Rash of shootings targets police

LOS ANGELES, California (BNW) -- A spate of deadly police shootings in California has some officials worried that street gang culture, known to reward cop killers with status and respect, is ever emboldening gunmen to target officers.

The latest victim was a California Highway Patrol officer shot and killed this week as he exited a court house.

Some believe the slayings could signal something more ominous than the kind of peril officers usually face.

"I've been at this 35 years and I've never seen such a wanton disregard for life," said CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick. "We've had shootings over the years, but man. It may be coincidence, but it does seem very strange to me."

Other recent shootings:

* In San Francisco, a 29-year-old officer was shot and killed this month after approaching a suspected gang member who suddenly opened fire with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle.

* In Merced, a police officer was fatally shot earlier this month by a man he pulled over for a traffic stop. A Burbank rookie officer inspecting a car without license plates died in November following a gun battle with two suspected gang members.

A 16-year-old boy was charged Friday with murdering CHP Officer Thomas J. Steiner, 35, of Long Beach, who was shot Wednesday in front of the Pomona South Courthouse where he was to testify in traffic cases.

The youth, identified as Valentino Mitchell Arenas, was allegedly seeking to execute any officer he could find, and prosecutors claimed the killing was linked to street gang activity.

That's a common thread in many shootings aimed at officers, officials said.

Slaying an officer often enhances the status of both the gang and the gang member, giving them notoriety and protection inside the prison system, said Darren Levine, a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney with the Crimes Against Police Officers section.

"There's a bounty on the heads of police officers," Levine said. "There's nothing better if you're going to prison than killing a cop."

Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association, said a flourishing of street gangs amid fiscal cuts to law enforcement anti-gang units and the attention given by the media to an officer's killing may also be contributing to the trend.

"The gangs are getting more bold," McBride said. "Gang members are taking on coppers more often than ever."

Gunmen with no gang affiliations also are taking potshots at officers, officials said.

Though the causes may vary, brazen attacks on officers with no or little provocation appear on the rise.

There were 40 cases of officers targeted by gunmen in 2003, a 21 percent increase from the previous year, said Officer Don Cox, a police spokesman. In those cases, a total of 84 officers were shot.

The district attorney's office also documented a dramatic upturn in assaults on officers at the end of last year.

The upsurge in attacks has led some officials to move toward increasing protection for officers. For instance, the Los Angeles City Council increased the award offered for information on crimes committed against police to $75,000 from $25,000 following the shooting of an officer in a housing project.

In addition, Helmick said he contacted other top law enforcement officials about planning a joint strategy for protecting officers and dealing with their assailants. The attacks have become so rampant that Levine has put together a program to train law enforcement agencies across the country to manage such cases.

Some officers, however, note that defending themselves from unexpected attacks such as the one committed against Steiner always will be difficult.

"You can never prepare for that," said Officer Jim Newkirk, who was Steiner's staff officer at the CHP academy. "It could happen to any one of us officers on any given day."

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