R.I. police officials lament the rising threat against officers nationwide, and offer their thoughts on what is behind the trend, from narcotics, to the prevalence of firearms, to the vilification of police by "progressive liberal" groups, politicians and the media.

PROVIDENCE — Sean Gannon was a 32-year-old Yarmouth police officer before he was shot to death in the spring, a victim of what authorities described as an ambush-style assault in the confines of an attic.

The next day, Providence’s deputy police chief, Cmdr. Thomas Verdi, learned everything he could about the case; then, he met up with 25 somber Providence police officers mustering for roll call at the outset of an evening shift.

There, in the first-floor auditorium at Providence’s public safety complex, Verdi lamented the tragic death of yet another police officer. The number of officers targeted in shootings had increased significantly in 2018, he warned.

Then, he reminded the officers of the motto embroidered into the patches on their uniforms.

Semper Vigilans. Always vigilant.

Verdi recalled this roll call experience Saturday when and he and some other police leaders were asked to reflect on a trend that worries them:

Thirty-eight police officers have been killed in firearm-related incidents in the U.S. so far in 2018, up 31 percent from the number killed from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10 in 2017, according to preliminary statistics assembled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

In mid-July, an officer was shot and killed in Weymouth, Massachusetts. On Friday morning, a man shot two police officers from long range as they arrived at the scene of a shooting at an apartment complex in New Brunswick, Canada.

While such statistics have been worse at other times in history, the nature of the threat has changed significantly in recent years, law enforcement leaders say.

A police officer can get shot anywhere in 2018. In some cases in recent years, officers have been targeted for no other reason than their wearing of a police uniform.

“No question, I think we’re seeing a disturbing trend of people being outwardly violent toward police,” said Providence police chief Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr.

“It’s concerning,” Clements said. ”This ambush style of attacking a police officer for no reason at all.”

Sid Wordell, executive director for the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, agrees about this added dimension.

Gannon, a K-9 officer, was shot as he cornered a wanted fugitive who had hidden in an attic, authorities say.

But in the New Brunswick case — and several others like it in recent years — authorities say police officers have been targeted from afar.

In Woonsocket last month, a gunman, who might have eluded authorities, instead came back to target police officers, shooting one officer in the thigh, said Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates.

The threat environment has never been like this previously, said Verdi.

“It’s a tragic reality,” Verdi said. “It’s a very sad and tragic reality, what has taken place in different jurisdictions throughout the United States.”

“It’s a stressful profession to begin with,” he said. “It’s compounded even more with the increased violence against police officers.”

Verdi and Cranston’s police chief, Col. Michael J. Winquist, cite a range of factors, including the prevalence of firearms, and a different mentality among criminals.

Winquist also cited the mind-altering effects of narcotics.

“I think overall, my feeling about it is I think there’s a lot less respect for the job of what law enforcement is doing by certain individuals,” said Wordell.

That sentiment was echoed by Michael Imondi, president of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police Officers, who said that "progressive liberal" groups, politicians and the media have "vilified" police and "glorified" criminal acts against police officers.

"The Providence FOP is very concerned with the uptick of violence against police officers," Imondi said in a statement.

Mary Day is a retired Providence police lieutenant who can remember the beginning of what she regarded as a more dangerous era.

She had been on the job for nine years. Then, in 1994, her friend Providence police Officer Steven M. Shaw was gunned down by a robber.

She wrote a song in a tribute. She sang "St. Michael By His Side" at Shaw’s funeral and at other funerals, including the funeral for Providence police Detective James Allen in 2005.

She said she once sang it to thousands of people gathered at a memorial event in Washington, D.C.

When she hears about another police officer being shot and killed, Day remembers her song. And she remembers the day that Shaw died, the beginning of a darker time.

“When this happened, it was eye-opening for everybody,” she says.

— mreynold@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7490

On Twitter: @mrkrynlds