Cops More Vigilant, Assertive After Officer Deaths

JAMAL THALJI, Tampa Bay Times
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Cops more vigilant, assertive after officer deaths. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cops more vigilant, assertive after officer deaths. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — One year after two law enforcement officers died in a gunbattle with a fugitive hiding in an attic, the dangers police face on the street are the same as ever.

The cops facing them are not.

Habits have changed. Senses have sharpened. Nothing is routine. Everyone is more concerned about safety.

Jan. 24, 2011, stays with them. It was the day that St. Petersburg Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz of the canine unit died while trying to handcuff the suspect. The day Deputy U.S. Marshal Scott Ley fell wounded from the attic where the fugitive hid. The day Sgt. Thomas Baitinger lost his life trying to rescue them both.

Every officer saw the caskets, the 21-gun salute. The ultimate sacrifice became more than an abstract notion.

“One of the things I ask new officers all the time is, have you guys done your wills?” said Officer Doug Weaver, who earned the city’s Medal of Valor for his actions that day. “I tell them, if you’re coming to this job thinking you may not get killed, you’re not prepared to do this job.”

___

The alpha cop

On the streets, Doug Weaver is a living legend.

Every cop he meets wants to shake his hand. They want to know what it was like as the bullets flew on Jan. 24.

Did the training kick in? Yes.

Did he think about his family? No.

Did he get tunnel vision? No.

Weaver, a St. Petersburg officer since 1989, was on the rescue team that plunged into the house after the shooting started. He reached up and tried to pull Yaslowitz from the attic as gunshots fell all around. He helped the wounded marshal escape, then went back in for Baitinger, who was unconscious.

Later, he led the SWAT team back into the house to get Yaslowitz — even though he knew his fellow officer was already dead.

“I don’t want pats on the back,” Weaver, 47, said. “I don’t do this job for the kudos. But I hear it: ‘You’re that officer. You’re Weaver.’ “

He is now assigned to the Pinellas County Violent Crimes Task Force, formed six months ago to target guns and violent offenders. The 16 officers, men and women, think of themselves as “alphas” — cops who thrive on adrenaline.

On a recent Saturday afternoon they gathered to plan their night: search for wanted drug dealers, canvass two St. Petersburg apartment complexes for tips, then scour the city for anything suspicious.

Weaver escaped with his life on Jan. 24, but not without injury. When the shooting finally stopped, Weaver had two bulging discs in his neck, a torn rotator cuff and tinnitus in his ears.

He returned to work 10 days later, and more injuries have followed.

On the unit’s very first day, Aug. 3, Weaver got into a tussle with a man he was trying to arrest. The suspect threw a door at the officer, shook off a Taser blast, climbed over a fence and kept swinging as Weaver took him down.

Weaver tore his right hamstring and a knee ligament in the struggle. He injured his right hand in a doorjamb while making an arrest in October. Then, in December, he injured his neck and other knee when a minivan turned in front of his cruiser.

His fellow cops enjoy mocking him about it, especially when a reporter is around.

You should interview workers’ comp, they suggest.

To him: Have you even worked four straight weeks?

The jokes help them deal with dangers that seem worse than ever. Even before Jan. 24, Weaver and his fellow cops had seen a distinct change in suspects’ behavior.

“We knew they want to get away and they’ll hurt you to get away,” Weaver said. “But now they’re willing to kill you to get away. I had a guy throwing a door at me, for gosh sakes.”

Weaver is solidly built, with a thin moustache and a friendly smile that belies his resume: He is a SWAT officer and the city’s lead sniper instructor. Exactly the kind of officer Pinellas sheriff’s Lt. Paul Halle wants on his task force.

“A cop on a regular traffic stop is in just as much danger as one of our guys,” said Halle, the unit’s commander. “We can’t control what the bad guys do. But at least we have a plan.”

That plan is to overwhelm the bad guys. When the unit is looking for a wanted suspect, doing surveillance work or just going door to door asking for the public’s help, they do it in force. The team constantly practices tactical scenarios so they can make difficult arrests without waiting for SWAT.

On this Saturday, the monotony was interrupted by an officer screaming into her radio: “Code Zero! Code Zero!”

Meaning armed and dangerous.

