By Josh Sweigart and Mark Gokavi Dayton Daily News, Ohio
Two Westerville police officers killed last weekend and another slain Tuesday in Chicago brought to 12 the number of cops gunned down in the line of duty this year, marking a dramatic increase in such tragedies compared to this time in previous years.
The last such incident locally was New Year’s Day 2011, when Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputy Suzanne Hopper was shot and killed at the Enon Beach campground. Since then, eight Ohio peace officers have had their watch ended by a deadly bullet.
“I hope it heightens the alert of everyone to pay attention more of your surroundings,” said Dayton Fraternal Order of Police president Rick Oakley, a detective with Dayton police.
“I put it out to my guys all the time. If you’re not on something and you hear your brother or sister out there on a traffic call, go back them up. If you’re not doing anything, just go there and sit and make sure that there’s an extra set of eyes to make sure nothing’s going on.”
While every situation is unique, the deadly theme that played out in Westerville has been repeated over and over again: police responding to a domestic disturbance faced someone whose criminal history should have kept him from having a gun.
Westerville officers Eric Joering, 39, and Anthony Morelli, 54, were gunned down in the Columbus suburb Feb. 10, allegedly by 30-year-old Quentin Smith, after responding to a 911 hang-up call.
A second 911 call came from Smith’s wife Candace from the bushes outside her house.
“Please help,” she pleaded, telling the dispatcher her daughter was still in the home. “He shot the police officers.”
Westerville police had responded to domestic disputes at the Smith’s home several times before. In November, Candace told them that her husband threatened to kill her, their daughter and himself, and she asked about a protection order.
‘You factor in the worst’
Domestic violence calls for police are both numerous and unpredictable.
Dayton police responded to 4,448 domestic violence calls last year and 5,356 the year before, for a two-year total of 9,804 — or more than 13 per day.
Sgt. Ted Jackson, the supervisor at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office regional training center, said departmental policy dictates a two-officer response to domestic violence and 911 hang-up calls because of the potential for a volatile situation.
“You don’t necessarily know what you’re getting yourself into,” Jackson said. “You factor in the worst. You do a risk-management situation where you expect the worst and hope for the best.”
Violence in such instances can erupt in an instance. In Kirkersville, Ohio, last May, a man with a protection order against him went to his girlfriend’s work and killed her, her co-worker and Kirkersville Police Chief Eric DiSario before turning a gun on himself. The shooter, Thomas Hartless, had a history of violence, including an assault conviction in the 1990s and serving eight months of a two-year prison sentence for abducting another girlfriend in 2009.
The only other Ohio police officer killed last year resulted from an incident similar to what confronted the two Westerville police officers. Girard Officer Justin Leo and his partner responded to a 911 call from a woman who said her boyfriend was drunk, had guns and was scaring her kids. The man, Jason Marble, allegedly shot Leo dead before getting killed by the return fire from Leo’s partner.
Training for deadly situations
A Chicago police commander Tuesday became the 12th law enforcement officer killed on duty this year when he was reportedly gunned down by a repeat felon while pursuing a suspect downtown.
During the same time period in 2017, four officers were killed in violent incidents, according to the FBI, which tracks shootings of police.
The FBI says 46 law enforcement officers were killed by criminals last year and 66 in 2016.
An annual report for 2017 isn’t out yet, but 17 of the deaths in 2016 came from an ambush and 13 while responding to a disturbance call.
“Ever since I started my career in 1978 we were well schooled on when you do a domestic violence call you are walking into a potential deadly situation,” said Pete Willis, training coordinator for the Sinclair Police Academy. “There’s a lot of emotions involved. People tend to become very protective of their home.”
The academy teaches the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy curriculum, which includes 12 hours of training in handling domestic violence. The training manual spells out the risk: “Domestic violence calls clearly pose a lethal risk to officers. If suspects are willing to kill their partner or family member, they would have no qualms killing a stranger (i.e., the responding officer).”
Willis has come under fire more than once during his 25 years with the Dayton police force.
“At the time you react with training,” he said. “After it’s all said and done, the adrenaline surge will kick you hard and you’ll shake for a little bit.”
