TAMPA — Two Tampa police officers shot to death in June. Another gunned down in August last year. If it seems as if the Tampa Police Department has endured more than its share of grief, the numbers back that up, a researcher says.
Tampa ranks second in Florida for officers murdered on the job, both in rate and number, according to a University of South Florida criminologist who studied 20 years of FBI statistics on the state's large and midsized police departments.
In that period, Tampa lost six officers in deaths regarded as felonies.
"We believe it's a reflection on the inherent danger and unpredictably of the law enforcement profession," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "We train and equip our officers to stay as safe as possible, but unfortunately tragedy has no boundaries."
Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, killed June 29, were following protocol, she said, and "there was nothing they could have done to prevent it from happening."
She said the department analyzes the circumstances surrounding each shooting to see if policy or training updates are needed.
The Broward County Sheriff's Office has buried one more officer than the Tampa police. Broward's force is about one-third larger than Tampa's.
In the USF study — conducted by associate criminology professor Lorie Fridell — the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office had the highest rate of officer killings. The North Florida agency has seen three officers shot to death in the past two years.
An Okaloosa Sheriff's Office spokesman said the agency hasn't changed any policies due to the shootings. But it now places more focus on Taser-related training for officers, said Capt. J.D. Peacock. In April 2009, two deputies were shot to death by a man who pulled a handgun after an officer shocked him with a Taser.
Broward Sheriff's Office spokesman Jim Leljedal said the agency has tweaked a few policies over the years, but he didn't elaborate.
"Basically, I like to lay the blame on the killer and not try to blame the policy," he said.
Tampa has seen more officers killed than several other regional law enforcement agencies combined. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office had two deaths in the past 20 years, and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office had one. No deaths were reported by Clearwater or St. Petersburg Police Departments, or by Sheriff's Offices in Hernando and Pinellas County.
Fridell's study did not include accidental deaths on the job, such as car crashes.
She looked only at agencies that had 200 or more sworn personnel in 1995. That left out the 1993 shooting death of Officer Jeffery Tackett, who worked for the Belleair Police Department.
Fridell said it's difficult to draw conclusions about Tampa from the data because officer killings are still unusual occurrences.
"It could be that these data just represent horrible bad luck in the Tampa jurisdiction," she said. "On the other hand, it would be worthwhile to explore whether there are areas that can be strengthened."
She mentioned that an agency with a high rate might look into whether there are training exercises or body armor available that could increase officer safety.
McElroy said that training has been a priority for police Chief Jane Castor since she took over in September. Tampa officers' jobs are dangerous because they initiate a lot of their work, McElroy said. They don't wait for 911 calls — they go out and investigate suspicious activities and people, she said.
"There's just countless times that our officers are confiscating guns and dealing with dangerous suspects, where things could go bad and they don't," she said. "The way we've been able to reduce the number of crimes that are committed in our city is through proactive policing."
Citywide, crime decreased 15.8 percent in 2009. It was the seventh consecutive year the crime rate has dropped, for a total decrease of 56 percent since 2002.
Mayor Pam Iorio said officer deaths have been a source of great sorrow for her.
Many times, she said, she asks herself "why?"
"There is no good answer," she said.
"I have learned that there is nothing routine about what our officers do everyday. Our officers are proactive and never stop trying to make Tampa a safer city."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.