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Tampa Bay area officers weather storm of attacks

TAMPA — The men and women of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office who work the midnight shift in District 3 gathered this week to talk about how their platoon almost lost one of their own — again.

Deputy Lyonelle De Veaux is recovering from being shot three times at close range on Sept. 30. Her platoon met with counselors on Wednesday, but they've been through this before.

Three of the squad exchanged gunfire with a suspect on Jan. 22. Another member, Deputy Miguel Galarza, was shot through the neck while trying to handcuff a home invasion suspect in 2009.

"They're rattled, to be honest," said their commander, Hillsborough Capt. Andy Ross. "They're professionals. They go on. But it does get your attention when something like this happens . . . how violence can just explode without warning.

"That's a reality check."

Violence comes with the job. But increasingly, the badge seems more like a bullseye in Tampa Bay.

Four police officers and a private security officer have died on the job this year. There have been more than two dozen incidents in which violence was used against Tampa Bay officers, according to a review of news accounts, some ending with officers taking lethal action to defend themselves.

Officers have had guns, vehicles and even a golf cart aimed at them in 2011. They've been chased with machetes and threatened with knives. They've had suspects try to wrest away their handguns and Tasers.

Across the nation, 144 officers have died on the job in the past year; Florida is second in the nation with 11 deaths.

In Tampa Bay, nine officers have been killed in the line of duty since 2009. The latest casualty: Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg, who died during a chase on July 3.

It's a reality that is affecting how officers do their jobs.

"We're not on edge, we're not jumpy by any means," said St. Petersburg police Officer Doug Weaver, decorated for his actions in the Jan. 24 gunfight that killed two of his fellow officers.

"But we are aware of what's going on. We are more aware of our surroundings.

"We want to go home at the end of the night."

• • •

Sister Anne Dougherty sees the change when she rides on patrol with Tampa officers these days.

The Franciscan nun has been a police chaplain for six years. In the past two years, three Tampa officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty: Cpl. Mike Roberts in 2009, and Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab in 2010.

"Now when they come up to a scene they say, 'Hold on Sister Anne,' " she said. "They'll tell me to stay in the car."

Officers are trained to look for signs of danger. But now they are even more alert.

"They're dealing with (the violence) as well as can be expected," said Pinellas Fraternal Order of Police president Robert "Bodie" D'Andrea, a Pinellas sheriff's sergeant. "I would say they're more aware of their surroundings. More vigilant.''

The changes go beyond attitude, as law enforcement looks out for its own.

"They're making sure there's backup nearby," said Rick Cochran, senior vice president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association. "In the past we've always used backup. But there were times when you tried to do things yourself. Officers are a lot more cautious now.''

But Cochran, a Tampa detective, said officers don't choose a career in law enforcement career without accepting the risks:

"You realize the danger's there. If it's in you, you stay in it."

• • •

The violent incidents reflect a disturbing change that veteran officers have seen evolving for years: The people they encounter seem more willing to confront the police than ever before.

Retired St. Petersburg Detective Neil Fraley first saw it in 2003, when an armed robber leveled a handgun at him.

Fraley and other officers fired first. The suspect survived and is serving 15 years. Then in 2008 and 2009, two of Fraley's colleagues were shot and nearly killed while confronting suspects.

"When we pointed a gun at an armed suspect, they used to drop their weapon or they turned around and ran," Fraley said. "But in the last few years it just seems that their first reaction is not to surrender. It's to point a gun at the officer and challenge them."

Officers say they've always been wary of hardened criminals, the ones who vow they'd rather die than go back to prison. Felon Dontae Morris, accused of killing Curtis and Kocab in Tampa, fits that mold. So did Hydra Lacy Jr., the fugitive convict who shot and killed St. Petersburg K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger on Jan. 24.

"There is no deadlier foe than a person who just does not care," said Weaver.

Perhaps more alarming is someone like Nicholas Lindsey, the 16-year-old accused of gunning down St. Petersburg Officer David Crawford on Feb. 21. Crawford was trying to question the teen, who police say shot Crawford as the officer held a notebook.

"If he had just turned and ran, Dave Crawford would be alive and that kid would be home with his mom," Fraley said.

• • •

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 144 officers died on the job from Jan. 1 to Oct. 7 this year — a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2010.

Officers are most often killed in vehicle-related incidents. But this year there's been a 24 percent rise in deaths by firearms (52 compared to 42 last year.) Traffic deaths fell 13 percent.

Yet overall, crime across the nation and the Tampa Bay area has been dropping for years.

"How do you square the two? I don't have an answer for it," Fraley said. "Maybe it's an aberration. Maybe this will turn back around.

"But it is scary out there. I still have friends out there on the street. I worry about them. We all do."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Attacks on officers

A rundown of the more than 2 dozen incidents this year in which suspects have used violence against Tampa Bay law enforcement officers. Go to links.tampabay.com.

Tampa Bay area officers weather storm of attacks 10/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 8, 2011 12:08am]

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