Fla. officer slayings underscore warrant risks

Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 5:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 5:55 p.m.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — On the same day two slain Miami-Dade County detectives were being remembered in a funeral service at a basketball arena, two St. Petersburg officers lost their lives in a hail of gunfire. All four were killed while trying to arrest fugitives who didn't want to come along quietly.

Advocates say their slayings, which came in a particularly violent 2011 so far for American law enforcement officers, underscore the risks inherent in the typically unglamorous task of finding and apprehending people suspected of crimes.

St. Petersburg Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, and Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48, were fatally shot Monday after entering a home as backups to officers trying to find and arrest Hydra Lacy Jr., a known violent offender who was hiding in the attic. A U.S. marshal was also wounded in the wild gunfight, and Lacy was later found dead in the attic after police destroyed much of the house with heavy equipment.

On Thursday, veteran Miami/Dade detectives Roger Castillo, 41, and Amanda Haworth, 44, were shot while trying to apprehend a murder suspect in Miami's impoverished Liberty City neighborhood. The suspect, 22-year-old Johnny Simms, who had a long criminal history and was being sought for an October slaying, was killed by another officer.

Richard Roberts, a former officer who is spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, said serving warrants has become one of the most dangerous tasks in modern policing.

"Obviously, if there is a warrant out for someone, they don't want to get caught," Roberts said. "The job has gotten more dangerous. It's a societal thing, it's a mentality. The bad guys are badder. They are less inclined to go along peacefully, more inclined toward violence."

A huge part of the risk in trying to round up fugitives is that officers never know what they're walking into, said Steve Groeninger, whose National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund tracks police casualties. He said six officers were killed serving warrants in 2010. Five were shot and one had a heart attack scuffling with a suspect. That's out of the 162 total officers killed in the line of duty last year. The leading cause was traffic incidents, which claimed 73 officers' lives.

"Sometimes serving an arrest warrant can be a very procedural thing, and sometimes they can be explosive and deadly," he said, noting that disturbance calls and traffic stops sometimes blow up similarly.

"Our community cannot understand the perils of putting that vest on every day and that badge," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said. "There is absolutely nothing routine in what they do, from the service of a warrant to interviewing of a witness to a traffic stop, there is nothing that is routine in this position."

Jon Shane, a former Newark, N.J., police officer who's now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it's hard to tell if the duty of serving warrants is any more dangerous now than before, but statistics show that officers in general are more often the victims of violence on the job.

"There's clearly an uptick in violence against the police," Shane said. "My natural inclination is to figure out why, but it's not an easy question to answer right now."

In Miami, a team of officers came to a duplex not knowing Simms was inside. After his mother opened the door, Simms came out of another room, ambushing the two detectives.

In St. Petersburg, officers had been looking for Lacy — a brother of professional boxer Jeff Lacy — since he failed to show for his trial on aggravated battery charges on Nov. 1. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said his officers knew Lacy was a registered sex offender with a violent past, and they wanted to get him off the street.

Harmon said a St. Petersburg detective, a county sheriff's deputy and a U.S. marshal went to his house Monday to talk a relative they had interviewed there before, not expecting to find Lacy at home. The woman told them Lacy was hiding in the attic and probably was armed.

They called for backup, and the shooting started when the unidentified marshal and Yaslowitz, a K-9 officer who was just getting off the night shift and responded to the request for backup, went into the attic after Lacy. Baitinger was killed when Lacy started firing through the attic floor.

Harmon, in a news conference afterward, wouldn't question the officers' decision to try to roust the suspect from the attic rather than have a SWAT team handle it or simply surround the house and wait Lacy out.

"When I look at this and people ask questions about procedures and how the officers should have conducted it, there will be a day and a time for that to come," he said. "We'll look back, and we'll learn the best we can."

So far, 10 police officers have been killed by guns in 2011, which is a 40 percent increase over this time last year, Groeninger said.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said the 14 officer deaths in January — three died in car accidents and another had a heart attack — came after a "devastating spike" in law enforcement deaths last year. The 162 officers killed in the line of duty was a 38 percent jump from the 117 killed in 2009. Of the 162 officers, 61 were shot, an increase of 24 percent from 2009.

The slaying of the St. Petersburg officers Monday capped a a bloody 24 hours nationwide that saw 11 officers shot in five states.

"We're seeing a steady upward progression of officers being assaulted and officers being killed," Roberts said, adding that many officers on the street believe there to be a "war on cops."

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