As Jenny Johnson watched news reports of an ambush that killed two police officers in New York, she knew what to expect, but what she saw still broke her heart.
“It was like a piece of each one of them was gone,” Johnson said, thinking of family members and colleagues.
Less than three years ago, she was overcome with the same emotions. Her sister, Aiken Department of Public Safety Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers was fatally shot Jan. 28, 2012, while responding to suspicious activity near Eustis Park on Edgefield Avenue.
Hearing about the deaths of New York Police Department Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos only opened old wounds. A day after they were ambushed by suspect Ismaaiyl Brinsley as they sat in their patrol car, Tarpon Springs Police Department Officer Charles Kondek was shot and killed in Florida while responding to a noise complaint.
“It makes my heart ache all over again,” she said.
Recent statistics, though, carry some good news – fewer officers are dying on duty.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports, the number of officers feloniously killed each year has steadily declined since 2011, when there were 72 reported nationwide. Two of those deaths hit close to home: Aiken Master Public Safety Officer Scotty Richardson and Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy J.D. Paugh.
Richardson was fatally shot and a second officer wounded during a traffic stop on Brandt Court on Dec. 20, 2011. The shooting suspect, Stephon Carter, is expected to go on trial late next month, and 2nd Judicial Circuit Solicitor J. Strom Thurmond Jr. intends to seek the death penalty.
Paugh was killed Oct. 23, 2011, when he stopped to investigate a vehicle parked on the shoulder of Bobby Jones Expressway. Christopher Michael Hodges fatally shot Paugh, who was off duty, before taking his own life.
Every time former Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength passes the spot where Paugh was killed, he can’t help but think about his former deputy.
“It’s something I’ll always carry with me,” he said.
In 2013, 27 law enforcement officers were killed feloniously, down from 49 in 2012. The FBI reports assaults on officers have dropped from 54,774 in 2011 to 49,851 in 2013.
Still, since 1944, there hasn’t been a year in which fewer than 100 officers have died in the line of duty, said Jim Sewell, the retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That number takes into account the officers who died accidentally in motor vehicle accidents and because of medical issues in addition to other factors.
Having spent more than 42 years in law enforcement, he said, officer deaths strike him particularly hard. And he understands that even the most experienced officers can fall victim to the unknown.
“Awareness is important,” he said. “Sometimes you will lull yourself into a naïve perception (of crime).”
That’s why the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office places emphasis on training in the wake of tragedies such as those in New York and Florida, Sgt. Shane McDaniel said. The department will take its officers to the range to practice shooting and other emergency scenarios with the hope that more training will lead to faster response times.
“We don’t just do this one time,” McDaniel said. “We train several times a year, because if you don’t practice it you tend to forget it.”
But preparing for the unknown can be difficult, Strength said.
“Law enforcement officers go through extensive training on what to do and when to do it, but all the training in the world could not stop something like (the New York shootings) from happening,” he said.