Police in the D.C. area have recorded an uptick in the number of fatal police-involved shootings this year, as authorities say officers increasingly are coming under attack.
Prince George's County police reported the most significant increase in the number of fatal police-involved shootings, with eight fatalities compared to one last year. The Metropolitan Police Department in the District mirrored the increase, with five people killed during police-involved shootings this year. There were no fatal police-involved shootings in the District last year.
Fairfax County police said they had two fatal shootings this year compared to two non-fatal shootings in 2010. Montgomery County police reported four departmental shootings in both 2010 and 2011, with one fatal shooting each year. Arlington County Police Department reported no fatal shootings.
The circumstances around the shootings appear to vary widely, with officers facing suicidal gunmen, mental health patients and murder suspects, among others. But officials also say the uptick comes at a time officers increasingly are under attack.
“One of the things we’re seeing more of is instead of people running from police they are turning and attacking police,” Kristopher Baumann, chairman of MPD’s Fraternal Order of Police union said. “It’s a disturbing trend. We’ve had two officers shot this year.”
In Prince George’s County, it’s been an “unprecedented year” with three county police officers shot and injured in the line of duty, police spokeswoman Julie Parker said.
Statistics provided by the department show that between January and Aug. 8, county police reported 338 assaults on police officers, a number that projects to be roughly comparable to last year, when there were 592 assaults on county officers. But last year there were a total of 16 assaults on officers that involved a handgun, while police recorded 11 such attacks in a little more than seven months this year.
Police say attacks involving handguns are likely to generate a forceful response.
“If someone is engaging us with a firearm, we are going to engage back,” Prince George's County police spokeswoman Capt. Kara Lloyd said, adding officers will use equal force to what is being used against them. “We’re being confronted by a lot of firearms.”
Prince George's County police this year have recorded a total of 15 police-involved shootings, both fatal and nonfatal, with 13 of those incidents involving people armed with guns. Two of the fatal shootings occurred this month, police said.
In the latest shooting on Dec. 17, two-year veteran Officer Michael Owen Jr. fatally shot a man who police said aimed a gun at him. The officer saw the man, later identified as 35-year-old Rodney Deron Edwards, lying in a grassy area along the side of a road and pulled over to help the man. That was when police said Edwards pointed a handgun at Officer Owen and the officer fired.
Just three days earlier, officers fatally shot a reportedly suicidal man during a standoff at the man’s home.
Police said 43-year-old James Henry Peoples called police to report he was contemplating suicide. Officers surrounded the home, but when Peoples exited the home with a gun in hand and ignored commands to drop it, five officers opened fire and Peoples was fatally shot.
The latest MPD departmental shooting also involved a man police said was carrying a gun. MPD officials said they were investigating a report of a man who was high on PCP firing a gun in a Northeast neighborhood on Dec. 12 when they encountered 20-year-old Michael Epps, who police said was carrying a gun. When he refused to drop the weapon, at least four officers fired, striking and killing him.
Data on assaults against MPD officers was not available for 2011. However, data collected by the FBI shows a slight increase in the number of assaults on MPD officers from 2009 to 2010, from a total of 969 assaults to 998 assaults.
Nationally, the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund reports that officer fatalities by firearm are up this year. As of Dec. 21, there were 65 officers killed in the line of duty compared to 59 killed in the line of duty by firearm last year.
In response to the possibility that officers in the District will come under fire, Mr. Baumann said specialized training at the department’s shooting range has proved beneficial.
“They’ve done a really good job responding to those increases and making officers think about taking cover,” Mr. Baumann said, adding that instructors re-enact real life scenarios that officers have faced on D.C. streets.
But departmental shootings often raise concern in the communities in which they occur, as did the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Northwest this summer. Officers fatally shot 55-year-old Jean E. Louis after the man barricaded himself in a bathroom in his home and later attacked an officer with a screw driver.
Both Prince George’s County and the District in their recent histories have faced federal oversight after questions about their police departments’ use of force. Prince George’s County was under the oversight of the Department of Justice from 2004 to 2008 after a series of officer shootings and in-custody deaths.
D.C. police in 2001 entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Justice Department governing the use and display of force. The agreement ended in April 2008 after the department made substantial changes to the way it reports and investigates the use of force.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, said officer-involved incidents are always troubling.
“We’re always concerned with police shootings,” he said. “The good news, at least in D.C., is D.C. police instituted a pretty good system of investigations every time there is a shooting by police.”