Eight officers in a month. Four in 10 days. Across the country, law enforcement officer deaths captured media attention in August, creating concern for the community and officers here at home.
On Tuesday, word began getting out about one local church’s effort to support area law enforcement agencies.
“A gentleman approached me at QuikTrip and told me he and his church family at the Church at Liberty Square prayed over these and were handing them out to all the Law Enforcement officers they come into contact with. I don’t know if he’ll ever see this but it’s a blessing to me and it really turned my day around. I’m so glad to know our community is still behind the cause. I pray the blessings over this little cross follow me and my brothers and sisters and keep us safe!” read the Facebook status of Bartow County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Philip Abernathy above the photo of a small silver cross held between his fingers.
That cross was one of 200 produced by The Church at Liberty Square after the men’s Sunday school class led by Donnie Reeves came up with the idea.
“… Men in our church saw the need to pray for and support those in our local community that daily put themselves in harm’s way for our greater good. This grows out of a greater belief that our church embraces, that all authority comes from God,” Executive Pastor Dr. Jacob King said. “Romans 13:1-3 says, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval.’”
Sheriff Clark Millsap received his cross Wednesday night, along with his brother, Maj. Carey Millsap, while paying respects at a local funeral home.
“It makes you swell up with pride to know that there are groups out here — and I’m a Christian as you well know — for me to sit here and have this cross, this symbol, for them to pray over these and want to give them to law enforcement officers so that God’s shield of protection will be around us, it just makes you swell up to know there are people out here who support us like that,” the sheriff said. “When they handed that to me, it tugs at your heart strings. It makes you proud to be a law enforcement officer here in Bartow County.”
The show of support is immeasurable for Cartersville Police Chief Tommy Culpepper.
“I certainly cannot speak for how the officers here personally feel about that kind of support; I can tell you that I consider that type of support to be invaluable to both the organization and the individual and to me personally,” he said. “Personally, you can never have too many people praying for you, especially in this occupation.”
By recent reports, the occupation is an increasingly dangerous one. A Chicago-area officer on Tuesday was the eighth law enforcement officer shot and killed in the U.S. in the last month and the fourth in 10 days, according to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officers’ deaths so their names can be enshrined on a Washington, D.C., memorial. Steve Groeninger, a spokesman for the group, told The Associated Press that four fatal shootings in recent days is a higher rate than usual.
While the numbers appear alarming, shooting deaths of officers are actually down 13 percent compared with the same January-to-September period in 2014. There were 30 shootings last year and 26 this year. Those figures include state and local officers, as well as federal agents. The figures also include two accidental shootings, Groeninger said. Suicides are not included.
Deaths have declined through the decades. The average number of officer shooting deaths for the first six months of each year — which is how the memorial fund gauges trends — was 62 through the 1970s.
The worst half-year period over the past five decades was in 1973, when 84 officers were shot and killed in the first six months alone. Through the early 2000s, the six-month average fell to 29.
More than 20,500 names are inscribed in marble on the memorial in Washington. They include officers killed in attacks and in accidents from 1791 through 2015.
Both Millsap and Culpepper say the media plays a huge role in the recent targeting of law enforcement officers.
“The stigma that is being placed upon the law enforcement ... by the media [is behind the increase in the targeting of officers]. Very rarely in the news media do you see a positive light cast upon a law enforcement officer. ‘Oh, he did this.’ ‘He rescued these people.’ ‘He stopped this robbery.’ ‘He stopped this burglary,’” Millsap said. “… You look around this nation, all you will ever see is, every time a law enforcement officer [makes a mistake] they want to hammer it.”
The general discontent with government also bleeds over to the men and women behind The Thin Blue Line.
“My personal belief is that the incessant main stream media has been a major factor in that rhetoric. I will admit that there are times when law enforcement officers act stupidly and cause situations to go far beyond what should have happened,” Culpepper said. “We work very hard to emphasize the fact that we are an occupation based on trust and the rule of law. We are to be representatives of that law and not operate outside of the law. There is also a thread of general distrust in government today and that spills over into law enforcement.”
Groeninger cautioned that it was too soon to say if officer deaths are trending up.
“The data doesn't say that yet,” he said. He also said there is no clearly identifiable pattern in the killings and no conclusions to draw for now, other than “there are people out there who intend to harm police officers for whatever reason.”
During the last 12 months, six officers appear to have been targeted specifically because they worked in law enforcement, according to the memorial fund. That includes the Texas deputy, as well as two New York City officers who were shot and killed in December as they sat in their patrol car.
Elsewhere, an officer for the Housing Authority of New Orleans was fatally shot in his patrol car on May 24. In California, a San Jose Police Department officer was killed March 24 responding to a call that a man was threatening to kill himself. A Pennsylvania State Police officer was shot and killed on Sept. 14, 2014, outside a police barracks by someone wielding a rifle.
In 30 years as an officer, Millsap cannot recall such an anti-law enforcement climate.
“Now we went through several periods of they protested, they bashed us, they talked bad about us,” he said. “... I’ve never seen it to the point of officer’s getting shot, randomly getting shot. I’m not talking about in-the-performance-of-his-duties getting shot at or shot serving a warrant or something like that. That’s different. But, when you’ve got officers pumping gas in their patrol car and get executed; you’ve got another officer whose home off-duty and they break in his house and kill him; you’ve got officers sitting in their patrol car up in New York and they walk up behind them and kill both of them, sitting in their car not doing anything - I’ve never seen it to this point, no.”
While the tenor of public distrust is concerning, Culpepper believes his agency has an open relationship with the community.
“That said, anytime an officer falls in the line of duty is a tragedy for the family and the profession as a whole,” he said. “There seems to be an inequitable appreciation across the nation for those that place their lives on the line on a daily basis. Quite possibly many do not correlate the fact with that level of danger and their own community. Law enforcement is a dangerous profession regardless of the environment in which you work.”
Although support is evident in Bartow, concerns linger.
“We seem to have a lot of support from all aspects and all cultures here in the county. I hope it doesn’t get to that,” Millsap said. “… I don’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction because we have always been vigilant about watching your back, watching your surroundings, don’t get tunnel vision. … We all have concerns. Every law enforcement officer in the United States of America and throughout the world now has the same concerns.
“The thing that bothers me most is the stigma that has been put on any law enforcement officer, whether he be white, whether he be black, whether he be Hispanic, whether he be Muslim.”
Initially started with 200 crosses, The Church at Liberty Square is formulating plans to increase the distribution of the symbols and highlight the need to pray for the public safety community.
“… Across our nation, we are witnessing an ever-increasing wave of violence that seems to span all walks of life. We feel the cross is the only appropriate response to this crisis, as the cross itself symbolizes not only sacrifice but also reconciliation. Violence is not conquered by force; violence will only be defeated through love,” King said. “We, as a church, are very grateful for the men and women who serve our local community in law enforcement, and we hope that this small token will be a reminder of the many prayerful citizens that are grateful for their service and sacrifice.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.