We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Flags at the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) 3rd District are at half-mast; the police cruiser that once belonged to Officer Thomas F. Hamlette Jr. is draped in black; the badges of MPD officers throughout the city are covered in black tape. It’s an all-too-familiar routine. The shooting death of the 24-year-old Hamlette by a fellow off-duty officer, William F. Hyatt, is an ugly reminder that cops in D.C. die with alarming frequency.
Since its formation in 1861, MPD has lost 108 of its officers in the line of duty, a number that doesn’t include cops like Hamlette, who weren’t punched in when they died. Spend any time with cops in this city, and you’ll hear the number 108 over and over. At the 19th Annual Memorial Service for Law Enforcement Officers on May 11, newly appointed Chief Charles Ramsey observed that the service was his fourth police memorial event in only three weeks.
It’s hard for a D.C. cop to go through his or her day without thinking of at least one of the 108. The Snyder community room at the 3rd District was named after Officer Arthur P. Snyder, killed in 1980 after happening upon a drug transaction at 14th and U Streets NW. The Henry J. Daly police headquarters, at 300 Indiana Avenue NW, was named for the sergeant killed right in MPD’s main office building, in the cold case squad room, to be precise, in 1994.
MPD leaders and investigators have spent much of the last week trying to figure out how the situation that led to Hamlette’s death could have turned out differently. Did Hamlette flash Hyatt the secret signal indicating he was a police officer? Was Hamlette holding his gun in an appropriate manner? Did Hyatt shoot too readily? All of these questions will be hashed and rehashed. Cops spend a lot of time talking about how other cops die, partly as a way of processing the tragedy, and partly in an attempt to ensure they don’t become the next one.
By way of remembrance and reminder, the MPD issued an in-house publication in 1995 telling the tales of each of the 108 officers who lost their lives on-duty. You won’t find Metropolitan Police Department: Roll of Honor at your local Border’s, but it’s well-thumbed within the department.
“It’s important that new officers learn scenarios, learn from the successes of other officers, and learn from their mistakes,” says MPD’s public information officer, Sgt. Joe Gentile. “Hopefully, by studying the scenarios, you don’t make the same mistakes.”
Roll of Honor suggests that the reaper can grab a cop in any number of ways, none of them pleasant and all of them just as final. The obits break down in the following ways:
Although 11 MPD officers have died while driving cars, it is worth noting that many others have lost their lives while riding less high-powered transportation. In 1908, Officer William Yetton’s horse got spooked and fell down, cracking Yetton’s head against the pavement. In 1915, Officer Willie Gawen, 31, fell off his bicycle and died from related head injuries. Most glaringly, 13 D.C. cops have died while riding motorcycles, “especially in the time when motorcycle tires were real thin,” notes public information spokesman Officer Ken Bryson. While motorcycles are clearly the unluckiest MPD vehicle, any mode of transport has its risks. Two officers died when their helicopter hit power lines, and three, including an “excellent swimmer”, have drowned.
Of the officers whose years of service could be ascertained, almost 40 percent had three years or fewer of MPD service under their belts when they were killed. It’s important to keep your wits about you long enough to become a vet.
While directing traffic probably isn’t what any officers have in mind when they enlist at the police academy, it’s no reason for them to let their guard down: Careless drivers have been responsible for offing four officers in the midst of traffic duty. It’s been this way ever since we first had cars; the first traffic cop killed by a bad driver was Officer Preston E. Bradley, crushed by a weaving truck on 7th and O Streets NW in 1921.
In 1909, Capt. William Mathews, a 23-year veteran, was killed by another officer he was reprimanding. In 1923, a prohibition officer shot Officer Fred Stange in a confrontation about a stolen bumper. And in 1940, after Sgt. Charles Cummings disciplined Officer Otho Blackwell for showing up for school crossing duty eight minutes late, Blackwell shot Cummings in the precinct bathroom, killing him, and was himself mortally wounded in the ensuing scuffle.
Everybody’s a Perp
Numerous other officers have been shot by unlikely assailants. No. 1 of the 108, in fact, Officer Francis Doyle, was shot in 1871 during a struggle with a “Mrs. Shea,” who was ultimately acquitted of the crime. Still others have been felled by a young woman, the son of a suspect, and soldiers. And drunk and crazy is never a good combination, especially for a cop: Three officers have died during run-ins with the insane, while at least five have been killed by drunks.
Shot Through With Danger
In addition to the officers who died after being shot by bad guys, four officers died while trying to wrestle suspects’ guns away from them, and another four suffered the rather unfunny irony of being shot and killed with their own guns.
North by Northwest
Though Southeast D.C. is known for fearsome hoods, the number of cops killed in that quadrant pales in comparison with the number of cops killed in Northwest. Statistically, at least, almost 50 percent of the 108 died in Northwest, followed by 23 percent in Northeast, 18 percent in Southeast, and 10 percent in Southwest. Local trouble spots include the 3700 block of Hayes Street NE, where two officers died two years in a row in the 1980s; the 300 block of Maryland Avenue SW, noted in Roll of Honor as being the location of two officers’ deaths, in 1871 and 1928; and Florida Avenue, where from 1945 to 1964 five officers were killed in unrelated events.
Roaring ’20s and Deadly ’60s
The two most lethal eras for MPD officers were the 1920s and the 1960s, periods of distinct social unrest. MPD deaths in the 1920s offer a window into the turmoil of the era. In addition to Officer Lester Kidwell, killed in 1918 while trying to apprehend a chicken thief, and Detective Sgt. Harry Wilson, killed during the 1919 race riots, the 1920s brought the tragic ends of Officer George Chinn, who was shot in 1921 after breaking up a craps game; Motorman James Helm, who crashed into a truck carrying moonshine ingredients in 1928; Officer Ross Taylor, who was chasing a whiskey runner when he crashed into a streetcar in Stanton Park in 1929; and Officer Frederick Bauer, who crushed two vertebrae while trying to lift a safe after a successful raid on a “numbers” establishment in 1930. Ten officers died between 1929 and 1931, the worst three-year period of all time for MPD. The next such concentrated period of intense danger for officers was at the end of the tumultuous 1960s, between 1967 and 1969, when nine officers were killed.
MPD has had some officers who didn’t let a little thing like a fatal injury put a crimp in their police work. At least seven cops continued with their duties even after being mortally wounded. As far back as 1889, Officer Americus Crippen, having been shot in the chest, tracked down his assailant and shot him. In 1919, Detective James Armstrong beat his assailant unconscious with a blackjack after having been shot three times at close range. In 1947, 51-year-old Officer Hubert Estes, shot twice in the chest, managed to draw his weapon and shoot his assailant four times while dying. The most recent example of this unstoppable breed was Officer Eugene Williams, who, in 1968, was shot through the heart and still managed to draw his gun and wound his assailant. Must have had a pretty powerful heart.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.