The thin blue line is never more profoundly felt than when it’s splashed in red, revealing vulnerability in the public safety service but also a fierce determination to hold the line.
That terrible reality unfolded Wednesday evening when a 45-year-old Tacoma police officer was slain on the East Side. With those gunshots, another late November day became synonymous with sorrow for the Puget Sound region’s extended family of serve-and-protect professionals.
Nothing could sum up the deep grief, respect and camaraderie that attends a death in the line of duty more appropriately than the dozens of saluting officers who flanked the streets between police headquarters and Tacoma General Hospital. In the cold and dark, they presented a tableau of “but for the grace of God” reverence while their comrade’s body passed by in an ambulance.
Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, a 17-year veteran cop, was killed when he and another officer were called to a seemingly routine verbal dispute at a home on East 52nd Street. The suspect was shot and killed by police early Thursday morning after a nearly 12-hour standoff. Two children in the home were rescued.
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In today’s atmosphere of racial tension and terrorist angst, some might surmise that most fallen law enforcement officers are brought down in cold-blooded ambushes. That perception is fed by high-profile tragedies such as the July sniper attack in which five Dallas cops lost their lives.
Just this week, the Lakewood Police Department grimly observed the seventh anniversary of the massacre of four officers, shot execution-style while sharing a morning coffee before their shifts began Nov. 29, 2009.
But the truth is that most officer fatalities in the U.S. are connected to the mundane business of police work, such as traffic stops and responding to reports of suspicious people. The deadliest tend to be domestic violence calls. Gutierrez reportedly dealt with domestic violence all the time, and did it well, until his luck ran out Wednesday.
U.S. Department of Justice researchers investigated 132 line-of-duty deaths between 2010 and 2014, and found that more than 20 percent involved officers called to intervene between family members or intimate partners.
That’s what claimed the life of Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Kent Mundell, who was fatally shot Dec. 21, 2009, while responding to a dispute between brothers at a home north of Eatonville. At least three other Tacoma police officers — Craig Nollmeyer in 1985, Larry Walker in 1986 and William Lowry in 1997 — also were casualties at the scene of domestic confrontations.
In the final reckoning, the circumstances and settings where cops lose their lives don’t matter so much. What matters is the provision of dignity for the fallen, justice for the perpetrators, support for survivors, and training for those who wear the badge and instinctively walk or run toward the danger. That training includes thorough de-escalation training to prepare officers for a variety of dicey domestic encounters.
Last summer, in an open letter to the nation’s law enforcement community, President Obama captured the heart of most Americans in the wake of police killings in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
“Even when some protest you, you protect them. What is more professional than that? What is more patriotic?” he wrote. “At the end of the day, you have a right to go home to your family, just like anybody else.”
Those words certainly express what South Sound residents are feeling after another dark day in late November.