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Tacoma officer’s killing a tragic reminder that there’s nothing routine about ‘domestic’ calls

Monks from the Khmer Theravadin Buddhist Association of Tacoma hold candles next to a photo of Tacoma Police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, who was fatally shot while responding to a domestic violence call, during a vigil on Thursday in Tacoma, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Despite their frequency and the routine-sounding name, the “domestic dispute” call, for a police officer, is the most dangerous call of all, according to a study by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

“When the radio goes off and you’re being sent to a domestic,” said Salem, Mass., Officer Michael LaRiviere in an interview in December in The Trace, “you automatically brace yourself.”

You don’t know what, or who, you’re dealing with. You don’t know, he said, whether someone is armed or not. “The most dangerous time, the time when we’re getting killed the most, often, is in the approach.”

A domestic call claimed the life of Tacoma Police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez Wednesday. After he was killed, the incident spun wildly out-of-control because the shooter was heavily armed. A five-hour standoff with police followed.

The call, at about 4 p.m. Wednesday, concerned a reported tiff between a man and his wife. He had locked her out of their rented house and taken away her cellphone. She flagged down nearby authorities, who called police. Gutierrez, a 45-year-old officer with nearly 20 years of experience, drove to the scene to help.

Tacoma, Wash., police officer shot dead. Suspect killed after 12-hour standoff ends in gunfire.

Defusing domestic violence situations was Gutierrez’s specialty, reported the News Tribune. He was soft-spoken, approachable, a gifted talker. He knew how to make people calm, community members told the newspaper. He’d done it many times before.

So on Wednesday afternoon when the officer and his partner entered the couple’s home, a three-story structure on the city’s east side, he left his gun holstered. The landlord, a woman named Kristi Croskey, had used the spare key to let them inside.

The man looked surprised to see cops, Croskey told the Seattle Times, but the situation seemed controlled.

Gutierrez stepped inside, Croskey said, to talk to the husband and check on the couple’s two young children. The children were upstairs, so Gutierrez began walking up the steps.

“They just wanted to explain to him that he couldn’t lock his wife out like this,” Croskey told the Times. “They weren’t upset. It was all very routine.”

Then, gunfire.

Bullets rained down the staircase, Croskey said, striking Gutierrez repeatedly.

Gutierrez’s partner, a 42-year-old officer, shot back. The landlord, who had walked to the basement, told the Times she heard overhead “shells bouncing off the floor.” At least one child witnessed the shooting, reported the News Tribune.

“Get out!” Gutierrez yelled repeatedly, according to Croskey. “Get out!”

His partner ran outside with the shooter’s wife, and responding backup officers later pulled Gutierrez from the house.

He was transported to Tacoma General Hospital and underwent surgery. For hours, fellow officers, uniformed and not, waited outside in the November cold for word on their friend. At around 9 p.m. Wednesday night, authorities announced that Gutierrez had died.

“We’ve suffered a great loss and I think the community has suffered a great loss,” an emotional police spokeswoman, Loretta Cool, told reporters. “And I don’t know how to put that into words other than to say that everyone here appreciates the kind thoughts and the prayers that are going out to us.”

Police shot and killed a suspect accused of fatally shooting a Tacoma, Wash., police officer who was responding to a domestic violence call. (Video: Reuters)

Meanwhile across town, law enforcement was still engaged in a tense standoff with the shooter, who authorities didn’t reveal until much later was using his two children, a boy and a girl aged 6 and 8, as human shields. After the officers, his wife and the landlord fled, the man barricaded himself, the children and multiple weapons in an upstairs bedroom, refusing for nearly 12 hours to release his captors or surrender.

It wasn’t until 3:20 a.m. local time, hours after Gutierrez’s body had been escorted in a solemn processional to the medical examiner’s office, that the standoff finally ended. Members of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team pulled one child to safety, and after a sheriff’s deputy fired a single shot that killed the man, the second child was rescued, too.

“We negotiated through the night. Negotiations failed. We went in. Took one of the kids when we had a chance and [the suspect] grabbed the other kid,” Det. Ed Troyer, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, told TV station KING 5. “One of our officers felt he had a shot. He took it.”