The task force raced to the Sweetbay Supermarket on 22nd Avenue S and found a squat, bearded man already in handcuffs and arguing with officers.

Here’s what had happened: The officers decided to follow a silver Impala with dark tinted windows. The driver parked in the Sweetbay lot, the officers behind him.

The driver was irate about being stopped. He got out and demanded to know why the cops were following him.

An officer spotted a pistol under the driver’s T-shirt. They cuffed him and put him in the back of the cruiser, both sides still yelling.

To the officers, the Impala was begging to get pulled over. Its windows — and windshield — were covered in dark, illegal tint. Cops don’t like dark tint, especially the kind so dark that you can’t see someone inside with a gun.

The officers ended up citing the driver for his tint, but ultimately let him go. Turns out he had a concealed-weapons permit. They returned his gun — unloaded.

This is the new reality. Officers will act more quickly to defuse a situation.

If someone is yelling, an officer will yell louder. If someone is squaring up for a fight, he’ll be in handcuffs before he can throw the first punch. To officers, it’s about checking aggression, ending confrontations before they start, keeping things from spiraling out of control.

“It’s just like you heard: Code Zero, gun, the radio goes dead and cars start flying,” Weaver said. “That’s the normal response to those situations. But you used to think it always came out in favor of us.

“You don’t think that anymore.”

___

Not done with the job yet

Joe Lehmann should have been working that day. But two weeks before the shooting, he crushed his left index finger while remodeling his bathroom.

Yaslowitz had volunteered to fill in.

After Yaslowitz’s death, Lehmann wrestled with his feelings.

“He was there when I should have been working,” Lehmann, 51, said. “He made the ultimate sacrifice for his family, but it was for my family, too.”

Like every other officer in the city, Lehmann rushed to the hospital that day.

He got home late, but his wife, daughters, 21 and 16, and 10-year-old son were waiting.

“I looked in their eyes,” he said. “I saw how scared they were, knowing that could have been me.”

These days, Lehmann, his brown hair showing more signs of gray, struggles less with the big questions. Instead, he focuses on the example Yaslowitz set.

“You can play a lot of what-ifs. You can beat yourself to death,” Lehmann said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. I’m striving to be the type of person he was.”

Lehmann is a K-9 officer, so he doesn’t spend his days breaking up domestic fights or writing tickets. When patrol needs a dog, it’s to chase bad guys or search for a gun, knife or some kind of evidence.

K-9s are hard chargers, and handlers go where their dogs go. That can lead them straight into danger.

In 2006, Polk sheriff’s Deputy Matt Williams and his K-9 partner, DiOGi, were shot and killed by a suspect they were tracking. In 2009, minutes after a suspect had fatally wounded Tampa Cpl. Mike Roberts, it was K-9 Officer Sandra Learned and her dog, Koda, who tracked down his killer.

When Lehmann’s German shepherd, Kentucky, latches onto a suspect’s scent, he doesn’t just scramble after the dog by himself anymore. He makes sure he has another officer backing him up.

And a suspect hiding in bushes no longer gets three warnings.

“Now we tell them to come out or we’re sending in the dog,” Lehmann said. “It’s kind of hard to put it in words. I’m more . suspicious. Put it that way. More aware. I’m more alert.”

Lehmann can hear a similar urgency in the voices of the dispatchers when an officer doesn’t answer a radio call. Dispatch is quicker to send someone to find him. Backup arrives faster. Officers are watching out for others more.

“Everybody thinks: ‘Let’s make sure everybody is safe. Let’s make sure everyone goes home,’ ” he said.

Life at home also has changed.

Lehmann is more appreciative of his family, of what he has at home, and he worries about what his kids would have to go through if they lost him. When his son wants to play catch, he doesn’t say he’s tired anymore.

“I knew what I got into when I got into this,” Lehmann said. “My wife knew what she got into when she married me. But the kids had no choice.”

His family has not asked him to leave K-9. His time in the unit may be coming to an end anyway. Kentucky is 7. When the dog retires in a couple of years, Lehmann will have to decide whether to train another dog or find another assignment.

But his family knows he isn’t ready to leave just yet.

“They’d be happy if I was retired right now,” Lehmann said. “But they understand. I’m not going to do that.”

___

Kids with guns

The loss of three officers last year motivated the St. Petersburg Police Department to examine what else could be done to keep officers safe.

