U.S. Marshal, DPS Director Address “Unspeakable” Violence Against Officers

A bullet pierced the windshield of an Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper’s vehicle. [Photo courtesy AZDPS]

The top U.S. Marshal in Arizona and the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) spoke out last week about violence against law enforcement officers after a DPS detective and a federal court security officer were shot at in separate incidents about 50 hours apart.

DPS Colonel Heston Silbert and Arizona U.S. Marshal David Gonzales held a press conference on Sept. 17 to address a shooting earlier that day involving a DPS detective sitting in an unmarked vehicle and the Sept. 15 shooting of a special deputy U.S. Marshal inspecting a delivery truck outside the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse.

Both incidents occurred in the Phoenix area, and are the latest in a spate of shootings nationwide targeting officers performing their duties.

“I am disgusted by the actions of people toward law enforcement that I’ve seen take place in this country over the past several months,” said Silbert, who added that 74 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty in the United States so far this year. “What I’ve seen recently is abhorrent.”

According to Silbert, the uniformed DPS detective was shot at shortly before 9 a.m. after a silver Infiniti stopped next to the trooper’s vehicle and a passenger with an AK47 assault pistol fired several rounds. Two rounds struck the driver’s side of the trooper’s windshield, narrowly missing the detective.

The detective and another DPS trooper in the area returned fire and apprehended the shooter, identified as Luis German Espinoza Acuna, age 17. Neither of the troopers nor Acuna were shot.

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Silbert said he carries a shroud, or black band, on his belt so it’s available when he needs to place it on his badge to honor those killed in the line of duty.

“Today, but for fractions of an inch and the ability of two state troopers to respond quickly and affirmatively to a lethal threat, we were probably an inch from me taking this shroud from my belt and putting it on my badge today for one of our troopers,” he said.

The colonel also made it clear his priority is for all law enforcement officers to go home safely after every shift.

“I think people need to understand if you attack a law enforcement officer, if you point a gun at a law enforcement officer, if you show a lethal threat to a law enforcement, you are going to be met with lethal force,” he said.  “Our troopers are going to protect themselves.”

Silbert’s comments were mirrored by Gonzales, who worked for DPS for 25 years before being named U.S. Marshal for Arizona in 2002 by President George W. Bush.

Gonzales addressed what he described as the “unspeakable” increase in threats of violence against officers, including “targeting by street gangs, officers that are threatened by intimidation through social media, and receiving threats when involved in shootings,” regardless of the circumstances.

“In my career, both as a DPS officer and now as a U.S. Marshal, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Gonzales said. “We’ve had trends before but nothing that has reached this level and the rhetoric that has been going on nationally.”

He called on elected officials, community leaders, and citizens to help law enforcement agencies across the state to address the current attitudes toward police.

“We all understand that people are angry, we get it,” Gonzales said. “But the other part of this thing is we are in the middle of a lot of these situations. And any of the issues that are going on in society reflect back on law enforcement because we have to respond to those, whether it’s mental health issues, social issues, school issues, issues involving our budget, poverty, whatever the case may be.”

During the press conference, Gonzales discussed the FBI’s arrest of James Lee Carr for shooting court security officer Steve Ford in the chest outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix on Sept. 15. Ford, who was wearing a ballistic vest, was able to return fire, striking Carr’s vehicle several times.

Carr, 68, was taken into custody after his family notified police of his location. His first court appearance occurred the afternoon of Sept. 17 via video hookup with a federal magistrate at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tucson.

The proceeding was not conducted in Phoenix because some court personnel will be witnesses in Carr’s case. In addition, many employees at the Phoenix courthouse were acquainted with Ford, who has been released from the hospital.

The FBI investigation was also aided by security footage which shows Carr’s vehicle circling the area. The Phoenix Police Department headquarters is only one block away from the federal courthouse, prompting Gonzales to suggest Carr may have wanted to target a Phoenix PD officer but opened fire on Ford when the opportunity arose.

Court-appointed defense attorney Dan Cooper addressed Carr’s mental health issues during the recent court proceeding and did not challenge a judge’s no-release order. Carr’s next court date has not been announced.

In the DPS shooting, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office will prosecute Acuna due to a conflict of interest for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. Additional information about Acuna could be released next week if he is formally charged as an adult. In the meantime, authorities are searching for the Infiniti.

The press conference by Gonzales and Silbert was held the same day a district attorney in Tulsa, Okla. announced the death penalty is being sought for the fatal shooting of a Tulsa police sergeant during a routine traffic stop in June.  Another Tulsa officer was injured in the same incident.

Also last week, two Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies were shot ambush-style in Compton, California while sitting in their patrol vehicle. Earlier this month a Cleveland, Ohio police detective assigned to a gang impact unit was shot and killed on a city street.

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