Crime Scenes: Deaths of Officers Come in Rapid Succession

… It’s not unusual for police department to lose two or more officers in a month’s time …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

5:25 PM EDT, October 21, 2010

The deaths of the city police officers came in such quick succession that the funeral for one had barely been planned before the next one died.

Off-duty Detective Brian Stevenson was killed Saturday night in Canton after being struck in the head with a chunk of concrete, apparently in a dispute over a parking space. Officer Thomas Portz Jr. was killed Wednesday morning when his cruiser ran into the back of a fire engine.

Two deaths. Four days.

Last month, Officer James Fowler was killed after losing control of his vehicle while driving to a training program in Pennsylvania.

Three deaths. Twenty-five days.

Baltimore police have lost more than 125 officers in the line of duty since an inmate fatally stabbed night watchman George Workner during a jailbreak in March 1808. Four suspects were hanged in the jail’s courtyard a month later.

Since then, the department has lost two or more officers in a single month at least a dozen times, the first in 1894 when two patrolmen were struck and killed by a locomotive at Chase and Eager streets.

Tragedy has often come in pairs for the Baltimore Police Department.

Three times, two officers died in the same incident — John D. Platt and Kevin McCarthy when a drunken driver plowed into their cruiser in 2000; Webster E. Schuman and Thomas J. Dillon when they were shot by a mental patient in 1926; and Michael Neary and James T. Dunn, the two patrolmen hit by the train.

Each death forces the 3,000-member Police Department to pause. Elaborate funerals need to be planned — this time, two at about the same time — full of pageantry that includes motorcades, bagpipes, eulogies, politicians and rifle salutes befitting a fraternal order that closes ranks when a member’s life ends violently. Black bunting will be hung from station houses; black mourning bands will be stretched across badges.

“It’s tough to handle,” said Robert F. Cherry, a former homicide detective and president of the police union. “When you have multiple deaths like this in a short period of time, it begins to affect so many officers in different parts of the city.”

It’s a large department, but cops tend to know other cops, and three killed in a matter of weeks means grief is spread out. Portz played on the same police hockey team with Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, and the two had recently golfed together at a charity tournament.

Bealefeld stayed away from the television cameras and did not make an official announcement of Portz’s death. He spent Wednesday night with the officer’s family in Pennsylvania. The commissioner, Cherry said, “finds himself in the same position as his officers on the street — he’s not burying a colleague, he’s burying a friend.”

These tragic few weeks have police thinking back to 1998.

On Oct. 30 of that year, Officer Harold J. Carey was killed when his prisoner van collided with a police cruiser on a city street. Five days later, Barry W. Wood died when his police helicopter crashed near the B&O Railroad Museum. Police commanders dressed for one burial spun out of Carey’s funeral procession on the Beltway and raced to the wreckage on West Pratt Street.

Cherry had skipped the funeral to help patrol the streets of the Central District, to allow Carey’s colleagues time off to attend the funeral. He ran into then-Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier at a call on Mount Royal Avenue, shortly after Wood had died.

“You could see the emptiness in his face,” Cherry recalled.

It wasn’t the first time. Here are some other cases of officers killed within a month of each other (the information comes from the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police Memorial Fund):

Vincent J. Adolfo was fatally shot Nov. 18, 1985, a month after Richard J. Lear was hit by a car and killed. In September 1975, Edward Sherman succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning while sitting in his parked cruiser, and the next month Timothy B. Ridnour was shot and killed with his own weapon while making an arrest.

A year earlier, in 1974, Frank W. Glunder Jr. was shot and killed while serving a warrant, and two weeks later Milton I. Spell was shot by a drunken driver he had pulled over. In March 1973, Richard M. Hurley died of a heart attack while arresting a murder suspect, and seven days later Norman F. Buchman was shot and killed during a traffic stop.

On Christmas Day 1964, Jack L. Cooper was fatally shot in the back by a man suspected of shooting another cop, and three weeks later, Charles R. Ernets was crushed to death between two cars while directing traffic. In November 1934, John A. Stapf was struck and killed by a trolley, and a month later, Henry Sudmeier was fatally shot by another officer who mistook him for a burglar inside a church.

Funeral information

Viewings for Detective Brian Stevenson are scheduled 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, 8728 Liberty Road, Randallstown. The funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at New Antioch Baptist Church, 5609 Old Court Road in Randallstown.

Plans for services for Officer Thomas Portz Jr. have not been completed.

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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