Sheriff delivers sobering message at Memorial

OKEECHOBEE — It was a glorious South Florida day — an azure sky, golden sunshine and a whisper-soft breeze. But the reason for the gathering belied the beauty of the day.

“In 2014, 126 police officers lost their lives in the line of duty in the United States. That’s 24 percent higher than the year before. We were hoping that would decline in 2015. But, I’m sorry to report, that did not happen,” said Sheriff Paul May to the members of law enforcement and the private sector seated in front of him.

The sheriff went on to deliver the sobering statistics of how those officers died during the Law Enforcement Memorial held Wednesday, May 18, on the steps of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO).

Okeechobee High School band students Michael Muros (left) and Daniel Grosso (right) played ‘Taps’ at the Law Enforcement Memorial held Wednesday, May 18, on the front steps of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Eric Kopp.

Okeechobee High School band students Michael Muros (left) and Daniel Grosso (right) played ‘Taps’ at the Law Enforcement Memorial held Wednesday, May 18, on the front steps of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Eric Kopp.

“Last year,” continued Sheriff May, “One hundred and twenty-eight officers died in the line of duty. Officer deaths by gunfire declined in 2015. But, so far in the fist four months of 2016, 16 officers have died by gunfire. That is a 129 percent increase since last year.”

He proceeded to tell those in the crowd just how police officers died last year: 39 were killed by gunfire; 27 were killed in automobile accidents; 17 died of heart attacks; eight were killed by vehicular assault; six were killed by bombs; six by illnesses related to 9/11; five died in vehicle pursuits; four were struck by vehicles; four deaths were accidental; three were killed in motorcycle accidents; three died by assaults; one was killed in an aircraft accident; one officer drowned; one was killed in a fall; and, one officer’s death was a weather-related incident.

Sheriff Paul May

Sheriff Paul May

Two officers died from duty-related illnesses, added the sheriff.

“One bright spot is that for the first time I can remember, Florida did not rank among the top five states for officer deaths,” he continued. “Florida recorded two officer deaths in 2015. The leading states for officer deaths were Texas with 12, followed by New York with nine and Georgia with eight.”

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page the deadliest months were March, May and August with 16 deaths each. Of the officers who died, 117 were male and 11 were female. The average age was 41, and the average time on the job was 12 years.

In addition, 27 K-9s died in the line of duty last year. Four of those deaths were due to gunfire. The leading cause of death for K-9s, however, was heat exhaustion which claimed the lives of 12 dogs.

K-9 Igor, with the Kissimmee Police Department, and K-9s Jimmy and Hector, both with the Hialeah Police Department, all died of heat exhaustion.

K-9s Jimmy and Hector died the same day — May 27, 2015.

So far this year, 12 K-9s have lost their lives in the line of duty. Five of those deaths were due to gunfire, while three K-9s died after being struck by an automobile.

In 2016, 17 law enforcement officers were killed by gunfire while another six were killed in automobile accidents. Sixteen officers lost their lives in March, while another 10 were killed in February.

The states with the most officer deaths so far this year are Colorado and Maryland with three each. Florida has had two officers die this year.

The average age of the officers killed this year is 37, and the average tour of duty is 11 years. Thirty-three of the officers who died were males, while two were females.

Although the bulk of Sheriff May’s speech dealt with law enforcement officers who died, he did tell the audience about three of his deputies who survived a dangerous situation.

In May of last year, a man broke into the home of a former OCSO deputy and stole an OCSO polo shirt, an OCSO hat and a bulletproof vest. That man then went across the street, pulled a handgun and stole a pickup truck.

OCSO deputies then engaged the suspect in a chase topping speeds of 100 mph. That chase began on U.S. 441 North and continued onto Orange Avenue toward Fort Pierce. The suspect, Mark Saunders, then turned down a one-lane dirt road into a private ranch and allegedly made a quick U-turn and ran head-on into an OCSO pickup being driven by Deputy Lieutenant Lester Yeates.

Saunders, continued the sheriff, pushed the truck driven by Lt. Yeates backward some 16 feet.

The lieutenant was then joined by Deputy Sergeant Shane Snyder and a detective with the Okeechobee Narcotics Task Force in an open pasture.

“The deputies decided enough was enough. They pulled their handguns and, with several shots into the truck, ended this incident,” added the sheriff. “The suspect, who I now refer to as the luckiest man in Okeechobee on that day, escaped injury and was taken into custody.”

He then asked the deputies to stand and he introduced them to the audience.

“I am glad they are here today and their names are not on a wall,” said Sheriff May.

Saunders is being held in the Okeechobee County Jail and is awaiting trial.

Sheriff May also asked the family of OCSO Deputy Glover ‘Skip’ Bryant to stand. Deputy Bryant was killed on Nov. 8, 1991, in an airplane accident during a search and rescue operation on Lake Okeechobee. He is the only OCSO deputy to lose his life while on duty.

Deputy Bryant’s sacrifice will never be forgotten, offered the sheriff.

“In my career as your sheriff, this will be my last Law Enforcement Memorial Service. My hope and prayer is that there will never be another officer die in the line of duty in Okeechobee County,” Sheriff May said. “During my career there have been several times this could have happened. But, by the grace of God, it did not.

“I hope and pray for that grace to continue,” he added.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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