The threat of a death sentence once was seen as a deterrent to anyone thinking of killing a police officer.
"You used to just see a guy turn around and flee before they'd ever take a shot at a cop," said Lt. Mike Wallace, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. "Now there's no hesitation. They don't think twice before shooting at the police.
"We've just been lucky so far in Palm Beach County, luckier than what's happened in Broward or Miami-Dade," said Wallace, commander of the county's sheriff's Violent Crimes Task Force. "But I can tell you we're having more people shoot at us than I've ever seen."
The shootings of four Broward County sheriff's deputies in the past 12 months -- resulting in deaths of three of the officers -- mirrors a national trend in which more officers have been killed than at any time since the late 1970s, experts say. This is also the first year in at least three decades that shootings have exceeded traffic deaths as the leading cause of death for police officers.
Last week's shooting of Deputy Paul Rein makes the Broward Sheriff's Office one of nine local law enforcement agencies across the nation in which two or more officers have been killed this year. Miami-Dade lost one officer in September, and a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office sergeant was killed while sitting in his cruiser at a red light.
As of Friday, at least 63 officers had been fatally shot nationwide this year, compared with 48 shootings in 2006, according to the FBI. The rate of police slayings began to accelerate in late 2006 -- the holidays can be particularly dangerous for officers -- and the trend has continued this year.
More shootings occur annually in Southern states where police tend to patrol alone. Consistently over the past decade, about 60 percent of all police officers assaulted in the United States were assigned to single-officer patrol vehicles, according to U.S. Justice Department crime statistics. Three of the four Broward deputy shootings involved solo officers.
There is no single cause for the upsurge in killings. Police, prosecutors, social workers and criminologists cite a variety of factors that seem to be behind the rise in violent crime in Florida and the United States over the past two years.
Among the factors: the growing numbers of light, cheap assault weapons, overcrowded prisons that are hardening juveniles and adults, cutbacks in police budgets and anti-crime programs, and the rise of street gangs in South Florida and other parts of the United States.
Together, they are producing a new generation of criminals who are more combative and tactical in facing police. They may wear body armor themselves and shoot at the head of an officer wearing a bulletproof vest. Of 26 officers shot to death wearing body armor last year, 15 were shot in the head, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Broward Sheriff's Deputy Maury Hernandez was shot in the head after a routine traffic stop in early August. He survived. Four days later, Sheriff's Sgt. Chris Reyka was shot at least five times -- from as close as five feet -- as he investigated cars parked behind a pharmacy in Pompano Beach.
"There's a very dangerous situation in many South Florida inner cities where the youth see the police almost as foreign occupiers," said Wayne Rawlins, a youth crime consultant with Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federally funded anti-crime program based in Hollywood. "These are the offspring of the crack culture of the 1980s, and there's this whole music, video and literature scene in which you don't cooperate with the police, you don't snitch, and you don't back down.
"These guys will not hesitate to draw a gun and shoot a police officer, which means they won't hesitate to shoot anyone else," Rawlins said. "It's just the culture that's been forming because of hip-hop, drugs, and everything else."
The shoot-first mentality also may be the effect of a decade of harsher sentencing for drug use and three-strikes laws that leave many felons with the sense they have nothing to lose. Michael Mazza, 40, who is accused of shooting Rein on Wednesday morning as the deputy was driving him from jail to a court hearing, was a career criminal facing life in prison for armed robbery. He had spent most of the past 10 years in prison on a variety of charges.
"In my opinion, the death penalty is no longer a deterrent to these guys for shooting a police officer," said Scott Knight, chief of the Chaska, Minn., police and a consultant for the International Chiefs of Police on police assaults. "It's as bad as I've ever seen it, and I have 31 years of experience."
Other experts fear the impetus on mandatory sentencing, combined with tougher police responses to crime-ridden communities, is hardening life in high-crime areas. Federal cuts to after-school programs and rehabilitation programs for prisoners have left police officers with few resources to prevent crime surges. There have been more than $2 billion in cuts in Justice Department law enforcement programs since 2002.
"You have a lot of inmates, people who were incarcerated during the war on drugs in the '80s and '90s, being returned to the streets without jobs and without prospects," said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. "Some of them are going right back to drugs, drug gangs, trafficking. They've done hard time and they don't really care."
Levin also sees a public complacency toward crime and considers that a major concern. Crime rates had been dropping for 15 years until they began rising again in 2004.
As the federal government fought terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, funds were cut and were not replaced by local governments,whichweren't willing to pay for more police.
That was especially true in neighborhoods with gang problems that rarely spilled into more affluent areas. In these pockets of poverty, local drug gangs have taken more control.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officers have used more aggressive techniques in arresting gang members and deporting them if they're undocumented.
"We got very complacent. Everyone thought that crime would keep falling and nobody bothered to examine why it was falling," Levin said. "A lot of people don't remember the 1980s, how violent it was out there. The danger is that if we're not careful, we slide back into those bad old days."
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