Three St. Petersburg police officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty this year, as were three Tampa officers in the past two years. So National Police Week, which begins today, is an especially sobering time for local law enforcement officers. Nationally, 33 officers have been killed by gunfire this year, a rise of 57 percent over the same period last year. As people across the nation and the Tampa Bay area pause today to remember those who have fallen, we askedsome officers to reflect on the jobs they do. Here are their stories.
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Joe Lehmann, 50, St. Petersburg K-9 officer
Joe Lehmann broke a finger remodeling his bathroom, but he knew K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz would step forward to cover his shift, duty that would take him to 3734 28th Ave. S at 7 a.m. on Jan. 24 to serve a warrant to Hydra Lacy Jr.
"That's a hard thing for me to talk about," Lehmann says. "I'm numb. I'm just numb, you know?"
He remembers how Jeff and Lorraine Yaslowitz chose his 50th birthday party over celebrating their wedding anniversary.He won't erase the text messages he and Sgt. Tom Baitinger exchanged watching Green Bay beat Chicago in the NFC championship the night before he died.
"Since the shootings, people come up and say 'sorry to bother you, I just want to thank you for your service.' You're not bothering me, you're helping me. It helps the healing process to know there are people outside the department that care." He has 25 years of service and could retire in November. But he won't. "If we all quit, the bad guys win. You can't let the bad element win." That's what he tells his 9-year-old son when he asks him not to go to work anymore.
"We don't do this job for the money. We do it because we care. ... There is not one officer in this department that would not go down that dark alley tomorrow, even understanding the consequences. If we all say 'I'm not going to be the one to walk down that alley' who's going to be the one to do it?"
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Detectives Danny and Dusty Rhodes, 35, Tampa Police Department
Dusty figures God created Danny, born one minute before him, as a rough copy. He brags that he is the final draft. Danny counters that since he came out first, Dusty must be the leftovers.
But the twins have always told people they are a package deal. From their first job as baggers at Shop Right, to their second job waiting tables, to their college baseball scholarship offers, you could take both or you just wouldn't get either.
For a brief 2-1/2 years after college, they were not living together and doing the same job. While Dusty was playing minor league ball with the Yankees, Danny came home to Tampa to be a police officer. Dusty would wait up every night to hear Danny's "war stories" over the phone. Danny had been chasing this guy, arresting that guy. So Dusty came home. Really he was a cop before he was a cop. Which is to say his brother was a cop before he was a cop. Which is pretty much the same thing.
For Danny it was never a question.
"I've always known I wanted to be a police officer, since I was 10. It's just one of those things. I've always known. Starsky and Hutch. CHiPs. COPS. Magnum P.I., that was huge."
Danny is on the SWAT team. When an officer is shot in Tampa he is first to go after the killer. So when bad news breaks, before it even sinks in, Dusty, who works Property Crime, calls Danny. Then he prays. ASAP is his policy. Always Say A Prayer.
He says he doesn't worry about him.
"If he went like Mike Roberts, Kocab or Curtis, I know where he's going, and he knows where he's going. God wants him up there, and it's way better than here anyway," Dusty begins to explain.
Danny finishes the thought. "We've talked about this many times. God does have a plan, and you just don't question your creator. We're called to do this. God calls the peacemakers to be in our position. He gives us the talents, the energy and the courage to do what we do. If he didn't give you those things you wouldn't be a cop. You would be something else."
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Rodney Davis, 45, Pinellas Sheriff's honor guard
Deputy Rodney Davis, 45, never looks directly at the family of the deceased. His eyes stay unfocused at the back of the church, but the silence makes it impossible not to hear as they begin to weep. He tunes it out with a mantra; "Remember me but let me go. Don't cry for me. I died doing what I love."
He is not allowed emotions. His role is to be stoic. He walks down the aisle to the casket of Deputy Kenneth R. Lilly Jr., who died in a motorcycle accident. Lilly had lost his wife two months earlier, leaving behind 7- and 10-year-old boys. Davis reaches the casket and presents arms, slowly. Renders salute, slowly. He will turn and call Deputy Lilly's name three times. No reply will come. The space will be a vacuum to allow the family to grieve. Final Roll Call is the highest honor of the service, and the moment that brings the most tears. He executes his about-face, and for the first and only time in his long career, he breaks the rule.
He looks down at the children.
"I paused, it seemed like 60 seconds, and then I went through it. I had to pull myself together and say this is about the family. This isn't about me. This is about giving him his Final Roll Call."
In 55 funerals, that moment more than five years ago is as close as he has come to showing emotion. Tears are something for everyone else. His wife shakes her head, she asks him how he does it, she honestly doesn't know.
He isn't exactly sure how he does it either. But he is crystal clear on why.
"It hurts sometimes, oh, of course it does, but the family deserves to be provided the highest honor for what our men and women do," he explains. "Do I want it? No. If I never had to do another roll call again it would be fine with me, but if it has to be done, guess what? I'm the one to want to do it."
