As slayings of cops rise, a new brutality surfaces
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
ODESSA, Texas The bodies of two local police officers both shot in the head had just been removed from the backyard. A third lay mortally wounded at a hospital with a shotgun blast to the neck, when accused killer Larry Neil White calmly emerged from his weathered frame house and offered a chilling explanation for the early evening slaughter.
"You got these guys coming to your door," White told authorities, who originally went to his home on a domestic disturbance call. "What would you do?"
Never in the 73-year history of the Odessa Police Department had an officer been fatally shot in the line of duty. Nearly as striking, says Texas Ranger Capt. Barry Caver, was the "matter-of-fact" manner of the 59-year-old suspect who, before he was carted to jail, demanded that officers retrieve his glasses.
"I told him he didn't need any glasses where he was going," Caver says.
The shootings of Cpls. Arlie Jones, 48, Abel Marquez, 32, and Scott Gardner, 30, on Sept. 8 plunged this West Texas town into a state of grief that, more than a month later, continues to temper the giddiness of a new oil boom.
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Their deaths are part of a rising number of fatal police shootings across the nation that have led police officials and law enforcement analysts to suggest that an increasing number of suspects are adopting a troubling disregard for cops. Miami Police Chief John Timoney describes the phenomenon as an emerging "hunter" mentality among criminals.
As of Tuesday, 60 officers had been fatally shot this year, up 54% from the same period last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., which tracks officer fatalities. There already have been more fatal shootings of officers this year than in all of 2006, when there were 52 such slayings, a decline from 59 in 2005. The rate of police slayings began to accelerate in late 2006, and the trend has continued this year.
Police officials from departments across the country say they are confronting more combative suspects in situations ranging from robberies to routine traffic stops.
"There is a basic lack of respect for authority," says Caver, who is overseeing the Odessa investigation and has noticed a significant shift in attitudes in other Texas cities. "Lately, it seems like there is a brutality and a willingness to cross a line, to take a life, even if it is a police officer. The capacity is growing, and it is disturbing."
Since March, five police agencies in New York City; Bastrop, La.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Monck's Corner, S.C.; and Henderson County, Texas each have lost two officers in brutal attacks.
"To actively kill multiple cops is another animal altogether," says Craig Floyd, chairman of the memorial fund. "I can tell you that a lot of police chiefs are very concerned."
At least one-third of the 60 victims this year were shot in the neck or head, including Clay City (Ky.) Police Chief Randy Lacy, who was killed June 13 by a drunken-driving suspect. The location of the wounds, some police officials say, could suggest the suspects had lethal intent because many officers wear body armor that better protects their torsos.
In one of the worst assaults, South Carolina Constable Robert Lee Bailey was found May 19 after being fatally shot and buried in a shallow grave. Five days earlier, he had disappeared while on patrol. Investigators found Bailey's abandoned police cruiser burning in Lincolnville, S.C., about 5 miles from his last call, a traffic stop.
The escalating brutality has driven many police agencies, including Miami and the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's department, to provide more powerful guns to patrol officers, including military-style assault weapons. Others are moving toward updated communications systems to offer more information about potential suspects. The nation's largest association of police chiefs is urging Congress to enact a new ban on assault weapons such as some types of AK-47s.
Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Center on Violence and Conflict, says the police killings are a disturbing outgrowth of rising violence across the nation. In September, the FBI reported that violent crime had increased in 2006 for the second consecutive year after more than a decade of decline.
"With crime re-emerging, we are asking police to become more aggressive," Levin says. "They are confronting gang members and an increasing number of offenders released from prisons."
Many suspects, he says, have "little regard for the consequences of their actions.
They will shoot to kill."
A tragedy unfolds in Odessa
More than a month after the Odessa police slayings, the house at 2912 Ventura Ave. still bears the scars of a vicious assault and a community's grief. The chain-link fence that once ringed Larry White's backyard is in a crumpled heap.
On a recent afternoon, curious local residents were still driving by White's home, a sign of lingering questions surrounding what neighbor Garry Givens, 51, describes as Odessa's "dog-day afternoon."
Caver gives the following account of the events of Sept. 8, based on interviews with witnesses and evidence collected from the scene:
Before the shooting started, Marquez and Jones responded to the disturbance call at White's house about 6:30 p.m.
White's wife, Judith, met the officers outside and told them her husband had struck her and had been drinking. According to local court records, Judith White had filed abuse complaints against her husband as early as 1996.
In the Sept. 8 incident, she told officers her husband had a knife and other firearms stored in a vehicle inside the closed garage. Caver says about six firearms, a mix of hunting rifles and handguns, were found later in the house.
