Unusual Wave of Violence Strikes Police Officers
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MIAMI -- As thousands of law enforcement officers gathered inside the American Airlines Arena here Monday morning for a funeral for two slain Miami-Dade police officers, news quickly spread that two more officers had been shot and killed a few hours earlier -- this time in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It was an eerie repeat of the police shootings last Thursday in Miami. In both cases, officers were killed as they tried to serve an arrest warrant.
"This is a chief's worst nightmare," said St. Petersburg's police chief, Chuck Harmon. "To lose two officers in one day is a tremendous loss to our department and our community."
The Florida shootings are part of a wave of violence that law enforcement officials called highly unusual. Thirteen officers have been shot in the United States since Thursday, four fatally and several others critically wounded.
"It's unbelievable," said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research group in Washington. "I can't remember this many shootings happening in such a short period of time."
Already this year, 10 police officers have been killed in the line of duty, after an especially deadly year for law enforcement. In 2010, 61 federal, state and local officers were killed by gunfire, a 24 percent increase from 2009, when 49 were killed in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group.
"It's a very troubling trend where officers are being put at greater risk than ever before," said Craig W. Floyd, the group's chairman. "Many of these criminals are outgunning our police officers. We're seeing criminals with high-velocity clips on their guns."
The police shootings come at a time when violent-crime rates are down markedly in most American cities.
One possible explanation for the spike in shootings is that many police departments increased their emphasis on executing arrest warrants against repeat violent offenders.
Mr. Wexler and several senior police officials said they also believed that the shootings reflected a broader lack of respect for authority in American society.
"This has become less of a horrific event to some," said Jody Weis, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, where five officers were shot and killed between June and December of last year, one of them while on duty. "Unfortunately, we have a lot of young men who are willing to shoot first."
In St. Petersburg, the two slain men were identified as Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48, and Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, both at least 10-year veterans. Officer Yaslowitz, who was married with three children, had finished his regular shift and was heading home when he responded to a call for backup. Sergeant Baitinger, who was married, was part of the backup team. Although he was wearing a bulletproof vest, Sergeant Baitinger was mortally wounded by a shot fired through the floor of the attic that hit an unprotected area, the police said.
Shortly before 7 a.m. Monday, a St. Petersburg officer and a United States Marshal's deputy, both of whom were members of a fugitive task force, arrived at a home in south St. Petersburg to serve a felony arrest warrant for aggravated battery to the suspect, Hydra Lacy Jr., 39. Mr. Lacy was a known sex offender, court records show. "He was someone we wanted to get off the streets," Chief Harmon said. "And after today obviously you can see why."
A woman at the house told the police that Mr. Lacy was hiding in the attic. After the police called for backup, one officer and the deputy marshal were shot in a gun battle. Not long afterward, another police officer who tried to rescue the injured deputy was shot and killed, the police said. In all, more than 100 bullets were exchanged between officers from a police SWAT team and the suspect, the authorities said.
The deputy marshal was listed in stable condition Monday.
By Monday afternoon, the police confirmed that they had found Mr. Lacy's body in the house. It was unclear whether he had shot himself or was killed in the gun battle.
Mr. Lacy was sentenced in Pinellas County, Fla., to 15 years for sexual battery with a weapon or force, and five years for false imprisonment and aggravated child abuse of a victim younger than 13, state criminal records show. He was released from state prison in 2001.
Mr. Lacy was the brother of Jeff Lacy, a former International Boxing Federation super-middleweight champion.
In south St. Petersburg, a resident who described himself as a friend of Mr. Lacy but who declined to give his name said that Mr. Lacy had recently told him the police were searching for him, but that he had vowed he would never return to prison.
First Published January 25, 2011 12:01 am