Authorities have yet to identify the man suspected of fatally shooting Gutierrez, but Croskey and family members told local media his name is Bruce Randall “Zeus” Johnson II, a 38-year-old husband and father who worked at a barber shop. Croskey knew him through church, family and his employer, she told the Seattle Times. Johnson moved into her home several months ago with his wife and children after she put it up for sale, Croskey said. She called him a housesitter and only made him pay utilities.

Croskey told the Times she did not know there were guns in the house.

“I do not tolerate guns,” she said. “I want nothing to do with them.”

The landlord said her tenant was “intelligent, articulate and tech-savvy.”

“He was an overall good guy,” she told the Times. “I am as surprised by this as anyone. I do not know what happened, but it just seemed to me like he was afraid.”

Family members, though, painted a different portrait.

“Troubled” was the word his grandmother, Josephine Bailey, used to describe Johnson in an interview with the News Tribune. She said her grandson was abusive toward his wife and that the reports of domestic violence were not surprising.

Courts records obtained by the News Tribune show Johnson was cited for fourth-degree assault and unlawful display of a firearm in 2015 after trying to buy marijuana at a medical dispensary without proper identification. He flashed a handgun tucked into his pants to an employee, according to the records. He punched an employee.

Instead of facing criminal prosecution, Johnson completed an eight-hour anger management course, reported the News Tribune. After he failed to pay court fees, a bench warrant was issued last spring.

Johnson was the oldest of his siblings, his grandmother said, and only came around when he needed something. He often picked fights at family gatherings.

“He had a chip on his shoulder for some reason,” she told the News Tribune.

At a news conference Thursday, Tacoma officials told reporters the investigation was ongoing and that the city, and the state, was in mourning.

“One thing I am witnessing over the past evening and day is this outpouring of support from our entire community,” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “We love our police officers, and we know that every day when they go to work, there’s a chance they may not come home, and unfortunately, that happened last evening.”

The mayor said the city is “deeply saddened,” and that she ordered all government flags be flown at half-staff to show “respect and gratitude” for Gutierrez. She asked residents and businesses in the greater Tacoma area to do the same.

“Tacoma is always resilient,” Strickland said. “I want to send a message far and wide that we love, respect and value our officers, and we will miss Officer Gutierrez.”

After she spoke, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell called Gutierrez a “model police officer” who was “highly dedicated” to his profession and community. “He demonstrated that every day he came to work,” Ramsdell said, a black bar running across the police badge on his chest.

He expressed deep appreciation for the community’s support — the vigils, the flowers, the donations and social media posts.

“It just makes me feel very honored,” the chief said, his voice cracking as he held back tears, ” . . . to be a Tacoma police officer.”

Domestic calls leading to shootings of officers, according to a study of 684 line-of-duty deaths over five years by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, are all too frequent. Of 91 fatal cases in the study where an officer was responding to a dispatch for a call for service, 22 percent involved domestic disputes, the largest proportion of any category. In all but one of the 20 deaths studied, the responding officers were killed with a firearm.

Often, misinformation, or lack of information, led to the officer “being unaware” they were dealing with an armed suspect. Too often, officers go in alone, which was not the case in the Tacoma shooting. But “even in situations where two officers were present, domestic violence calls had the potential of turning deadly.”

“Every time you get a domestic, you know you’re going into something with so many moving parts,” said the officer interviewed in The Trace. “…. The nature of the crime adds another complication,” said LaRiviere. “Domestic violence is about one person’s desire to control another. The police officer who arrives at the scene is taking away some of that control.”

In an interview in the News Tribune, Tacoma resident Lynnette Scheidt, the president of the Eastside neighborhood council and a neighborhood alliance, said Gutierrez was a known figure in their community, someone who could talk residents out of a fight or angry lovers off the ledge, who made people feel safe. He attended meetings and neighborhood cleanups and was “totally true to the East Side,” Scheidt told the New Tribune.

And Gutierrez, she said, responded to “many, many” domestic violence calls.

“I’m thinking maybe,” Scheidt said, “he thought this would be just another one.”

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