For officers, coming back home is not a sure thing

May 20, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Baltimore police officer Anthony A. Byrd died yesterday morning after his patrol car collided with one driven by Officer Raymond E. Cook Jr., who was listed in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center immediately after the accident.

Earlier in the week, Anne Arundel County officers shot and killed 18-year-old Justin James Fisher after, police say, he charged at them wielding a 9-inch pair of scissors.

These two events are seemingly unrelated. One happened in Baltimore and was an accident. The other occurred in a county just south of Baltimore that, in some ways, is light-years removed from what's happening on the city's streets.

But the incidents highlight, once again -- and we all need reminding of this from time to time -- that a cop's job ain't like ours.

You and I go to work each day, more or less assuming that when our shift ends, we'll go home. Once we arrive home, we might be greeted by loving spouses or children. We might have some dinner, watch the tube, perhaps surf the Internet.

Those who work in law enforcement -- as well as firefighters and corrections officers -- probably do the same things. But they do them with a difference. We assume we're going home. They can't make the same assumption.

That's why, in spite of all the second-guessing going on about Fisher's shooting, none of us can say for certain how we'd have reacted if we were the officers on the scene. And that's why we need to take a moment and reflect on the contributions to Baltimore of men like Byrd and Cook, who both worked in the Southwestern District, which has received more than its share of bad publicity and tragedy in the past two years.

It was in January that residents of the Baltimore metropolitan area learned of the alleged misconduct and abuses of the Southwestern District "flex squad," a unit that focuses on drug dealing, violent crime and nuisance crimes. Officer Jemini Jones has been charged with coercing two women into having sex with him in exchange for his not charging them with a crime.

Other accusations against Jones and his fellow Southwestern District flex squad members -- who have since been replaced -- include drug possession, illegal gambling, planting drugs on suspects, stealing cell phones from suspects and dropping off a suspected gang member in rival gang territory. That suspect was beaten by gang members and returned later and shot somebody in retaliation, according to a Sun report.

Before Byrd, the last officer to die in Baltimore was Brian D. Winder, who was fatally shot in July of 2004. Winder also worked in the Southwestern District.

Attorneys for the flex squad officers say they're all innocent. That remains to be seen. But with the charges against them, and with what happened to Winder and now Byrd and Cook, the more superstitious among us might wonder if the Southwestern District is cursed.

The more rational among us will scoff at such a notion, but few would disagree that all the bad press the flex squad has received these past few months has overshadowed the work of the scores of good officers in the Southwestern District. Winder was such an officer. So was Byrd and so is Cook.

Byrd was an 11-year veteran of the force. In late 1999, with only four years experience, he was already good enough to be a training officer in the Southwestern District. That same year, Sun police reporter Peter Hermann -- now an assistant city editor -- did an article about Byrd training a rookie police officer named Bryan Ruth. One part of Hermann's article is eerily prescient, considering how Byrd met his end.

On the second day of training, Byrd let Ruth drive the patrol car. According to Hermann's article, Ruth ran a stop sign, nearly colliding with another police cruiser.

Byrd was returning to the Southwestern District yesterday morning when the collision occurred. Cook was answering a call for back-up and was coming from district headquarters.

Hermann's article is a compelling, well-written tale that illustrates just how dangerous being a cop in a city like Baltimore is.

No one knows that better than Cook, who survived what might have been at least his third close call in the accident. According to Sun reporter Gus Sentementes, Cook arrested three armed-robbery suspects in 1997. In a separate incident, Cook fatally shot a man who had shot a woman and then fired at the officer after a high-speed chase. Cook was decorated twice by the department for his work.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has urged us to pray for the families of Byrd and Cook. And well we should. Our prayers and condolences should go out to Byrd's family. Our prayers and hopes for a speedy recovery should go out to Cook's. While we're at it, we can offer up another prayer:

For the entire city. One of our best officers has just gone down.

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