After the December 2014 ambush of two police officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., five officers were killed and seven wounded in Dallas on Thursday. And the ambushes continued Friday in Georgia and Missouri, with more officers wounded.
The latest attacks on police – in apparent retaliation for the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota – punctuated a harsh reality for Hutchens: Her deputies can take every possible precaution and still fall helpless to a sniper’s bullet.
“The reality is you go out on the street and somebody decides to take you out – that’s hard to guard against,” Hutchens said. “Now we have to worry about copycats.”
Law enforcement throughout Southern California on Friday wrapped their badges in black bands and continued to hit the streets, some, like the Westminster Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, partnering up.
Leaving behind worried spouses and children struggling to understand, the officers reported to their jobs on a stress-filled day.
Before he left for the night shift Friday, Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Torres got a hug from his 15-year-old daughter, who made him promise he would return safe.
“I told her I would do my best,” Torres said, knowing there are no guarantees. “I have the responsibility to the community, to the dead cops, to keep going.”
Since the 2014 ambush in Brooklyn, Hutchens has reminded her deputies to be extra vigilant and to call for backup. Complacency leads to bad things, she warns them.
Hutchens said she understands the tension exploding nationally over officer-involved shootings.
“Not all shootings are going to be good shootings. But the narrative now is all shootings are bad, and a video clip and a statement by a family that is distraught is immediately broadcast to (The Associated Press) and judgment is made before we know what the facts are,” she said. “We’re not afraid of what the facts are. I’m not defending every shooting that occurs.”
Hutchens speaks from experience. She was involved in a fatal shooting as a young Los Angeles County deputy.
“It has a devastating impact on people,” she said.
Hutchens said the threat to the public and to police has grown, making it harder to weed out the enemy.
“There’s a lot of emotion out there, the combination of ISIS and then our homegrown violent extremist,” she said. “In totality, it’s relatively safe, but people should take precautions and listen to law enforcement.”
As the tension mounted Friday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell called for a national conversation on police shootings and racial discord, led by national leaders.
“We can’t leave anybody out of the conversation,” he said. “We have to hit it head on and be open about it … how do we move forward?”
Understanding is needed on both sides, he said.
“Nobody calls us when they are having a good day,” McDonnell said. “We’re trying to put order to chaos. Overwhelmingly we’re able to do that.
“And the cases where that doesn’t happen, that has been the entire focus.”
McDonnell said many of his deputies came to him Friday morning with the same question: “How do I explain this to my kids?”
Said Orange County Sgt. Torres: “How do you explain madness?”
Veteran Hawthorne Police Department Sgt. Chris Cognac was so distraught by Thursday’s shooting, he took his family Friday to see the light animated movie, “The Secret Life of Pets.”
But Cognac, founder of the Coffee With a Cop community policing program, believes both police and community members must re-engage in an effort to talk through violent encounters between law enforcement and residents.
He believes Coffee With a Cop, now a part of policing efforts in 35 U.S. and Canadian cities, is the most important program of its kind in the nation.
“It builds trust,” Cognac said. “It humanizes us. It humanizes the people we serve. It’s intimate communication. It’s not talking at somebody. It’s talking with somebody. And that’s what we need to do as a nation. We need to sit down and talk.”
Police officials agreed that building trust in advance helps create a foundation to fall back on when bad things happen.
“It’s the responsibility of each officer, each deputy sheriff, each agency to do outreach to the community,” said McDonnell, the Los Angeles County sheriff.
Some officers said they couldn’t help but replay the shootings and resulting ambush in their minds.
“I’ve been through that process a million times,” Paul Wegner, who retired from the Long Beach Police Department as a sergeant in 2011, said of the Castile shooting. “In my mind, I can’t understand why it happened. I do know for a fact that it clearly set off a fireball.
“What happened in Dallas is part of the job, but not what we expect to happen. I’m afraid of what’s going on in the political arena. Both sides got majorly fueled by the events.”
The shootings in Dallas stunned not only the law enforcement world, but those who study police.
“The shootings on the police officers in Dallas are a catastrophe that could make a very bad situation even worse when it comes to relations between police officers and the communities that they serve,” said Robert Snyder, an associate professor of journalism and American studies at Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey and an expert in police/community relations. “My fear is that the shootings in Dallas will only sharpen fears and suspicions that have led to the deaths of innocent men, particularly black men at the hands of police officers.”
He said many African American men and police officers face a similar dilemma of feeling they have “targets on their backs,” which instills in them a sense of fear and/or paranoia when confronted by one another during traffic stops or on the streets.
And those tensions can reach a boiling point in the aftermath of deadly police shootings.
“This is a poison dynamic that shakes the behavior of everybody involved, and the shootings in Dallas are the worst kind of nightmare come true,” Snyder said.
Staff writers Dakota Smith and Tim Grobaty contributed to this report.