The result was $500,000 in new gear, the most sweeping changes in firepower and equipment in years.

The city bought new .40-caliber Glock pistols with lights mounted under the muzzle, like the ones SWAT had carried into the house with them. They ordered new, lighter ballistic shields, better than the one Baitinger was holding when he was shot. They ordered the city’s first armored vehicle, like the sheriff’s vehicle that punched holes into the fugitive’s home during the standoff.

They ordered large, pole-mounted mirrors for attic searches and new bullet-resistant vest options, and lent money to officers so they could buy their own AR-15 semiautomatic rifles.

The department moved fast by bureaucratic standards. Lt. Antonio Gilliam tried to move even faster. The commander of the Street Crimes Unit bought a ballistic shield and telescoping mirrors for his team weeks after the shooting from his unit’s budget.

Then they emphasized rescue strategies and attic searches in their regular drills. The unit tackles street-level drugs and crime. They dress in black and travel in packs. Gilliam, 34, commands two dozen officers who regularly work the streets.

How often does he worry about losing one? “Every day,” said the lieutenant, a muscular guy who stands straight as an arrow.

Gilliam wants his officers to be safe, but there is a fine line between being safe and being too aggressive.

“You can’t be hyper-vigilant,” he said. “You have to remember everyone is a citizen first and not a suspect.”

The unit spent a recent Friday using a popular tactic used by many special police units: the undercover spotter. Officers in plainclothes and plain cars look for anything suspicious or illegal. Then they guide in uniformed officers to stop the suspect, investigate, and, if the information checks out, make an arrest.

Officers Jenna Roberts, 30, and Alberto Ramos, 31, pulled into the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center on 22nd Street S to surveil a known drug spot.

They happened to see a young black man in a sweatshirt and baseball cap hunched over the driver’s door of a 2005 gray convertible BMW.

“There’s no way that’s his car,” Ramos said over the radio.

Any doubts about whether the young man was the owner evaporated when he ducked down and lay flat on the asphalt.

“There’s a lookout on 13th (Street S)” Ramos radioed his squad. “No one approach on 13th.”

Officer Terry Nemeth responded, his unmarked car escaping the attention of the lookout as it drove right past.

Nemeth, 28, reached into the backseat and pulled on his bullet-resistant vest as he swung the steering wheel around. Then the order was given. Close in.

The would-be thief sprinted from the police cruisers that suddenly appeared. His red cap flew off and Nemeth saw something silver in his hand as he ran. Probably a screwdriver, Nemeth thought. But maybe a gun.

Nemeth drove over the curb and around two police cruisers blocking the intersection, and whipped around a corner to cut off the suspect.

The suspect was winded and looking behind him when Nemeth slammed on the brakes in front of him.

“Get on the ground!” Nemeth screamed at him, halfway out of the car. “Get on the ground!”

Two officers charged out of the bushes and pulled the young man to the ground. Officers who retraced his steps found a screwdriver in the weeds. They arrested the lookout, too.

The would-be thief turned out to be 15. He had popped the BMW’s ignition but couldn’t start it.

The lookout was 14. Both teens had long rap sheets, but Gilliam was most troubled by the 14-year-old’s history. He had more than 30 criminal charges on his record. He was accused of shooting someone last year, but the case was later dropped.

Officers can’t treat kids like kids anymore, Gilliam said.

“Now when an officer encounters a teenager,” he said, “they could have a gun on them, they could be in a stolen car.”

Gilliam shook his head: “That’s what Crawford was responding to.”

St. Petersburg Officer David Crawford was trying to question a teen prowler when he was shot and killed downtown on Feb. 21, 2011. Crawford became the third officer to die in the line of duty in 28 days.

The suspect was 16.

Armed teenagers. One more thing for a street officer to worry about, like dark tint and dark attics.

“There’s nothing scarier than walking up to the car and you see someone reaching under the seat,” Gilliam said. “Is it drugs? Is it a gun? You have to make so many split-second decisions in this job.”

What’s scarier, the lieutenant said, is that officers can make all the right decisions, do everything they’ve been trained to do, and it still might not make a difference.

“It’s come to the point where you can be a Robocop and do everything right and things can still go wrong,” Gilliam said, snapping his fingers. “Just. Like. That.”

 

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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