Sniper shootings hit home for local police officers

News of the deaths of five Dallas police officers in a sniper attack reverberated all the way to law enforcement in Bartholomew County.

Officers arriving for the Friday morning shift at Columbus Police Department were somber and quiet.

Roll call is at 6:30 a.m. for officers on the day shift, a cadre of officers who are mainly veterans, said Lt. Matt Harris, Columbus Police spokesman. They were quieter than usual on Friday morning, Harris said.

“You can tell the difference in the tone. Even the civilian staff felt it. It’s on the forefront of everyone’s minds,” he said.

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Gunmen in Dallas shot and killed five police officers and wounded seven others during a protest over fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. The deaths of the police officers in Dallas were described as the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“As a police officer, it just breaks my heart,” Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers said.

Community support

Myers said he received calls from community members Friday morning expressing their support for law enforcement, and shared that information in an email he sent to all department employees to remind them of the importance of their job in tough times.

“Regarding the Dallas police shooting, I have received multiple phone calls this morning from community members wanting to show support to all of you for the work you do. I know it’s hard to leave your family and come to work when you see attacks on law enforcement, and the overall non-value of a human life. Stay professional, and remember all your training. I know it’s hard to (accept) at times but perception can be reality to a lot of people. Don’t get caught up in all the negativity, there’s still a lot of good things going on in law enforcement today, your community needs you all. Stay alert!!!!!” Myers wrote Friday.

Columbus Police Department officers were not given any specific advice Friday, but are always reminded to be conscious of their surroundings, Harris said.

Capt. Mike Richardson, who leads the uniform division, said officers do look at their jobs a little differently after an incident such as the one Dallas, but they also train for these type of incidents extensively. When such a shooting occurs, officers are reminded of that training.

There is also stress on the families of law enforcement officers, Harris said.

“They live it every day,” Harris said of the possibility that a police officer will be killed in the line of duty. “It does hit home.”

Facing negative perceptions

An added stress is that there’s a negative perception of law enforcement across the country, Myers said.

Incidents such as the shootings this week have a ripple effect on law enforcement in other communities, he said, noting that fewer people want to become police officers now.

“I worry a lot when we have incidents like in Dallas — about the men and women who work here at the sheriff’s office, and I worry about the community,” Myers said.

Community outreach by local law enforcement, including with minority groups, has been done to build relations between residents and police.

Columbus Police Department has worked hard for years on reaching out to every part of the community — from the African American Pastors Alliance to the Muslim community — to build connections and communication, Harris said.

“We listen to everyone’s voice,” Harris said of that dialogue. “We want to let every part of the community know we’re accessible. We want to hear them.”

As part of creating that dialogue, Columbus Police officers attend as many community meetings as possible, including attending memorial and protest gatherings about national events, Columbus Area Multi-Ethnic Organization meetings and recently establishing Coffee with a Cop meetings, where anyone can stop by and chat with Columbus Police Chief Jon Rohde and other officers about any subject.

“We encourage that interaction,” Harris said. “We want to talk with folks when things are good; it’s part of our outreach and a very important part of police work,” Harris said.

Describing Columbus as a “big, little town,” Harris allowed that many officers are on a first-name basis with many people in the community, and know the comings and goings within the city and can identify quickly when something is wrong or how to find an individual based on relationships within the community.

Myers said dialogue and relationship building are crucial at a time when divisions are rampant across the United States: political, racial, economic and social, for example.

“In order for us to move forward — America in general — everyone needs to slow down and talk about the issues and fix them,” Myers said.

That is challenging with the immediacy of social media, he said.

Social media puts police under greater scrutiny, which should be expected in cases when force is used, Myers said. The videos of the shootings this week should be disturbing to anyone who watches them, Myers said.

However, the immediate reactions social media elicits runs counter to the time it takes to gather facts about an incident and let the investigative and legal processes play out.

Safety steps

Local law enforcement agencies take various measures to ensure the safety of their officers and deputies.

RESPONDING TO CALLS: Columbus Police Department procedure generally calls for two officers to be sent on calls as a safety precaution. But if only one officer is dispatched, another officer nearby will typically radio in as backup, Harris said. Any number of officers may arrive as backup as needed. The number of Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department deputies that respond to a call depends on the type of call, and whether backup is necessary.

PROTECTIVE VESTS: All sheriff’s deputies who are in uniform and having contact with the public are expected to wear protective vests, per department policy. All Columbus Police officers are fitted and issued with protective vests as part of their uniform, no matter whether it be a dress uniform, regular duty or casual. Police department policy requires the vests to be worn.

Sources: Columbus Police Department, Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.