Omaha police officer Kerrie Orozco was a few hours from starting maternity leave when she headed out to serve an arrest warrant for a shooting suspect. A seven-year police veteran, Orozco had given birth prematurely three months earlier. The baby, Olivia, was due to be released from the hospital the next day.
Orozco never got the chance to bring her child home. When she and other officers arrived in North Omaha on May 20, police say the suspect, Marcus Wheeler, opened fire. Orozco, 29, was shot just above her bulletproof vest and pronounced dead at the hospital — along with Wheeler, 26, who was killed by another officer in the shootout.
Orozco is one of 14 officers shot and killed in the line of duty by suspects since January, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit organization that tracks all line-of-duty fatalities. While protesters have demonstrated over the past year about the use of deadly force by police, Orozco’s death highlighted the lethal threats that officers face.
Other officers were killed in routine traffic stops, including Gregg “Nigel” Benner, 49, a Rio Rancho, N.M., police officer who authorities said was fatally shot Monday by Andrew Romero, 28. Still others died while responding to calls, including Terence Green, a Fulton County, Ga., police detective and the first officer to be shot to death this year. While Green and other officers were searching a neighborhood after a report of gunfire on March 4, police say, Amanuel Menghesha opened fire and killed Green.
Their deaths came against a backdrop of widespread anti-police demonstrations. In Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Madison, Wis., and Ferguson, Mo., protesters have complained that police are too quick to use deadly force.
Police officers and others, though, argue that officers have to make split-second decisions about the risks they face.
“There is a heightened danger to police officers today,” said Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson, who is chairman of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence. “More people today,” he said, “have an anti-public-safety mind-set.”
Johnson noted the deaths of Hattiesburg, Miss., police officers Benjamin J. Deen, 34, and Liquori Tate, 24, who were shot this month during a traffic stop, as something that reverberates nationally.
“We watch the news,” Johnson said. “You don’t look at it locally anymore. . . . Even if the incident occurred in Mississippi, officers here see that as a threat to their safety and well-being.”
Johnson said that a recent spike in the number of officers who were shot in ambush attacks was a particularly worrisome trend. Last year, 15 officers were killed this way, matching 2012 for the highest number over the past decade, according to National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The FBI’s preliminary figures show that 51 law enforcement officers were “feloniously killed” in the line of duty last year, a significant increase from 2013, when 27 officers were feloniously killed.
Still, statistics suggest that being a police officer has gotten safer.
The 2013 tally was the lowest in more than 30 years, federal statistics show. On average, about 50 police officers have been fatally shot each year over the past decade, and that number has fallen by more than half since the 1970s, according to the memorial fund.
Regardless of the statistics, sustained protests in cities nationwide have left police feeling under siege, according to current and former law enforcement officers as well as relatives of the fallen.
“What really breaks my heart is the brickbats we’ve received,” said Anthony Scaglione, 47, who retired last year after 21 years with the Ithaca, N.Y., Police Department. “Since when did we become the bad guys? It’s heartbreaking what’s happening, the disrespect we’re receiving these days.”
High-profile shootings, such as the death of Philadelphia police officer Robert Wilson III, add to the fear of random attack. Wilson, 30,was fatally shot in February after he stopped to buy his son a video game and happened upon an attempted robbery.
Wilson was in a GameStop store when two armed men came in to rob it. Wilson and the men exchanged gunfire. The officer tried to keep other patrons out of the fray before he was killed, according to Charles H. Ramsey, the police commissioner.
Some law enforcement officers say the high-profile killings as well as the current atmosphere have made them extra cautious. This month, police who were gathered in Washington for a National Police Week ceremony to mourn officers killed in the line of duty said security had been heightened for the event, which came on the heels of the unrest in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spine injury while in police custody.
Jami Romaine, a corrections officer from New York, said she usually keeps her service gun in the safe in her hotel room during the event. This year, she brought it with her.
“I’m glad I’m retired,” said Don Costa, 58, who spent two decades as a detective in Waterbury, Conn. “Things have changed now.”
At next year’s Police Week, Orozco’s name will be among those read aloud during a ceremony honoring fallen officers.
“They walk out the door to keep citizens safe. And when they walk out the door, they put their life on the line,” said Tim McNeil, Orozco’s uncle and chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha.
In a telephone interview, McNeil said Orozco had been working overtime to accumulate the hours she needed to take a lengthy maternity leave with Olivia: “Kerrie knew she was going to be really tired by the time she picked her up from the hospital.”
The night before she died, he said, Orozco set up the baby’s crib — right next to her side of the bed.