At 11:48 p.m. Sunday, a Detroit police dispatcher made what’s becoming to cops an all-too familiar announcement: “We got one in the house firing shots, and an officer down.”
As it turned out, two Detroit police officers were down, making them the fifth and sixth cops to be shot in Detroit in the past seven months — and that’s not counting at least three more who were shot at during that time.
Between officers facing gunfire and a barrage of what some say is anti-law enforcement rhetoric, Detroit cops say they feel under siege.
“This is the worst I can remember in my 23 years in law enforcement,” Detroit Police Officer’s Association president Mark Diaz said. “But what do you attribute it to? If we knew exactly what the cause was for people opening fire on our officers, we could deal with it. But I think it’s a combination of many different variables.
“Whatever the cause is, at the end of the day, when I’ve got yet another officer in the hospital fighting for his life, that plays heavy on the psyche of every other officer,” Diaz said.
The incident happened around 11:45 p.m. when two officers from the 12th Precinct were responding to reports of a burglary at a vacant home in the 20500 block of Lesure on the city’s northwest side.
The house were the shootings occurred — which was across the street — had been burglarized Thursday, and the grandfather of the home’s 19-year-old occupant gave him a shotgun to protect his family, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said.
When the officers, both 25 years old, approached that house, the 19-year-old man shot them through the door, Craig said. One officer, a two-year veteran, was shot in the face and was listed in critical condition Monday at Sinai-Grace Hospital. The other officer, who has been on the police force 18 months, was hit with a piece of shrapnel, and was treated and released from the hospital.
Craig said the 19-year-old likely didn’t know he was shooting at police officers. “It appears maybe this subject thought he was the victim of a burglary and was trying to protect his home, which is different than someone who specifically tries to kill a police officer,” he said. “But that doesn’t take away the high risk.”
Killings up this year
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks police officer deaths, 37 officers have been killed in the line of duty nationwide in 2017, a 12 percent increase over the same period last year, although the 11 officers killed by gunfire marks a drop of 31 percent from 2015.
In 2016, 144 officers were killed in the line of duty, a 56 percent increase from the previous year, driven by high-profile police shootings across the country, including the ambushes of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There were 64 officers fatally shot in 2016, with 21 officers killed in ambush attacks, according to the Memorial Fund.
Among those killed last year: Detroit Sgt. Kenneth Steil, who died Sept. 17 when he was shot near his shoulder with pellets from a sawed-off shotgun. Steil had been chasing 21-year-old Marquise Cromer on Seven Mile on Detroit’s east side when Cromer allegedly fired at Steil. Cromer was wanted for allegedly shooting his father and carjacking a 23-year-old man the day before. He is awaiting trial.
While there are no known statistics that track officers wounded or shot at, Detroit cops are far less likely to be killed by gunfire than during other eras. In 1971, six officers were fatally shot in separate incidents, the most in any year since the police department was established in 1865. In 1917, five officers were killed by gunfire, and there were several years when four officers were fatally shot.
In contrast, four officers have been killed by gunfire since 2010, with one of the shootings deemed accidental. Two other officers during that time died after drivers purposely ran them down with their vehicles.
“Some might argue that statistically there were more officers killed in the past, but I can tell you: Our officers feel like they’re under attack right now,” Craig said. “Last night was a sobering reminder of the dangers our officers face every day — not sometimes, but each and every day they put on that uniform.
“What you don’t hear as much about are the instances where our officers are shot at,” Craig said. He pointed out that in each of the two days after Steil was fatally shot, other officers were fired upon. “The shots didn’t take effect, but that doesn’t negate the danger,” Craig said.
“There are a lot of things going on that are contributing to the dangers officers are facing, including the anti-police rhetoric, which inflames some people into thinking police are the enemy,” Craig said. “People are threatening officers on social media. It’s gotten out of hand.”
Craig said animosity toward police does not appear to be a factor in the most recent incident Sunday, although the reason why an officer is shot makes little difference to Detroit police widows like Diane Philpot, whose husband Jerry Philpot was killed in an ambush May 25, 1995.
“The first thing that goes through your mind is: What is wrong with people? You just want to say, ‘Stop. Stop killing people.’ It’s getting ridiculous,” Philpot said.
“When I hear about officers getting shot, it brings me right back to where I was when I got the news” that her husband had been killed, she said. “Then you think about the officers’ families. I know exactly what they’re going through.”
In the wake of Sunday’s shooting, Craig said he told his command staff to remind officers to stay alert. “Police work can become routine, and complacency kills,” he said. “The two most dangerous things a police officer can engage in is a domestic violence incident, when emotions are running high, or a simple traffic stop. On its face, the stop may appear to be routine, but as we’ve seen so many times, it can turn deadly in a split second.”
Craig said training is essential to keeping officers safe, adding he’s offered advanced tactical training to officers who want to take it, and there’s required in-service training for all officers that covers basic safety tactics.
Six police officers have been shot in the line of duty in Detroit over the past seven months:
■Sept. 17: Detroit Sgt. Kenneth Steil died after being shot in the shoulder while chasing an alleged carjacker.
■Nov. 23: Wayne State Police K-9 Officer Collin Rose was shot while investigating a string of car break-ins and died a day later.
■March 15: James Kisselburg and Ben Atkinson, 3rd Precinct Special Operations officers, were shot when a man opened fire with a .38 revolver, striking Kisselburg in the neck and Atkinson in the ankle.
■April 16: Two officers from the 12th Precinct were shot while investigating a burglary on Detroit’s northwest side.