Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Romano: A cop dying on the street should not be so easily forgotten

Remember this:

The call that claimed the life of Tarpon Springs police Officer Charles Kondek was for a car stereo turned up too loud. For St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford, it was a prowler. And for Tampa cops Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, it was a car missing a stinking license plate.

Just like the two police officers killed in Kissimmee a few days ago after an encounter with a former Marine on a neighborhood street, it does not take a bank robbery or drug deal to turn a day deadly for a law enforcement officer.

For them, there is potential danger in every call.

For us, there is potential danger in ever forgetting that.

It's easy to do, you know. To read about two more cops dying on a distant street and dismiss it in a wasn't-that-awful sort of way. It's been more than two years since the latest cop killing in Tampa Bay, and so it's convenient to push that news aside. As if it is a random event without any relevance in our lives.

And on a day-to-day basis, that's probably true. We didn't know Kissimmee police officers Matthew Baxter or Sam Howard. We didn't know their families, their children, their hopes or their pasts.

But it's hard not to imagine that every violent law enforcement death in every town across America doesn't have some resonance for the cops patrolling your neighborhood.

"They used to tell us that there were no ordinary situations, and to always expect the unexpected,'' said St. Pete Assistant Police Chief Jim Previtera. "But the way things are going, you literally have to be aware every moment of the day and constantly keep your head on a swivel. And at the same time, we're telling these guys to get out more in the community and show compassion and engage residents. It's tough. We keep searching for the right answers, and they're hard to find.''

Guns are everywhere, and that makes many law-abiding Americans feel safer. But what does that mean for the cops who have to assume every person is armed as well as them?

Law enforcement officers are killed by gunfire on a pretty routine basis. Actually, a horrifyingly routine basis. Go back to January 2011 when St. Pete police officers Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Thomas Baitinger were killed while trying to apprehend a felon in his home.

Since then, on average, a cop has been killed somewhere in America every single week. Not a month has gone by in more than two years without a fatal cop attack. And the numbers were slightly higher in the 10 years before that. Just to clarify, none of that includes car accidents, helicopter crashes or stabbings. That's just cops killed with guns.

Recent years have brought more scrutiny on law enforcement as social media and cellphones have turned even the most routine encounters into viral videos and potential internal affairs investigations.

That isn't a bad thing if it helps get unqualified cops off the street, but it can also skew our impressions of what the great majority of law enforcement officers are doing on a daily basis. Heck, on an hourly basis.

These are not jobs to be taken for granted. Yes, it's easy to second guess, critique and criticize. And, yes, cops absolutely should be held to a higher standard.

But the overwhelming majority of police officers in this country are decent, hardworking and honorable men and women. They're not all heroes, and would probably never claim to be.

In that sense, they're not all that different from you and me. The only difference is that every single time they show up to work another shift, there is at least a sliver of a chance that they won't ever come home.

That's a distinction that should never be forgotten.

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