have been the most common cause of police deaths and the 25 officers killed in assaults so far this year is about even with 2014, which had seen a sharp rise from the year before, according to the group's figures.

 

Statistics compiled by the FBI show the number of officers "feloniously killed" each year has fluctuated somewhat over the last decade, but it stands at about 50.

 

Numbers, however, don't tell the whole story, police said. Whether or not violence toward police is up this year, officers said attacks on law enforcement are playing out in a new atmosphere of amplified animosity, in which cops are routinely vilified — fairly or not — by a public on Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites.

 

The atmosphere surrounding recent incidents of police violence "is more dangerous," said Deon Joseph, a Los Angeles police officer who has spent 17 years working on the city's skid row. Social media now have "the capability of influencing millions with truth and embellished versions of it with the click of a button," he said, and "more people want to hear the sensationalized version than the truth."

 

In Southern California, memories of Christopher Dorner still hang heavily over the LAPD and other departments. In 2013, years after he was fired from the LAPD for lying, Dorner resurfaced bent on exacting revenge for what he saw as his unfair dismissal.

 

Vowing to target the police he blamed for his downfall, Dorner ended up killing four people, including two officers, before killing himself during a standoff with police.

 

For police in the region, perhaps as unsettling as Dorner's willingness to kill were those who took to social media and other outlets to lionize him and applaud his decision to target cops. Stenciled graffiti portraits of Dorner appeared on buildings across Los Angeles in the weeks after the episode with "Dorner Lives" spray-painted below.

 

 

Sandra Sheesley, who retired a few years ago after more than 23 years as deputy in the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, was finishing up a trip to New York City on Sunday. Shaken by the Goforth killing in Texas, she felt compelled to visit the NYPD's 84th Precinct house in Brooklyn, where the two officers slain in December had been stationed.

 

"It's overwhelming for us," Sheesley said.

 

 

Sheesley said she can understand both the anger of people demanding reforms to policing in the country and that of police officers who feel they are under siege. She pointed to the Black Lives Matter social movement that has formed in the wake of the Brown killing and the Blue Lives Matter movement that has arisen in response.

 

"It's sad, because we need our police," Sheesley said. "But there is definitely something that needs to be addressed."

 

Meanwhile, police in Houston are being more watchful than ever. The Harris County Sheriff's Department, where Goforth was employed, has ordered its deputies to work in pairs.

 

Curry's department can't afford that luxury. "We don't have the manpower," Curry said. "But we're saying any time you go to get gas, double up. We don't want a copycat."




Times staff writers Nigel Duara in Tempe, Ariz., and Tina Susman in New York contributed.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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