Armor ‘not an end all be all’
Jackson, a 22-year vet who has had various roles that have placed him in dangerous situations, said loss of life can happen even when well-equipped officers undergo extensive training.
National statistics bear that out. Of the 62 police officers who died in shootings in 2016, 51 were wearing body armor.
While body armor can save a life, it’s “not an end-all, be-all,” Jackson said. “It covers primary body parts … you have weaponry and munitions out there that can defeat it or you can succumb to injuries out and around the ballistic vest.”
Hopper was killed while wearing a bulletproof vest, as was a Sandusky officer killed two months after her. The bullet that killed a Cincinnati officer in 2015 came just centimeters from hitting his vest. A Columbus SWAT team officer was shot in the head in 2016 while in the turret of an armored vehicle.
Most cop-killers have previous criminal records, according to FBI statistics. In 2016, 35 of the people who killed police officers had a prior arrest for a violent crime – including four for murder – and 22 had a prior weapons violation.
Quentin Smith, the suspect in the Westerville shootings, always carried a gun, his wife told authorities, even though he was prohibited from having a firearm after spending four years in prison for felony burglary and misdemeanor domestic violence charges in 2009.
Gerald Lawson of Warrensville Heights was charged in federal court last week with providing Smith with the weapon he allegedly used to shoot the two Westerville officers.
“An undisclosed witness told investigators Smith provided Lawson money for the firearm and an extra $100 to compensate Lawson — who knew Smith had been convicted of a felony — for buying the gun for him,” a U.S. Department of Justice release says.
The Kirkersville shooter had more than 60 guns at his home, though his felony conviction barred him from purchasing, owning or carrying a firearm. His father told investigators he obtained most of his firearms from gun shows, where unlicensed dealers aren’t required to conduct background checks.
The shotgun Michael Ferryman used to kill Hopper at the Enon Beach campground was bought by his girlfriend, who was later sentenced to five years in state prison for providing him with the weapon. Multiple guns were found in his trailer, though Ferryman was prohibited from owning a gun because of his prior criminal history.
Hopper, a mother of two, was responding to a report of gunfire at the campground when Ferryman shot her at close range with the shotgun. When backup arrived, shots were exchanged and an officer, Jeremy Blum, was wounded. Ferryman was found dead in the trailer.
Stronger penalties sought
Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people is a timeless struggle for law enforcement.
Fewer than a third of offenders in Ohio charged with weapons offenses were convicted, according to a 2012 study by an Ohio State University professor, and many of the gun charges were dismissed during judicial proceedings.
In response to the study, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Violent Crimes with Guns Advisory Task Group recommended stronger penalties for repeat offenders.
There are currently 1,187 people in state prison in Ohio for charges that include illegally having a weapon.
Toby Hoover, director of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence, said the data underscores the need for universal background checks for gun sales. Currently, private owners and sellers are not required to conduct background checks, though they are forbidden from selling to someone they know is prohibited from having a gun.
“The first thing you can do is make sure every single gun sale — whether it’s at a store, gun show or between two people — has a background check,” she said.
Joe Eaton, southwest Ohio spokesman for the Buckeye Firearms Association, said weapons charges are often used as a chip in plea bargains.
He supports strong penalties for people who violate laws against providing weapons to convicted felons, and said the firearms industry backs public awareness campaigns like “Don’t lie for the other guy,” a national campaign to prevent the type of “straw man” purchases that allowed Smith to get his gun.
“The people who are committing this deception need to realize there are severe penalties,” he said.
‘We have to be constantly vigilant’
Last week, just as they do whenever someone in blue is killed, a procession of police officers from around the state came to Westerville to pay tribute to officers Eric Joering and Anthony Morelli.
Jackson said the entire law enforcement community grieves for fallen officers. “This is a community, a sisterhood and a brotherhood,” he said.
But something else happens, too, when an officer is killed, he said: a search for answers.
“It’s a sad situation, but it’s also a learning and training situation,” Jackson said. “We have to be constantly vigilant of our environments and the situation can change very quickly. Complacency is no place for law enforcement.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
©2018 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)