277 police hurt in '97 1,224 city officers assaulted last year, department says

'Seems to be less respect'

Officials concerned despite second-lowest statistics in 5 years

January 26, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

Assaults on Baltimore police officers were up 9.3 percent last year, and those attacked were more likely to be injured -- increases that have police and experts searching for answers.

Last year, 1,224 officers were assaulted, compared with 1,120 in 1996, according to police statistics.

Nearly one in four of those officers, or 277, were injured, a 25.9 percent increase above the 220 in 1996.

Although the numbers are the second-lowest in the past five years -- assaults peaked in 1993 with 1,615 -- they were met with concern.

"We're always concerned about things like this that give the appearance of an increase," said Col. Bert Shirey. "It gives us some pause to think about what's going on."

One of the reasons given for the rise -- which comes in a year that saw a 40 percent increase in officers killed in the line of duty nationwide -- is an increase in crime fighters.

"There are more police officers on the streets than ever before," said Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based or- ganization that honors fallen officers. "There has been a deterrent effect on crime, but at the same time, more officers are put in harm's way."

City officers agreed but offered other possibilities.

"There seems to be less respect for police officers, and society in general is becoming more and more violent," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the city police union. "I think when you combine the two, you have police officers facing greater danger."

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund did not know how many officers were assaulted nationwide in the past )) two years, but the death toll rose 40.5 percent during that period. Last year, 163 officers were killed on duty, compared with 116 in 1996, according to the organization.

Last year's total was the second-highest in this decade.

In the city in May, a routine call ended with an officer's death, the only one in 1997. Lt. Owen E. Sweeney, 47, was outside a Northwest Baltimore home when he was fatally shot by the occupant.

In 1996, no city officers were killed. But in both years, some were hurt. Officers have been stabbed and shot and had bones broken.

Generally, assaults on police officers involve pushing, shoving and hitting, McLhinney said.

They could be as simple as the threat of violence, as police Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes experienced in May when an irate man she was trying to arrest grabbed her nightstick. Cook-Hayes, now a police spokeswoman, said many assaults on officers occur when suspects resist arrest.

She was not injured. But others have not been as fortunate.

"We've just seen a tremendous amount of individuals willing to confront officers with weapons, and that worries us," McLhinney said.

Such a confrontation could have cost Sgt. Christopher Streett his life. A team leader in the city quick response team -- which is called in to deal with dangerous situations -- Streett was seriously wounded in 1996 by a suspect who barricaded himself in the attic of a Southwest Baltimore house and then fired on officers.

One bullet went through Streett's shoulder and lodged behind a kidney. He spent about three hours in surgery after the shooting.

But the officer is philosophical about the life-threatening incident. "It's just one of the things that happens sometimes," said Streett, who jokes that the Bronze Star he was awarded afterward is the " 'I forgot to duck' medal."

L He said he was aware of the risks when he entered the house.

Streett has his theory of why assaults on officers were up last year, attributing it to a growing trend of underage lawbreakers.

"You're getting a younger and younger breed of criminals," he said. "Years ago, they would be in their late 20s, early 30s. Now, it's not unusual to see them in their late teens, early 20s."

And some, he said, "just don't seem to care about anybody but themselves." Whatever the cause, union president McLhinney said that officers would continue to do their jobs.

"We're not going to be intimidated," he said. "We will protect ourselves -- we're not paid to be punching bags."

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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