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Shootings turn police work into balancing act

| Monday, July 18, 2016, 11:33 p.m.
Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie pauses while discussing the deaths of his officers during a news conference Monday, July 18, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La.
Baton Rouge police Chief Carl Dabadie pauses while discussing the deaths of his officers during a news conference Monday, July 18, 2016, in Baton Rouge, La.
Millville, N.J., police chaplain Robert Ossler kisses a cross Monday, July 18, 2016, while visiting a memorial for three police officers who were fatally shot in an ambush in Baton Rouge, La.
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Millville, N.J., police chaplain Robert Ossler kisses a cross Monday, July 18, 2016, while visiting a memorial for three police officers who were fatally shot in an ambush in Baton Rouge, La.

When a police officer walked out of the Edgewood BP gas station early Monday and heard gunshots from somewhere over his left shoulder, he immediately worried that the shooter was targeting him.

A swarm of officers responded to the scene at South Braddock and Monongahela avenues after witnesses said they saw a flash of gunfire in the direction of the Parkway East overpass. Investigators determined that the shots came from a stopped car on the interstate — and that they were not intended for the officer.

But after eight police officers were killed this month in attacks in Texas and Louisiana, Edgewood police Chief Robert Payne said it's not surprising that his officer worried about his safety when he heard the blasts.

“I think everybody is on edge,” he said.

Thirty-one police officers across the country have been shot and killed this year, a 72 percent increase over the 18 officers who were fatally shot between Jan. 1 and July 18 of last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Fourteen of the officers killed this year were ambushed.

Three officers were killed Sunday in Baton Rouge, La., where an officer this month fatally shot a black man outside a gas station convenience store. Five officers were killed July 7 in Dallas while standing guard as hundreds of people protested the shooting in Louisiana and an incident in Minnesota in which a black man was fatally shot during a traffic stop.

No officers have been killed this year in Pennsylvania, but local law enforcement officials said they feel the same anxiety here as in those communities where the shootings occurred.

“Basically, we're telling our people that we want you to be hyper vigilant, we want you to take appropriate action to keep yourself safe, but these are the times when we're going to need to reassure the citizens that we're professional police officers,” Allegheny County police Superintendent Coleman J. McDonough said. “It's very important — more than ever — that we present that calm, reasonable image to the public.”

Brandi Fisher is the president of Pittsburgh's Alliance for Police Accountability. She said she would never advocate for violence because “everything we do is to stand up against that.” She said she finds it interesting, however, that, “everybody's on high alert now that police officers are being killed,” and that it speaks to the premise behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There wasn't this crisis, there wasn't this urgency of now, when 568 people were killed by the police this year,” Fisher said. “There wasn't this crisis when we saw the young man murdered by the police officer right in front his daughter and his girlfriend (in Minnesota). This crisis only comes when innocent lives are taken that are law enforcement. The message (of) the Black Lives Matter movement is that you have to have this urgency of now when innocent black people's lives are being taken. It's sad that it's only coming when we see the lives of police officers being taken, and I think it speaks to the system that we're standing up against.”

Pittsburgh police reported receiving unsubstantiated threats on social media last week, and officers will now patrol in pairs, officials announced last weekend.

The Allegheny County Police Department is urging its officers to be cautious.

Officers have to protect themselves but also have to serve as leaders in times of trouble, McDonough said.

“We have to always have that in mind that these horrible crimes on police officers are very, very few people in society, and nothing would serve the ends of this violent minority better than for police to overreact or to adopt some kind of a ‘we vs. them' mentality,” he said. “This is when we have to step up and show that we are professionals and we are going to continue to fulfill our commitment to protect and serve people.”

The shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas will likely make it difficult for police officers to maintain good community relations until tensions calm down, said Jon Shane, a former Newark, N.J., police captain and an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Law enforcement officers and the citizens they protect are both wary of trouble.

“I think that these things weigh on everybody's mind, and that the next encounter with a cop could be the one that sets something off,” he said. “As police departments try to make inroads with communities and help them solve their own problems, everybody's on edge.”

“Police officers are definitely aware of it, and we as a group have always tried to strive for the best public relations that we can,” said Mark E. Hall, president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and police chief for Clarion Borough. “I definitely think it's much more stressful today because of what's going on nationally.”

McDonough hopes there is something to be gained from the national situation.

“I kind of ascribe to the theory that in chaos there's opportunity,” he said. “Maybe this is an opportunity for police to come closer to the community rather than what might be the effect if we act unreasonable on either side.”

Elizabeth Behrman and Madasyn Czebiniak are staff writers for the Tribune-Review.

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