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Two officers shot, the morning news blared - shocking, and hauntingly familiar.

Sometimes when I walk through the Hillsborough courthouse - not the fancy floors with the civil lawyers in sleek suits but the grittier criminal courts - I see them in my head, Ricky and Randy, waiting outside a courtroom to testify while watching the parade of humanity pass.

They would take the stand to yes-sir and no-sir attorneys who could not imagine their world, the daily grist of two seasoned Tampa police detectives. Passing through those halls before them were victims, the accused and the guilty, the tattooed and scarred, weeping mothers and soon-to-be fatherless children and girlfriends ready to testify that it didn't really happen like that.

Randy Bell was more reserved. In my head, he is always at parade rest in that hallway, nodding a polite hello. Ricky Childers didn't know the meaning of reserved - always moving, smiling in his natty suspenders and nice ties. It's been 12 years and I can still hear him saying, "Hello, young lady" like he always did.

He was pure Ricky in that last news video after they questioned a bad guy named Hank Earl Carr, suspected of shooting his girlfriend's little boy dead. There had been a brief chase ending with Carr's arrest, and Ricky made a little joke as he passed the camera, something about being in his 40s but still getting it done.

Carr turned out to be badder than anyone imagined, a monster with his own hidden handcuff key, and by the time he escaped and led an insane chase and later shot himself, two good cops were dead by his hand, and another, a young trooper named Brad Crooks. They were cop's cops. You always hear that afterward, when tough men and women weep for fallen brothers and sisters, but it was true.

Every time we get news of bullets and an officer down, of Lois Marrero and Bo Harrison and Ron Harrison, and unbelievably, not even a year ago, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts, shot checking on a guy pushing a shopping cart down the street," I think: How do they do it?

How is it they grow up wanting to be cops more than anything else? How do they wake up and shower and have coffee and kiss the kids and talk about what time's dinner and head out, not knowing if they will come home again?

How do they step into a world where anyone they meet might be the end of them, might have a gun or a handcuff key or a mind twisted by mental illness or drugs, or just be spitting mean? How do they witness horrors people inflict on each other - child abuse, rape, murder, every kind of hurt - and go home and sleep and the next morning get up and do it again?

We are hard on cops, because we trust them with guns and amazing authority. We also expect the world from them, expect them to keep us safe. When we sometimes find those who do it for the wrong reasons, the bullies or the power hungry, we pounce. I guess that's as it should be.

But they are Ricky and Randy, and now Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, young officers killed on a dark and random Tuesday before dawn, while the rest of us slept. They are all the others who do a job we could not imagine in our wildest dreams or worst nightmares.

They love it, even, and will tell you so, even if this is impossible to imagine on a day stained with tears, like this one.

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Times contributors

Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Marlene Sokol, Nandini Jayakrishna, Jessica Vander Velde, Shelley Rossetter, Danny Valentine, Robbyn Mitchell, Ben Montgomery, Lane DeGregory, Janet Zink, Colleen Jenkins, John Martin, Tim Rozgonyi, Kim Wilmath, Skip O'Rourke, Justin George, Jamal Thalji, Laura J. Nelson and Jared Leone contributed to this report