Tucson Officer’s Death a Reminder of the Dangers Facing Law Enforcement

So far this year, the number of law enforcement officers shot and killed in the U.S. has been cut in half. But this week’s fatal shooting of Tucson (AZ) Police Officer Erik Hite reminds us of just how dangerous and unpredictable law enforcement work remains – especially when officers are confronted by heavily armed and brazen criminals who don’t hesitate to fire upon not one, but multiple law enforcement officers.

Officer Hite was shot once in the head – “ambushed,” in the words of Tucson Police Chief Richard Miranda – at about 10:30 am, on Sunday, June 1, during an hour-long shooting spree that crisscrossed the city. The 43-year-old officer, whose career included four years with the Tucson Police and 21 years with the U.S. Air Force, died the following day. He is survived by his wife, their daughter (who has yet to turn 1), an adult son, his parents, his birth mother, two sisters and a brother.

The circumstances of the shooting are disturbing – and definitely appalling. Police report the suspect, a 25-year-old man from Northwest Tucson, began firing without provocation into two of his neighbors’ homes on Sunday morning. When a Pima County Sheriff’s deputy spotted him a few miles away, the suspect fired into his vehicle, striking the deputy in shoulder. Deputies spotted the suspect a short time later, and laid down spike strips to stop his fleeing vehicle, but he made an abrupt left turn. As officers approached, the suspect opened fired again, striking Officer Hite while he was in his vehicle, and then fled again. Before he was eventually captured more than an hour after the incident began, the suspect fired on other pursuing officers, grazing a second sheriff’s deputy in the head.

The shooting spree seemed to be unprovoked and the targets – both the houses and the officers – appeared to be random, according to police. They found several weapons and large amounts of ammunition in the suspect’s vehicle. According to the Arizona Daily Star, police officials characterized the weapon used by the suspect as an assault rifle but declined to name the exact type.

Officer Hite is the eighth Tucson Police officer to die in the line of duty and the first since May 2003, when Officer Patrick Hardesty was shot and killed while pursuing a suspect on foot. Tucson’s earliest line-of-duty death, in July 1892, occurred when Officer William Elliott was stabbed to death by a suspect who the officer managed to fatally wound.

As of June 3, 2008, total officer fatalities in the U.S. are down 44%, to 46 from 82 at the same time of 2007. The number of officers killed by gunfire is down 53% this year, from 34 to 16.

Such statistics are of little comfort to the family, friends and colleagues of Officer Hite. Said Police Chief Miranda, “As police chief, my ultimate responsibility is protection of my police officers. When something like this happens, I have a definite and sincere feeling of responsibility because these officers go out every single day and put their lives on the line. … I feel absolutely terrible.”

Send your condolences to the Hite family and the Tucson Police Department.