Tragedy in Oakland: Four Officers Gunned Down

Even as the number of law enforcement officers killed by gunfire in the United States reached a 52-year low last year, Saturday’s violence in Oakland, CA, illustrates the enormous and unpredictable dangers that officers continue to face from heavily armed criminals who won’t hesitate to fire on officers—in this instance, not once but twice.

Three Oakland police sergeants were shot and killed, and a fourth officer gravely injured, during two related incidents involving the same gunman. Together, the shootings are among the deadliest attacks on law enforcement in California history.

At about 1:15 pm on March 21, Sergeant Mark Dunakin, 40, and Officer John Hege, 41, both motorcycle officers, were shot following a traffic stop in East Oakland. Just over two hours later, SWAT team members, responding to an anonymous tip, tracked the gunman to an apartment building just a few blocks from the original shooting scene. As they entered a bedroom, the gunman opened fire through a closet, striking Sergeant Ervin Romans, 43, and Sergeant Dan Sakai, 35. Another member of the SWAT team, though injured himself by gunfire, managed to shoot and kill the suspect, a parolee who had been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and was also wanted on a no-bail warrant.

Sergeants Dunakin, Romans and Sakai all died from their injuries on Saturday. Officer Hege was declared brain dead Sunday morning at Highland Hospital in Oakland and remained on life support to preserve his organs for donation. Oakland City Council member Larry Reid called it “one of the worst days in the history of Oakland.”

Saturday’s deadly shootings come at a time when law enforcement officer fatalities in general—and officer deaths involving firearms specifically—are on the decline. According to NLEOMF records, 133 officers died in the line of duty in 2008, a 27 percent decrease from the prior year and the lowest annual total since 1960. Last year, 39 officers were killed in firearms-related incidents, a decrease of 43 percent from 2007 and the lowest number since 1956.

NLEOMF officials credit increased awareness of officer safety and improved policies, training and equipment—in particular, continued improvements in soft body armor—for the dramatic decline in firearms-related fatalities over the past three decades. But Saturday’s incidents demonstrate that even with safety measures in place, officers face tremendous risks from criminals armed with high-powered weapons.

This was the first multiple-fatality shooting incident of U.S. law enforcement officers in over a year. On February 7, 2008, Officer Thomas Ballman and Sergeant William Biggs Jr., of the Kirkwood (MO) Police Department, were shot and killed by a gunman who had gone on a rampage at the city hall. The last time more than two officers were killed in a single firearms-related incident was September 8, 2007, when Odessa (TX) Police Corporals John Gardner, Arlie Jones and Abel Marquez were gunned down while responding to a domestic disturbance call.

The last time four officers were gunned down in a single incident was February 28, 1993. Four Special Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were killed attempting to execute a search warrant at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas: Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert J. Williams and Steven Willis.

One of the most infamous, multiple-fatality shootings occurred almost 40 years ago in Los Angeles County, CA. On April 6, 1970, Four California Highway Patrolmen—George Alleyn, Walt Frago, Roger Gore and James Pence—died in an intense, four-minute gun battle with two heavily-armed suspects. The Newhall Incident, as it became known, reverberated throughout the law enforcement community and led to major reforms in training procedures, firearms use and arrest techniques.

The NLEOMF extends its sympathies to the families of the fallen Oakland PD heroes, their co-workers and the entire Oakland community. The Memorial Fund will be there for them during the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, and the officers’ service and sacrifice will always be remembered.