Blue Targets - Police Deaths Rise Even As Crime Level Drops

Shooting of L.A. officer underscores new trend in violence against police.

Many of those who gathered last week beneath the searing August sun to honor a fallen Los Angeles police officer had met under similar circumstances just a few months ago.

Filbert Cuesta Jr., shot as he waited for backup to help quiet down a loud party, was the second Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer killed in the line of duty this year, and the 15th since 1990.

For the LAPD - and police departments around the country - his death underscores a disturbing trend. Despite a reduction in the overall crime rate, lethal attacks on police and other law-enforcement officers appear to be on the rise.

Reasons for the increase are varied - from the dangers of the drug trade to the proliferation of high-powered weapons. But most officials agree that young men - often gang members - are the greatest cause for concern.

"Youngsters are still showing an increasing willingness to use ever-more lethal forms of violence in order to make a point that is sometimes clear only to themselves and puts everybody at risk," says Daniel Monti, a sociology professor at Boston University who has written on gangs.

Indeed, the suspect charged in the Cuesta ambush is only 20 years old and has been reportedly identified with the notorious 18th Street gang.

"You're talking about a generation of young persons who aren't well hooked into a conventional adult world, whose parents and neighbors don't attend to them as much as they need to be attended to, and for whom institutions such as the schools and the church either aren't up to doing all the work that needs to be done or are overwhelmed," says Mr. Monti.

More dangerous

While not all fatalities result from confrontations with armed criminals - seven of the 15 LAPD officers killed since 1990 have died in traffic or helicopter accidents - the threat is serious, officials agree. "The job is becoming more and more dangerous," says LAPD spokesman Dave Kalish.

Nationwide, the figures present a troubling picture. "Every 55 hours, statistically, a policeman somewhere in the United States is killed," says Gerald Arenberg, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington. With approximately 100 officers killed so far this year, Mr. Arenberg says, that could mean a total equalling or exceeding last year's toll - which was a 28 percent increase over the 116 killed in 1996.

And this is a problem faced by all police departments - not just those in inner cities. "This has nothing to do with race or class," says Monti. "You see the same phenomenon in upscale, predominantly white, suburban neighborhoods." Even rural areas aren't immune, as New Hampshire learned last year when three officers were killed in one week.

Other experts agree that the problem touches on broader societal issues. "The correlation between officers being killed and injured has more to do with the propensity of people to utilize weapons than it does the degree of crime, even violent crime," says Hubert Williams, former director of police for Newark, N.J., and president of The Police Foundation, a Washington-based research organization.

Safety measures

In order to cut down on injuries and fatalities, the LAPD, like many departments around the country, is constantly honing its training and tactics. A plan is already under way to install bullet-proof panels in the doors of police cruisers. Bullet-resistant vests have already saved the lives of more than 2,100 officers nationwide, according to Arenberg.

Still, there is a limit to what training and equipment can do. Despite efforts to forge closer ties to communities, police can still be target just because of the uniforms they wear.

"An officer on the street doing their job is 'officer friendly' to a lot of people," says FBI spokesman Frank Scafidi, "But he or she also represents confinement for somebody who just committed a crime."

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