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Sgt. Cynthia Gibson, 49, Deputy Eric Gibson, 43, Pinellas Sheriff's Office, and Makayla Gibson, 9
When Makayla Gibson was 6, her mom went under a bridge to look for a crime weapon. A man tried to run her down with his car. She shot him. The psychiatrist clearing her for duty asked if she had discussed the shooting and the dangers of her job with her daughter. You should. Your daughter knows what's going on whether you talk about it or not. That night Gibson and her husband, a SWAT team member, got out their tactical gear. They explained what everything is for. Why they wear it;what could happen if they don't. Now Makayla is 9. Talking openly has always been the right choice, but the recent police shootings worry her. What will happen to her if her parents die? After watching Officer David Crawford's funeral on television, she wrote a poem for her father on school notebook paper:
When you protect me from criminals,
I admire you more
But you being my Dad I just adore.
But when a police officer dies,
I'm glad it's not you.
Because if it were you,
I don't know what I would do.
A picture of a torn heart fills the bottom of the page.
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Seminole High School Resource Officer Deputy Brettina Adams, 46
Deputy Brettina Adams sits on the floor with a group of kindergartners doing her "the deputy is your friend" shtick. She's done it hundreds of times.
She's letting the kids know you can go to a cop if you are lost, if you need help, if something is going on at home, if you are unsafe ...when a little voice next to her pipes up, "I wish I could get that gun so I could shoot you in the head."
She looks at the brown-eyed, round-faced 6-year-old boy, stunned, and tells him they'll talk about that after class. Ends up he had recently seen his father get arrested by deputies.
What would you do? If you were Adams you would make a habit of going back to the same school every Tuesday. You would walk the boy to class and listen to whatever he had to say. By the time he was in fifth grade he was waiting for her, bursting to tell her about his week. "He was actually a good kid," she says. And maybe a headline that never happened. She believes in early intervention, in an ounce of prevention over a pound of cure.
"Cops adapt and overcome. To quote the cliche, 'Failure is not an option.' When officers are killed we can't just pack up and go home. We've got to win the day. How are we going to impact these kids to make them think differently? How are we going to change their life?," she asks. "Every life touches another life. If I change one life, that's going to change a lot of other lives, and that's going to change a lot of other lives."
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Michael McNamara, 22, Tampa police recruit
Michael McNamara, 22, wants to be the guy who always does the right thing. He is the son of retired Major George McNamara and Lt. Gerry McNamara, both household names in the Tampa police family. Which explains his absolute clarity about the right thing and the value of being someone who can be relied on to do it. It also explains why he has known he would grow up to be a cop since kindergarten.
Legacy is a burden. He remembers as a kid being dropped off regularly at Pop-Pop's house because his parents had to go to work unexpectedly. They would tell him "something bad happened." His mom and dad had to help. Then, when he was in fourth grade, he saw his father crying on television during the evening news. Somebody named Hank Earl Carr had killed two of the men that used to come over on weekends to barbecue. "That's probably one of the biggest things I remember from my childhood. It sort of shook a lot of things clear when Detectives Bell and Childers were murdered. It was like, wow, Mom and Dad really might not come home." Suddenly, being the guy who will always do the right thing seemed harder than he thought.
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Undercover detective, St. Petersburg Police
The man behind the mask lives in two worlds. The first is a world of armed 11-year-olds, blood-splattered rooms, exit wounds, junkies and adrenaline-charged chases through dark apartments. The other, normal world is about getting sodas in the minivan for soccer games, Christmas plays and camping.
He has vowed to keep the worlds completely separate. But what he sees at work makes him fear for his 14-year-old. Being a kid has changed radically in the last few of his 26 years as a cop. "Twelve-, 14-year-olds are going to school and doing the same kind of things any kid does and then later that night they're selling dope, handling guns and trying to be another person. That's not a natural role for a kid. They're not mature enough and aren't thinking about the consequences of their actions." Sitting on the bleachers watching his son play hockey, he points to the children and tells parents what he sees kids their age doing. He tells them what makes the news is just the tip of the iceberg. He watches their blood run cold and wonders if he should be mixing worlds. He really wants to keep them apart. But they need to know how close the two worlds really are.
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Detective Tim Brown, 46, St. Petersburg Police
Detective Tim Brown's 19-year-old son, tears in his eyes, pressed a lucky medallion into his father's hand as he walked out the door the night of Feb. 21 to help look for Officer David Crawford's killer. Until this year, the people who played softball with his dad didn't get killed. Brown's wife now texts him "I love you" three or four times a day. Brown has always carried a bulletproof vest, but it has moved from the trunk to the passenger seat, and he has relearned how to put it on while driving to a call. "I've been here 23 years. You get used to checking on and checking off. ... I mean I've been in knockdown drag-out fights, hit with beer bottles, knocked unconscious. You get your bumps and bruises and scuffles. I've had my share of those, but you don't think anything really bad is going to happen." You expect to go home from work. "Until you got some 16-year-old kid trying to steal a car. ... If he gets caught he would have been booked in, called his parents and been home that night. Instead he thinks 'I'm gonna shoot a police officer.'" And everything changes.