In a deadly year for law enforcement, Florida leads the nation

More law enforcement officers were killed in Florida than any other state in 2011, one of the deadliest years nationally in recent history.

For the first time in 14 years, more law enforcement officers were killed by gunfire than traffic accidents, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit that tracks police deaths.

The sobering news was no surprise to Tampa Bay law enforcement.

In a 28-day stretch early this year, three St. Petersburg officers were gunned down. Earlier this month, a Lakeland police officer was fatally shot.

Tampa police lost two officers in 2010 and one in 2009.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said it's part of a fundamental shift.

"The mentality of the criminal has changed," Harmon said. "The consequences — the prison time — doesn't seem as meaningful as it once did."

Florida has lost 14 officers in the line of duty so far this year, including seven to gunfire. Across the United States, 173 officers have been killed — 68 with guns — an increase of 13 percent over 2010, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

That's a 42 percent increase over 2009, when 122 officers were killed. The 68 firearms-related deaths nearly match a decade-long high of 69 deaths set in 2007.

"I think that it tells you that there are more criminals out there that don't hesitate to shoot at and kill police officers as they try to run from the law," said Steve Groeninger, a spokesman for the organization.

Harmon said he can't pinpoint a reason for the change in the criminal mentality.

One major problem, he said, is the availability of firearms to criminals, noting that he thinks more guns are available to criminals than in the past.

To combat that, St. Petersburg police run a gun bounty program, paying for tips about illegal guns to get them off the street. Tampa recently held a guy buy-back program of its own.

Tampa Bay has seen a brutal stretch of officer shootings.

St. Petersburg K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger were gunned down Jan. 24 by a fugitive hiding in an attic. Officer David Crawford was fatally shot Feb. 21 as he was trying to question Nicholas Lindsey, the 16-year-old accused of killing him.

St. Petersburg also lost a private security officer, Mathew F. Little, in May as he patrolled a large apartment complex.

On Dec. 18, Lakeland police Officer Arnulfo Crispin was shot in the head while he searched people in a park.

Four of Florida's 14 law enforcement deaths were traffic-related, including the July 3 high-speed chase that killed Hernando County Deputy John Mecklenburg.

But these deaths represent a small portion of the danger law enforcement face every day. Dozens of incidents involving near-lethal violence against Tampa Bay officers occurred this year.

Officers were shot at in drive-by shootings, attacked with Molotov cocktails and nail guns, rammed with vehicles and golf carts, chased with machetes and threatened with knives. Sometimes they have taken lethal action to defend themselves.

There have been several close calls.

A Hillsborough deputy was shot three times and survived after answering a domestic violence call. A school resource officer was stabbed by a 13-year-old who tried to take his weapon.

After Florida, Texas had the most law enforcement fatalities with 13. New York had 11; California and Georgia each had 10.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

173Law enforcement officers killed nationwide in the line of duty this year.

68 Of those officers nationwide killed with guns.

7 Officers in Florida killed by gunfire in 2011. There have been 14 killed in total.

42 Percent increase in officer deaths nationwide over 2009, when 122 were killed.

In a deadly year for law enforcement, Florida leads the nation 12/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 10:47pm]

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