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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Police patrol near Spatz and Senate streets in the wake of a police-action shooting that began as a traffic stop. Passenger Tavontae Haney was shot after fleeing, then pointing a gun at officers.

Background checks will save cops

There have been four police-action fatal shootings so far this year involving nine of our Fort Wayne Police Department officers as well as several life-threatening encounters.

This is an unfortunate record for our agency and seems to reflect an alarming trend throughout the United States.

•On Feb. 20, Officer Jeffrey Burkholder responded to an armed robbery at the CVS pharmacy on East State Boulevard. While en route, Officer Burkholder observed a male matching the description of the robber. He and another officer pursued the suspect into an apartment building, with Officer Burkholder taking the lead in the search. Officer Burkholder observed the suspect attempting to hide on a second-story landing, and when ordered to surrender, the suspect pointed an SKS-style assault rifle at the officers. Officer Burkholder fired his weapon, fatally wounding the suspect, in response to the threat to himself and his partner. It was later discovered that the assault rifle had been stolen from a city residence the previous summer.

•Kenneth Knight forced Jacqueline Hardy off of a Citilink bus at the corner of Pettit Avenue and Winter Street and brutally murdered her with a cut-down shotgun that he had carried onto the bus on March 20. A citywide manhunt was conducted for Knight and, hours later, he was located in a home on Holton Avenue after taking a 3-year-old boy hostage. Negotiators tried valiantly to talk Knight out, but it was clear to them that he had no intention to be taken alive. Fearing for the safety of the toddler, Emergency Services Team snipers, at the direction of their command, took appropriate action against Mr. Knight.

•On April 27, Officer Cameron Norris attempted a routine traffic stop at Congress Avenue and Gaywood Drive. When both occupants fled from the vehicle, Officer Norris observed that the passenger was carrying a pistol and gave chase. The foot pursuit continued for several blocks with Officer Norris giving numerous commands for the suspect to stop. The suspect stopped running when Officer John Drummer blocked his path near McKinnie and Spatz avenues. The suspect was ordered numerous times to drop his weapon by both officers, but instead raised it toward them. Both officers fired, fatally wounding the suspect, Tavontae Haney. The weapon was a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol. It is still unknown how Haney came to possess the firearm, although it was owned by an acquaintance.

•On May 2, officers responded to Weymouth Court on a disturbance call. As four officers approached the home, 22-year-old Ryan Koontz began firing at them through a garage window, nearly striking one of the officers in the head. This quickly evolved into an active shooter situation with Mr. Koontz getting into a vehicle and driving a short distance while firing randomly at the officers. Koontz then exited the vehicle, continued firing and was fatally wounded by return fire from the officers. The suspect’s 40-caliber semiautomatic pistol had been sold to him by an acquaintance despite the fact that Koontz had attempted suicide with a firearm just months before.

•Daniel Spells was a convicted felon and should never have had possession of a firearm, but when Officer Treven Brown questioned him regarding possible involvement in a domestic dispute on May 15, he opened fire on the officer with a 45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Officer Brown barely escaped being shot as he wrestled Spells for control of the weapon, but he did sustain cuts to his hand as the slide cycled as Spells continued firing until the weapon was empty. The weapon had not been reported stolen, and we are still investigating to determine how Spells obtained the gun.

Our officers are encountering more individuals than ever before who are armed and either more inclined to assault law enforcement officers or to use them to carry out their suicide.

And while the dynamics involved in this phenomenon are complex, what remains a constant is the involvement of a firearm.

Police chiefs across the country for years have been calling for reasonable changes in our existing firearms laws that will make our streets safer for our citizens and our law enforcement officers. I traveled to Washington, D.C., in April, representing the Police Executive Research Forum, to lobby our legislators to support extended background checks for firearms purchases. We believe that this would significantly reduce the opportunity for criminals and persons suffering from mental illness to obtain firearms.

Would it totally eliminate the possibility of these people obtaining a firearm? Of course not, but it would make it illegal for someone to sell or provide them one. That might have made a difference in three of the life-threatening encounters our officers were involved in.

Although the tragedies of Newtown, Aurora and Tucson affect us all and raise our level of awareness about our problems regarding violence and guns, the men and women in law enforcement are keenly aware of this threat and face it daily.

There is a reason they are required to wear body armor. They are more likely to be involved in a deadly encounter with an armed suspect today than at any time previously in the history of law enforcement in our country.

I find it curious why the threat posed to law enforcement officers never becomes part of the equation when changes to firearms laws are debated. Their safety is being ignored. Instead, I hear: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The good guys are facing more and more bad guys with guns every day, and unfortunately, the good guys are getting shot far too often. According to the most current FBI statistics, in 2011, 63 officers were killed in the line of duty and 2,190 were assaulted with firearms.

We can no longer throw up our arms and declare that with 300 million guns already in circulation, any change in our laws would be insignificant. The status quo should no longer be an option.

We need to initiate reasonable change, and expanded background checks would be a perfect place to start. I believe we owe that to the men and women of law enforcement who have to deal with the consequences.

Rusty York is chief of the Fort Wayne Police Department. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.