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Targeting Cops

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Targeting Cops

Increasingly lenient treatment of career criminals is putting more police in danger. February 12, 2020
Public safety
New York
Politics and law

Last weekend, in a span of roughly 12 hours, two uniformed NYPD officers were shot and wounded in attempted assassinations in the Bronx—apparently by the same suspect. One officer, while seated in a marked police van on Saturday night, was hit in the face and neck. The other, a lieutenant, was shot in the arm as he stood near the 41st precinct’s reception area the next morning. Both officers survived their wounds.

The shootings occurred just days after anti-police protesters paralyzed parts of New York’s subway system while chanting obscenities about the police. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and police union leaders, who cited the protests as a potential factor in the attacks, aren’t the only ones linking assaults to anti-police sentiment. Late last year, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called the growing disrespect for law enforcement a contributing factor to the dangers that cops face. Most important, Barr noted the justice system’s persistent failure to keep dangerous repeat offenders off city streets.

The Bronx suspect, Robert Williams—like many attempted cop killers—is no stranger to the justice system. This week, the New York Times reported that Williams has multiple arrests dating to the mid-1990s, including a robbery charge when he was just 14. After his sentencing in 1995, he was paroled twice. He subsequently returned to prison for violating his parole—twice. The Times also reported that Williams shot someone in 2002 and then carjacked a woman while fleeing. The shooting resulted in a conviction for attempted murder. Despite that conviction and the suspect’s criminal history, Williams was released early from prison in 2017.

The incidents in the Bronx illustrate what seems to be a trend of violence directed at police by habitual criminals. Last summer, in Staten Island, a female NYPD officer was shot by an armed suspect when attempting to take him into custody. Gregory Edwards had a long criminal history that included convictions arising from two separate shootings. In Houston, Sergeant Christopher Brewster was allegedly shot and killed by Arturo Solis, who, according to local news reports, has faced multiple charges in the past, including for burglary and assault. Earlier this month, Nick O’Rear, a police officer in Alabama, was allegedly killed in the line of duty by a suspect with a criminal history that includes 20 arrests and six felony convictions for charges ranging from illegal gun possession to drug distribution. A few months before allegedly killing O’Rear, the suspect had been released pending a hearing on charges such as weapons possession.

Each of these cases raises the question: Why were these suspects free in the first place? Yet the trend continues. Last month, a man seen slugging an NYPD officer on a bodycam video was back on the street hours later, thanks to the state’s new bail-reform law. Late last year, a teenager convicted of second-degree murder for his role in the death of a retired police sergeant in Missouri was sentenced to juvenile detention. He’ll be eligible for release when he’s 21.

All these cases illustrate the disconnect that exists between progressives’ perception of the criminal-justice system as unfairly punitive and how that system works in practice. Yet with political momentum currently in favor of leniency and decarceration, more repeat offenders will likely walk free on the streets of American cities. The risks associated with that problem aren’t evenly distributed. They tend to fall on those living in communities where high crime rates are a fact of life. But, by the nature of the work they do, those risks are also disproportionately borne by our cops.

Coupled with the growing antagonism toward police, these exacerbations of the risks inherent in policing at least partly explain why law-enforcement departments are struggling to fill vacancies. Anti-police activists may cheer, but a policing shortage won’t bode well for those living in America’s most vulnerable communities, or those left to police them—the primary victims of the system’s failure to incapacitate dangerous offenders.

Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

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