Sunday’s slaying of two Las Vegas policemen raises to 23 the number of law enforcement officers killed by gunfire this year, a 53 percent increase over the tally at this time last year, which is spurring concern about the influence of radical groups.
After shooting the policemen at point-blank range, the husband and wife killers took the officers’ weapons and reportedly covered them with a Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag, which depicts a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” The officers’ killers — Jerad Miller and his wife, Amanda — had been at Cliven Bundy’s ranch during his standoff with federal officials in April, though the rancher’s family said Monday the two had been chased away.
The Millers had an ideology that was along the lines of “militia and white supremacists” and that law enforcement was the “oppressor,” said Assistant Sheriff Kevin McMahill.
The slayings of officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, who were gunned down while having lunch at a pizza buffet, add to a trend that has law enforcers worried that they are becoming the targets of crime.
“We are seeing more direct violence as a result of radical groups, and that does concern us,” said Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations. “There seems to be more people out there who are blatantly anti-cop, and heavy exposure through the Internet and other propaganda seems to make people with these violent views feed off each other.”
This year is on track to be one of the most deadly for police officers since 2001, when terrorists hit the World Trade Center, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks crimes against law enforcers nationally. There have been 23 law enforcement shooting deaths so far this year, compared with 15 shooting deaths at this time last year.
Overall, 62 police officers have been killed this year, compared with 45 this time last year. Those figures include traffic-related incidents.
Law enforcement groups such as the International Union of Police Associations and National Sheriffs’ Association say they have seen increased activity by members of the sovereign citizen movement — an anti-government, white supremacist organization — and the anti-government Patriot and militia movements that have targeted officers.
“All law enforcement is wary of the sovereign citizen movement. It has a lot of folks concerned,” said Fred Wilson, a spokesman for the National Sheriffs’ Association. “They are really well armed and have some pretty bad weapons. Right now they’ve mostly been trying to use the civil process to thwart things — through trivial lawsuits and liens and the likes. We haven’t seen anything exponential yet, but again, one incident is too many.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), membership in the militia arm of the Patriot movement has more than quintupled over the past five years, and those participating in the sovereign citizen movement have increased their numbers over the same period.
“We are five years into the largest resurgence in right-wing anti-government groups since … the Oklahoma City bombing,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research at ADL.
He said that six years ago, ADL’s briefings for police officers were evenly split between providing information on white supremacist organizations and anti-government groups.
“Today it’s more like a 90/10 split in favor of anti-government groups,” Mr. Pitcavage said. “This is absolutely a legitimate concern.”
Jerad and Amanda Miller, who ambushed the Las Vegas police officers, had all the trappings of the Patriot movement’s militia wing, Mr. Pitcavage said. Mr. Miller’s Facebook postings and manifesto spoke of a tyrannical government needing to be overcome through citizen rebellion. In this line of thinking, law enforcement officers are either knowing participants in the conspiracy or are doing its bidding, making them natural enemies, the ADL official said.
Las Vegas police said Monday that they are still trying to determine a motive for the fatal shootings. The couple also killed Joseph Wilcox, 31, of Las Vegas at a nearby Wal-Mart.
Ammon Bundy, one of Cliven Bundy’s sons, told The Associated Press by telephone that the Millers were at his father’s ranch for a few days this spring but were asked to leave for unspecified “conduct” problems.
He called the couple “very radical” and said they “did not align themselves” with the beliefs of other protesters, adding that while thousands of people have been to the site over the last few months, “not very many people were asked to leave. I think they may have been the only ones.”
Cliven Bundy and his supporters, some of them armed militia members, thwarted a Bureau of Land Management roundup of his cattle near Bunkerville, Nevada, in April. The BLM says Mr. Bundy owes more than $1 million in grazing fees and penalties for trespassing without a permit over 20 years, but he refuses to acknowledge federal authority on public lands.
Ammon Bundy said his family “has had no quarrel” with Las Vegas police and disavowed the Millers’ actions.
“The only thing worse than tyranny is anarchy, and we certainly recognize that,” Mr. Bundy said.
The Millers moved to the Las Vegas area in January, police said. Amanda Miller, 22, had worked at a Hobby Lobby craft store in Las Vegas, the chain store said in a written statement, but was no longer employed there.
Jerad Miller, 31, was convicted of felony vehicle theft in Washington state, police said. He also had a criminal record in Indiana.
The Millers were married in August 2012, according to a marriage license on file in Indiana.
A spike in crimes against police officers in late 2010 and early 2011 prompted the Justice Department to launch its Valor Initiative to prevent law enforcement injuries and deaths with increased training, including how to handle ambushes, which officers increasingly were confronting.
At the time, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. acknowledged an “alarming increase in officer fatalities.”
“The Justice Department is committed to turning back this rising tide, to meeting increased violence with renewed vigilance and to doing everything within our power — and using every tool at our disposal — to keep law enforcement officers safe,” the attorney general said.
In 2012 and 2013, officer fatalities were reduced, only to rise again this year.
“A few years ago, we really started to see a rash of violence against law enforcement, so much so that the community had to band together to address that situation from the top, starting at the Department of Justice,” said Steve Groeninger, a spokesman for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. “There was a focus on training and safety and responding to calls. The point was to make sure that each and every officer made it home at the end of their shift. It’s disheartening to see these numbers tick up again.”
But law enforcement shouldn’t rely on year-over-year figures to deduce a trend or evaluate a program’s effectiveness, said Northeastern University criminologist James Allen Fox, noting that statistics over the last three decades show a sharp decrease in the number of police officers who have been killed.
According to FBI statistics, more than 130 law enforcement agents were killed feloniously in 1973, compared with 48 in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available. The reason for this decline is because overall crime rates have been reduced, Mr. Fox said.
Statistics aside, there’s been a palpable, growing dislike for police officers in recent years, said Jim Pasco, executive director at the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest police officers union. There will always be ebbs and flows in terms of crime data, but the anti-government presence is real and is felt on the streets by officers, he said.
“Over the last 25 years or so there’s been a gradual erosion toward authority figures and of respect for police officers. It’s highly visible,” said Mr. Pasco. “The vast majority of people respect police officers and what they do, but there’s always going to be that deranged minority with unfocused rage and resentment. Most of the haters just talk about it and ruminate, but every once in a while it manifests itself.”
Mr. Pasco said he receives about two to four emails a month from individuals who say they celebrate when they hear news of a cop dying and who won’t be happy until “each one of you is dead,” he read from an email.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “It’s very disconcerting, but it’s not like I’m going to send an email back and try to defend what we do. They’re too far gone.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.