Bombings Remain a Danger for Law Enforcement Officers

Although bombings may not be one of the leading causes of line-of-duty deaths among America’s law enforcement officers, this weekend’s killing of two officers in Oregon from a bomb blast remind us of the types of dangers facing law enforcement today.

Captain Tom Tennant of the Woodburn Police Department and Senior Trooper Bill Hakim, a bomb technician with the Oregon State Police, were killed on Friday evening, December 12, as they were investigating a suspicious device outside a branch bank in Woodburn, OR. Woodburn Police Chief Scott Russell was also hurt in the blast and remains in critical condition at a local hospital. A suspect in the bombing was reportedly arrested in the Salem area on Sunday night.

According to research records from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, more than 75 law enforcement officers have been killed in bombings throughout our nation’s history. Some, like Captain Tennant and Trooper Hakim, died because it is their job to disarm bombs before they harm innocent citizens. Others were targeted for death by bomb-wielding terrorists. More than a few were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—a common problem for police officers.

The first known bombing incident to take the life of a police officer occurred on May 4, 1886. Seven Chicago police officers were killed when a bomb exploded on a city street. The bomb-throwing incident was part of a tragic civil disorder, centered around a labor dispute, which has become known as the “Haymarket Riot.” Killed in the blast were Patrolmen Mathias J. Degan, John Barrett, George Miller, Timothy Flavin, Thomas Redden, Nels Hansen and Michael Sheehand. Some 70 others in the crowd were injured in the bombing.

More than a century later, bombs continue to be a popular and destructive criminal tool. In February 1992, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James H. Fulford, Jr., was killed by a bomb during a “routine” traffic stop. After pulling a car over for speeding, Trooper Fulford conducted a search of the vehicle. When he picked up a package in the trunk, it exploded. Omaha (NE) Police Officer Larry D. Minard suffered a similar fate in August 1970. He was moving a suitcase he found lying on the floor of a vacant house when the bomb inside exploded.

But, even under the most favorable conditions, explosives can still be extremely dangerous, especially those that are illegally manufactured. Johnny Masengale, a special agent with the then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), was killed in May 1992 while preparing to destroy a highly volatile mixture of explosive materials that had been seized the day before. At the time of the explosion, Special Agent Masengale was working with a team of ATF and military explosives experts at Fort Lewis, Washington. As they were preparing for a controlled ignition, the materials detonated prematurely.

Explosives can have deadly consequences even during training exercises. In February 2002, Scottsdale (AZ) Police Sergeant Thomas Hontz was killed while conducting a training exercise in two vacant homes in Scottsdale, Arizona. A device called a “gas ax,” which is used to puncture walls and pump tear gas into a room, exploded. Fourteen other firefighters and police officers were injured in this incident.

In recent years, several officers participating in the war on terrorism have been killed in bomb blasts. For example, several special agents with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations and U.S. Diplomatic Security Service have died in roadside and other bombings while serving in Iraq.

Trooper Hakim is not the first Oregon State Police member to be killed in a bombing. On October 2, 1997, Sergeant Richard Schuening was working with state and federal law enforcement in locating and removing dynamite and other explosives that were illegally stored on a property in Granite, OR. The 18-year veteran was killed when some of the materials exploded.