St. Petersburg Police Sgt. Tom Baitinger rose through the ranks and previously served as an officer and a detective. Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz loved being a member of the canine unit. Both were well-respected veterans in a department that had not lost a member in the line of duty in three decades. They were selflessly performing their jobs Monday when they were shot and killed at a house where police tried to serve a warrant. Their deaths shocked a city unaccustomed to such violence, and they remind us all of the danger police officers face every day.
Even the most routine police assignments carry considerable risk. A St. Petersburg police officer, a member of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office and a U.S. marshal carried an arrest warrant for Hydra Lacy Jr. Monday morning and did not expect him to be at the house on 28th Avenue S. Yaslowitz, who had been headed home and volunteered to assist, was shot and fatally wounded inside the attic. The marshal was wounded, and Baitinger was shot and fatally wounded inside the house. There were heroic rescue efforts by their fellow officers. Lacy, who had a lengthy arrest record and was wanted on aggravated battery charges, was found dead in the house hours later.
Mayor Bill Foster and police Chief Chuck Harmon, who held a badge and a wedding ring from the slain officers in his hands at a news conference, performed well under the most difficult circumstances. They kept the community reasonably informed Monday morning even as the standoff continued to develop. Neighborhood residents were promptly evacuated, a nearby school was secured and no one else was hurt despite spurts of rapid gunfire. The methodical approach after the shootout was appropriate. The attention to detail, the professionalism and human decency by the mayor and the police chief were reassuring to the entire city.
"I considered them friends, and I'm going to miss them,'' said Harmon before turning to the heartache felt by his officers and their commitment to keeping St. Petersburg safe. "Although this is the worst day you could imagine, they are still out there doing their job, protecting their community.''
There are no routine police functions that are immune to violence. As St. Petersburg lost two police officers Monday, services were held in Miami for two Miami-Dade officers who were killed last week while serving an arrest warrant. Last June, two Tampa police officers were shot and killed at a traffic stop. While the crime rate nationally and statewide is down, violence can erupt without warning as police officers perform their selfless duties. It is particularly jarring in St. Petersburg, where a police officer had not died in the line of duty since 1980.
The entire Tampa Bay region will respond with support and tributes for the families of the officers who gave their lives Monday to protect the rest of us. There will be time to contemplate why Lacy had been at large and whether police training and procedures can be improved. This morning, remember the heroic efforts of St. Petersburg police Officers Tom Baitinger and Jeffrey Yaslowitz. Let us honor their sacrifice.