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Why Are Ambush Killings of Police on the Rise?

Don’t blame the Black Lives Matter movement — the answer is far more complicated.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

The week of Thanksgiving, a 19-year-old gunman was shot and killed after ambushing a police officer in St. Louis, Missouri. The 46-year-old sergeant, who miraculously survived the two bullets to the head, wasn’t the only victim of an ambush-style attack that day: A San Antonio police officer was fatally shot during a traffic stop in what local police described as “a targeted killing similar to recent police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” according to CNN. The cable news network reported that the San Antonio and St. Louis attacks were two of four such attacks that rankled police forces across the country — all on the same day.

What looks like an unnerving coincidence may signal a more disturbing trend. A recent mid-year report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which quantifies police officer deaths, showed that 67 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers were killed as of July 20th, 2016, up 8 percent over last year; more alarmingly, some 14 officers were fatally targeted in “ambush killings,” a 300 percent increase from the three ambush killings that took place during the same time period in 2015. The recent ambushes, including those that took place on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, bring the total to 20. And those are just officers who died in the line of duty: The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s crime statistics suggest that 240 police officers were ambushed in 2015.

While the NLEOMF’s own data shows that police officer killingshave declined sharply over the last 40 yearsalongside the national crime rate — including ambush assaults, which a Washington Post analysis shows have dropped significantly from 1990 to 2014 — the sudden uptick in officer ambushes has made police forces increasingly nervous. In July, just before the release of the NLEOMF’s mid-year report, Army veteran Micah Johnson gunned down five police officers during a protest against the mistreatment of African Americans by police in Dallas, Texas; just a few days latter, Gavin Long murdered three police officers in Baton Rouge. Despite a decline in violent crime, it now seems more and more dangerous to be a police officer in America.

But how do we account for this uptick in police ambushes? The go-to answer among some law enforcement officials is cut and dry: Blame the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement for inciting a “War on Cops,” as was the case in the aftermath of the Dallas and Baton Rogue ambushes this summer. In the aftermath of the Dallas attack, the National Association of Police Organizations blamed “senseless agitators and gutless politicians” — including the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division — “who helped bring about these murders.” Conservative pundits blamed “race hustlers” like Reverend Al Sharpton; the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald devoted a whole book to arguing that anti-police rhetoric “spawned riots, ‘die-ins,’ and the assassination of police officers” by African Americans. And, as recently as this November, the father of a slain Dallas police officer sued the leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization, a “violent and revolutionary criminal gang,” for inciting “further violence, severe bodily injury and death against police officers of all races and ethnicities, Jews, and Caucasians.”

Consider Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ron Hickman’s statement to the Huffington Post after one of his deputies was ambushed while pumping gas late last year:

The general climate of that kind of rhetoric can be influential on people to do things like this. We’re still searching to find out if that’s actually a motive, We’ve heard black lives matter, all lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So how about we drop the qualifier and just say lives matter?

Despite the fact that leaders and activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement were quick to condemn the ambush-style attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge this summer, the relationship between civil rights activism and police ambushes has only gained traction since it metastasized nearly two years ago. In December of 2014 — in the midst of nationwide protests against police mistreatment of African Americans following the non-indictment of New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner — NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were gunned down in their squad car by Ismaaiyl Brinsley in “revenge” for the deaths of Garner and Michael Brown. The deaths of Ramos and Liu helped give birth to the “Blue Lives Matter” pro-police movement, which was aided and abetted by the law-and-order rhetoric that marked the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

But, anecdotally, it’s not totally clear that there’s a direction connection between the rise of anti-police rhetoric and these ambushes. Yes, the perpetrators of high-profile police ambushes like Brinsley in New York and Johnson in Dallas targeted police in response to racial disparities in the criminal justice system (according to Dallas police chief David Brown, Johnson “was upset about the recent police shootings … upset at white people,” and “stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” per the New York Times).

But Baton Rouge gunman Gavin Long, despite his rantings over the death of unarmed black men at the hands of police, appeared motivated more by the anti-government “sovereign citizen” movement and had a history of paranoia and delusion. And Scott Michael Greene, who killed two Des Moines police officers earlier this month in a highway ambush, was a middle-aged white man who had been previously arrested for waving a Confederate flag at a high school football game — hardly the Black Lives Matter sympathizer.

These examples point to a complicating factor that somewhat muddies arguments claiming the anti-police rhetoric of the current racial justice movement is entirely to blame for the recent “war on cops”: the rise of the “sovereign citizen” ideology among Americans both white and black. In 2011, the FBI issued warnings to federal, state, and local law enforcement agents around the threats posed by sovereign citizens, the same year that a Southern Policy Law Center report observed a rise in the adoption of sovereign citizen philosophies and tactics by African-American radicals independent of the Black Lives Matter movement’s governing philosophy, as was the case with Long:

“The movement of sovereign citizens — most of whom are clearly unaware of the ideology’s racist roots — has grown extremely rapidly in the last two or three years,” the SPLC said in a statement. “And, while black Americans remain a relatively small fraction of the estimated 300,000 sovereign citizens nationwide, it seems clear that their numbers are growing.”

While anti-police rhetoric may have heightened attention to post-Ferguson police ambushes, sovereign citizens have been responsible for a growing number of attacks on police in the last several years, including the 2014 shooting spree by heavily armed Jerad and Amanda Miller in Las Vegas. A 2014 study from the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, released in the weeks between Garner and Brown’s deaths that summer, found that law enforcement agencies overwhelmingly saw sovereign citizens as a greater domestic threat than even Islamic terrorists.

Even NLEOMF president Craig W. Floyd agrees that politicians and police advocates are overlooking the threat posed by anti-government vigilantes of all racial backgrounds. “So much dialogue has centered around race relations, but there is a hatred in this country right now that’s just gotten out of control,” he told Fox News after the Houston and Baton Rouge attacks last week. “There is a lack of respect for government in general, and the most visible and vulnerable symbol of government in America is patrolling our streets in marked cars.” In the case of these police ambushes, it would seem motives are more complicated than mere racial identity.

This, of course, doesn’t excuse the violent attacks of self-styled vigilantes who mow down police officers in the name of “justice,” but it does suggest that the correlation between the post-Brown era of civil rights activism and the War on Cops is complicated at best. Unfortunately, there’s a major obstacle to untangling the root causes of the War on Cops, and that’s the way data on crime and violence in the United States is reported and analyzed. It’s possible that the rise in police ambushes is a function of the overall 10.8 percent increase in homicides in the last year, an increase that, while significant, does not significantly untangle the specific geography (and, in turn, sociopolitical history) that determines a state or city’s relationship with criminal violence.

It’s also worth noting, per the Post’s Christopher Ingraham, that NLEOMF and the FBI’s ambush and police shooting statistics “are subject to significant year-over-year fluctuation in part because these incidents are so rare.” And all of these changes take place against the backdrop of both a historically low crime rate and a comparatively low rate of police deaths. While the existing crime data does not uniformly place the blame at the feet of civil rights activists fighting for justice and reform in their local police department, it does suggest that something is deeply wrong in the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they’re meant to police.