After knocks at the front door went unanswered, Marquez and Jones went to the backyard. Investigators believe White, peering through the cracked opening of the back door, opened fire at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Caver believes Marquez fell first, hit with a blast in the left side of his neck. Jones was shot in the head. The first distress call came shortly after 6:30, when Marquez somehow gathered himself and spoke into a body microphone to summon help.
As backup officers arrived, they found Marquez, despite his grave wounds, standing near the front of the house covered in blood, his gun drawn. As gunfire again rang out, he lurched back toward the yard before he slumped near a patrol car.
Odessa Police Sgt. Pete Marquez, one of the backup officers, says his dazed brother was still trying to direct arriving officers as Pete bundled him into the patrol car that rushed him to the hospital.
At some point, another group of officers, including Gardner, was sent to the back of the house. Caver says they believed the shooter was incapacitated, based on information that Abel Marquez gave before he was whisked away.
As Gardner crept along the back wall of the home trying to locate White through a rear window, Gardner was shot in the head. After he fell, White tried to burst out the back door. He was driven back inside by officers returning fire.
About four hours later, the standoff ended. White, wounded slightly, surrendered and walked out the front door.
Besides the criminal investigation, Odessa Police Chief Christopher Pipes says, the case will be reviewed to determine whether the officers should have handled the situation differently. So far, Pipes and Caver say, the evidence suggests they acted appropriately.
White's attorney, Woody Leverett, did not respond to requests for comment.
Among the evidence investigators have reviewed is a videotape of Abel Marquez taken from a camera mounted inside the patrol car that rushed him to the hospital.
The video, aimed at the backseat where suspects usually sit, shows Marquez in apparent shock, gripping his gun, peering at wounds on his arm.
"He was moaning," Caver says. "He told the (driver) to roll the window down. He had this shocked look on his face. "Looking at that image, knowing that he later died, it's hard to watch."
New push to restrict weapons
Until the internal review of the officers' response is complete, Pipes says he'll hold off on making changes to department policy. Other law enforcement agencies, however, are bolstering their defenses, alarmed by the apparent increasing threat to officers.
In addition to pushing for a new ban on assault weapons, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wants a ban on high-caliber sniper rifles and armor-piercing handgun ammunition.
A previous assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and proposals to reinstate it have been bitterly opposed by the gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association.
Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, says, "There's no comprehensive evidence" to support the ban. "The focus should be on substantive reform, not on arbitrary proposals like this."
The IACP sees it differently. "For the first time in decades, more officers are being
killed with firearms than are being killed in car crashes," it said in an April report. "The startling statistics make plain the need for more protections for our officers and more action from policymakers to keep them safe."
Scott Knight, chairman of the IACP's firearms committee, says an informal survey of about 20 police agencies earlier this year showed that since the assault weapons ban expired, departments either have increased the number of weapons in officers' patrol units or upgraded to military-style arms.
"There is a bit of an arms race out there to outgun the criminals," says Knight, the police chief in Chaska, Minn. "There is a view that (suspects) are more prone to shoot first."
Knight cited an armored car robbery Oct. 4 in Philadelphia, where two guards, both former Philadelphia police officers, were killed in an apparent ambush by a gunman.
Because they were retired, the guards are not included in the official officer death count. But Knight says the shootings signify a more dangerous environment. He notes that recent anecdotal evidence suggests that suspects, especially in robberies, are more likely to use force against officers than in the past. "It is disturbing," he says.
After the March slayings of two officers, the Monck's Corner Police Department in South Carolina is trying to expand its communication system. The changes would give police and other first responders access to broader background information about potential suspects, says Capt. Mark Murray.
In Florida, after the fatal shooting of a Miami-Dade County officer Sept. 13, Miami Police Chief Timoney announced his officers could carry department-issued assault rifles if they completed training.
"We're seeing a huge increase in the number of AK-47s on the street," Timoney says.
"It reminds me of the early '90s back in New York," he says of the drug-fueled violence that plagued the city when he was its second-highest ranking police official. "Here we are again."
'All a bad dream'
Less than a month after his brother was killed, Sgt. Pete Marquez was back on the street. Not long into his first shift, he was the first to respond to an armed robbery call.
Was there any hesitation?
"Not one bit," says the sergeant, whose surviving brother, Phillip, also is an Odessa officer. "I wanted to get back into the game."
Eager to return to something familiar, Marquez concedes everything felt different, draining. Every day, he thinks about his brother and how he couldn't save him.
He seizes on an awful irony: Abel Marquez was supposed to be off that day but signed on to earn overtime pay.
Only recently have Pete Marquez's nightmares lessened in intensity. "I get up in the morning and I think it was all a bad dream, and then it hits you," he says. "That's been hard. It's still so hard to believe."