The shooting of four police officers, one of them fatally, near Miami on Thursday became another dark day in what is already a tough year for America's 800,000 police officers.
Coming only a few days after a shootout in Odessa, Texas, that killed three officers, the Miami incident became part of a troubling phenomenon for 2007: a spike in the number of police officers who died in the line of duty to a level not seen since 1978.
Of the 132 officers to die so far this year, 54 were shot. The number of shootings represents a 59 percent increase over the same period in 2006, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington.
After years of watching these figures decline or hold steady, experts are not prepared to say whether this year's increase is a trend or an aberration.
Still, "the figures this year are nothing short of alarming," says Craig Floyd, chairman of the officers memorial fund.
Police offer several possible explanations for the high losses, including an uptick in violent crime around the country. Some experts suggest that community empathy for police, which rose after 9/11, may be waning now, especially in places where tensions exist between poor minority residents and police forces, or where transiency is relatively high, as in Miami or New Orleans.
The '07 trend line, while distressing, does not signal a danger level akin to that of the social upheaval of the 1960s and '70s, or of the "crack wars" of the late 1980s, experts say.
"It is a different time today and [there is] less of a generalized adversarial relationship between the citizenry and the cops," says Laurence Miller, a psychologist who works with the West Palm Beach Police Department in Florida. "The hard cases [in the 1960s and '70s] were a large group of criminals who politicized their criminality as rebellion. Some were sincere rebels with or without a cause, and some were petty criminals who said it was OK to take their anger out on cops."
Between the afterglow of 9/11 and TV shows such as "Cops," which usually depict police officers as tough-guy professionals who exude gritty determination in the face of criminality, law-enforcement officers today enjoy relatively high standing in society at large.
Police losses much higher in early '70s
Those attitudes can affect the police fatality rate. Back in 1973, when there were about 210 officers for every 100,000 Americans, 134 police were feloniously killed, according to statistics from the US Department of Justice. In 2005, the last year for which the DOJ has figures, 55 police officers were feloniously killed and there were about 250 police officers for every 100,000 residents.
(On the other side of the coin, the Justice Department counts an average of 350 "felons justifiably killed by police" in recent years, down from a peak of about 400 in 1994.)
The recent officer deaths from shootings have raised awareness and tension in station houses across the US.
In Florida, 10 police officers have been killed this year. But big metro areas and sprawling, transient suburbs are not the only places affected. Veteran cop Bruce McKay was shot and killed in rural Franconia, N.H., in May.
In the Miami incident, police caught up with the suspect, Shawn Sherwin Labeet, Thursday night at an apartment complex, where he was shot and killed. Police say he was armed and armored, and they have arrested six others for helping him flee or for giving false information. Miami-Dade officer Jose Somohano died in the shootout earlier that day, one officer is hospitalized, and two were treated and released.
"It's gut-wrenching," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez on Thursday before the suspect was found. "It's a sad day."
The suspect had used a powerful semiautomatic weapon to shoot the four officers, police say.
Dangers of police work remain high
Nationwide, six incidents this year resulted in multiple officer deaths, from Moncks Corner, S.C., to New York City.
The fact that cops are backed up by tough laws, improved armor, and better training should not lull anyone into complacency about the danger of police work, says Terry Lynn, a professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., and a former police officer who was wounded in action in Boston in 1993.
"When good intersects with the bad, we hope that good is always going to result, and that's not always the end result," says Mr. Lynn.
Despite tragic incidents, police work is safer than many people might think. Policing is ranked eighth – below convenience store clerks, construction workers, and Bering Sea crabbers – when it comes to dangerous jobs.
Mr. Floyd of the officers memorial fund allows, too, that recent events could be aberrations. Between 2005 and 2006, he says, North Carolina went from zero officer deaths to 10. A similar thing happened in Virginia the year before. "It's hard to explain that," he says.