The gunman who opened fire on a New York police officer this week, killing her before he was fatally shot by officers, sent a grimly familiar chill through law enforcement nationwide. Police officials say shootings like these reverberate across departments, unnerving officers who worry such attacks could happen to them.
“Nobody’s doing well,” James P. O’Neill, the New York police commissioner, said at a briefing Thursday. “We just lost a police officer. … Everybody’s suffering. We all came on this job to do good and to make a difference. But this is, there’s an inherent risk in what we do.”
The timing of Officer Miosotis Familia’s death in the Bronx was not lost on many current and former police officials. They said the shooting brought to mind similar attacks on law enforcement officers in recent years, most notably the rampage in Dallas — one year ago Friday — that killed five police officers in what became the deadliest day for American police since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Dallas attack came at a moment of pitched intensity nationwide, spurred by back-to-back fatal shootings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Video recordings capturing parts of those encounters spread online, inspiring protests across the country, including in Dallas. The demonstration in Dallas was peaceful until the first gunshot rang out, setting off a night of chaotic terror.
When it was over, five police officers — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith — were dead. Nine others were injured. It was the deadliest mass shooting of law enforcement officers in more than 80 years. The Dallas attack — along with another in Baton Rouge just 10 days later — was part of a surge in officer deaths by gunfire last year, putting police on edge.
Authorities said the gunman in Dallas — Micah Johnson, a black 25-year-old man from a neighboring suburb — had raged against police, language that would also echo from attackers who targeted officers in Baton Rouge and, this week, New York.
Policing has become safer in recent decades, with about half as many officers killed in the line of duty last year than in the mid-1970s, when that number peaked. But current and former police officials, as well as law enforcement experts, say they remain acutely concerned about ambushes because they involve visible targets — officers who are uniformed and generally out in their communities — and are nearly impossible to anticipate.
“There’s nothing you can do about that,” said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “There’s no preventative measures. We’ve got to be out in the public, and it’s very, very difficult. Officers can be as vigilant as possible, try to be aware of their surroundings, but when you have somebody filled with hate that’s bound to attack a police officer, that’s very hard to prevent.”
For police departments who have lost officers in ambushes and other attacks, shootings like Familia’s death quickly evoke those incidents, said Orlando Police Chief John Mina. In January, Lt. Debra Clayton, a veteran in Mina’s department, was fatally shot by an accused murderer, police say, becoming the first law enforcement officer killed by gunfire this year.
“Every time another incident happens, of course it brings up those bad and solemn memories from when your own officer was killed,” Mina said in an interview Thursday. “You’re talking about people who are great people. … We consider ourselves a big family. It’s tough.”
Clayton, like Familia in New York, represented something of a rarity. About 12 percent of full-time sworn local police personnel are women, according to federal statistics. Since 2007, about 6 percent of the police officers killed in the line of duty have been women, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which tracks such deaths.
After attacks like the one on Familia, law enforcement leaders say they focus on reaching their officers and supporting them as well as trying to learn from what happened, said William J. Bratton, who retired as New York police commissioner last year. While running the department, Bratton lost two of his officers — Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos — to an ambush attack in December 2014.
“You try to find what good can we get from it, in the sense of what can we learn from it, to try and not have it repeated or to try and make them less frequent going forward, with the understanding that we can never prevent them all,” he said in an interview.
Bratton said that after the 2014 ambush, the department worked at ramping up officer safety, purchasing new equipment and gear. On Thursday, in the wake of Familia’s shooting — which occurred while she was sitting in a mobile command post — New York officials announced plans to invest additional money in putting bullet-resistant panels and equipment in police command vehicles.
“It reinforces the notion that policing is unlike any other profession in that there are people who are out to target police,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works closely with departments. “When something like this happens, it just sends a chill across the policing world. … She’s just sitting in her car. She doesn’t have any relationship with the person who killed her. And so she is literally targeted because of who — not so much who she is, but what she represents.”
After previous shootings of police, some have tied the attacks to what they called anti-police sentiment around the country. Wexler — who was speaking by telephone in front of One Police Plaza in New York, where he was scheduled to meet with O’Neill — cautioned against making any generalizations about the shooting there this week, pointing to the gunman’s reported mental-health issues and recent erratic behavior.
“There’s no way you can protect yourself from this sort of thing. There’s no way,” Wexler said. “You put guns and mental health together and it’s a combustible mixture.”
Veteran law enforcement officers point out that targeted attacks “have always been a part of policing,” Bratton said. “They get much more attention now than they would’ve then when there were three TV stations.”
Mina echoed this, saying police always have been aware of the dangers of the job, though he added that police — including him — have been more on edge during the past few years.
“When I sit down in a restaurant in uniform, more so than usual, I’m on watch,” Mina said. “We’ve always trained to be aware of your surroundings, to watch the door, always watch out for the worst-case scenario. But I think now more than ever, officers are a lot more cautious than they have been. And they have to be.”
Current and former officers have said similar things in recent years after targeted attacks in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Iowa, New York and, in 2014, Las Vegas, where a married couple who had expressed anti-government views shot and killed two police officers who were eating lunch.
Even as they acknowledged an overall decline in line-of-duty deaths, police officials worry about ambushes and attackers who are able to easily obtain guns. A Washington Post analysis found that guns are increasingly the cause of line-of-duty deaths, accounting for nearly half of such deaths last year, the highest percentage in more than two decades.
That number was pushed up after the bloodshed in Dallas. In Texas, the first anniversary of the attacks there was marked with solemn remembrances. Dallas officers were honored for their actions the night of the ambush at a ceremony on Thursday, while Gov. Greg Abbott (R) asked all law enforcement officers to flash their squad car lights in unison on Friday morning.
“We were ambushed on our own streets and the City of Dallas lost five officers,” the Dallas Police Department said in a statement Friday. “Those remaining placed themselves and their emotions aside and fought the good fight until the threat was overcome. Every day, but especially today, we remember the men who sacrificed their lives for the safety of the citizens of Dallas, the men who left behind their loved ones to protect people they did not even know.”
— Dallas Police Dept (@DallasPD) July 7, 2017
In New York, officials are still piecing together the background and actions of Alexander Bonds, the man they say killed Familia this week. Bonds had ranted against police on Facebook, and his behavior had grown so erratic that his girlfriend called 911, police said. Investigators say Bonds had been taken to a hospital for psychiatric treatment days before the shooting and that, according to his girlfriend, he was becoming paranoid that police were following him. Still, O’Neill, the police commissioner, left little doubt about what he thought motivated the shooting.
“Make no mistake about it: Officer Familia is dead because of one reason and one reason only,” he said Thursday. “And that’s Alexander Bonds and his hatred of police.”