For Small-Town Police, Calm Masks Job Dangers
Rookie cop Christopher Horner, 35, was just 28 minutes into his Tuesday shift when he radioed what sounded like the start of a routine workday.
“Twenty-nine,” he told the dispatcher, giving his identification number. “I’ll be out with a 13-V at Oakland Cemetery. No visible 28, a larger size dark-colored vehicle, maybe a Crown Vic.”
A 13-V is a suspicious vehicle and a 28 is a license plate.
When Horner failed to respond to the dispatcher’s call, Sgt. Sandy Spicer, the shift supervisor, raced to Cemetery Road. She found him dead, shot once in the back of the head with his own 9-millimeter pistol.
The March 3 killing of Horner, father of six, was the first police fatality in this bucolic citrus city of 15,000.
But it is far from unusual. Cops in rural America are twice as likely to be killed in the line of duty as officers in cities such as Los Angeles, New York or Miami.
Less than a year earlier, in the town of Winter Haven, just a couple of miles down the road, another rookie police officer was shot and killed after making a routine traffic stop.
Compounding the horror of these slayings is the widespread feeling among local residents--many of whom came here from urban areas in the north--that the murder of police officers is exactly the sort of big-city crime that is not supposed to happen in small towns.
“People are still in shock over this,” said Lt. Frank Caterino. This community, nestled in the rolling hills of rural Polk County between Orlando and Tampa, “is not Mayberry RFD, but we are not like the bigger cities either,” he added. “The usual daytime calls we get here would be shoplifting, a bad check complaint, a minor traffic accident. We just don’t expect this to happen in rural areas.”
But in fact, it does happen. According to the FBI, in an average year, about 70 U.S. police officers are slain in the line of duty, often while carrying out the most mundane of duties: answering domestic dispute calls, checking out a burglar alarm or making a traffic stop.
An equivalent number of sworn officers die each year in traffic accidents.
In a study of all police officers killed in the line of duty between 1988 and 1995, the fatality rate for policemen working in rural areas was 12 per 100,000 officers. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the comparable death rate for officers in cities with populations of 250,000 and above was 6.5 per 100,000.
“These numbers not only refute conventional wisdom and perception but are particularly striking when the overall crime rate in general is much lower in rural areas than in cities,” said Ralph A. Weisheit, a professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University.
So why are small-town police more likely to be killed on the job than those in cities? Weisheit, who has co-written a book called “Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America,” suggested one reason could be that in small police departments officers usually work without a partner and without backup nearby.
Both Horner and Winter Haven police officer Johnnie Patterson Jr., 25, were gunned down while working without a partner.
But, added Weisheit, it is also probable that small-town cops can be lulled into carelessness by the familiar routine of days spent patrolling neighborhoods in which they are very much at home.
“Even if it is true that the overwhelming majority of stops are uneventful, you have an entirely different approach to policing in urban areas than you do in the country,” said Weisheit, who has interviewed about 200 police officers from around the United States.
“In the city, cops stop people they don’t know, so their awareness level is up. But when you are familiar with the people and surroundings, your natural inclination is to let your defenses drop.”
Patterson was working the night shift in Winter Haven on March 8, 1997, and was accompanied by his father on a department-approved ride-along when he stopped a car that made an erratic turn. A passenger in the car, Walter Norris, 34, gave Patterson a false identification, then bolted down the street and into some woods.
Leaving his father in the police car, Patterson gave chase on foot. The officer was found about an hour later in the woods, dead from a gunshot in the face. Norris, who was arrested 36 hours after the shooting, will stand trial for murder this year.
Despite dozens of tips and a reward of $50,000, no arrests have been made in Horner’s homicide. And no one save the killer knows exactly how the officer, an 11-year Navy veteran, came to lose his weapon to an assailant who then executed him at point-blank range. But fellow officers such as Caterino cannot help but speculate.
On a recent visit to the remote hilltop cemetery where Horner’s body was found, Caterino, who has spent 30 years on the Haines City force, steered his cruiser slowly along the dirt road between the citrus grove and the tombstones. He circled the graveyard once, then stopped his patrol car at the spot where Horner’s body was found.
A fresh breeze carried the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms over the site of the homicide as Caterino tried to imagine what had happened days before. “It was just about sunrise,” he said, “and I think they saw him coming down the road, headlights on.
“I suspect they made up their minds to do what they did as soon as they saw him. They said: ‘We’ve been caught, and I’m going to do something about it. I ain’t going to jail.’ ”
Caterino supposed that Horner might have drawn his gun before approaching the parked car. But somehow the killer--or killers--took it away and used it. The gun, fired once, was found underneath Horner’s body.
Gunshot residue on Horner’s hand, and reports that the officer’s wife was under investigation for welfare fraud, fueled speculation in one local newspaper that Horner could have taken his own life. But state investigators last week dismissed the suicide theory.
“There is no doubt that officer Christopher Horner was murdered in the line of duty,” said Jim Sewell, director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Sewell said traces of gunpowder on Horner’s left hand could mean the officer was ordered to put his hands behind his head before he was shot.
Police have released a sketch of a person seen near the cemetery on the morning of the shooting. He is wanted for questioning.
More than 1,000 police officers from Florida and Georgia turned out for a memorial service to honor Horner. With two of their colleagues killed in less than a year, law officers in Polk County are “a lot more cautious about approaching things now,” said Caterino.
Most police officers are alert to the danger inherent in traffic stops and domestic violence calls, where--according to Winter Haven Police Chief David Romine--"the officer has no idea what he is walking into.”
Last year, eight California police officers were slain in the line of duty, according to statistics compiled by the American Police Hall of Fame & Museum in Miami. Of those, five were shot and killed after responding to domestic disputes or during traffic stops. Of those five slain, four died in rural settings, including two Riverside County sheriff’s deputies who were ambushed Jan. 5, 1997, in the isolated desert community of Whitewater.
Romine said he recognizes how quickly a police officer can slip into what he called “the complacency of routine.”
“Routine is a dirty word,” said Romine. “When an officer is very comfortable in knowing an area, the people, the roadways, the traffic volume, day in, day out, that’s where the heightened awareness drops, that comfort zone starts to kick in.
“We teach the exact opposite. We teach safety zones. But officers are human beings.”
Caterino said police have no reason to think Horner did not follow proper procedure. But something went wrong.
“This is not a paperwork job,” Caterino said. “And times have changed. When I came here in 1968, this was a town of 9,200. We turned the traffic lights off at 6 p.m.
“Years ago, it seemed people didn’t do these things. Now they do.”
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report.