Photo: Mark W. Clark.
Norma Williams remembers the last time she saw her husband, Officer Tom Williams of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Headed to a Halloween parade where she worked in Simi Valley, she was dressed as the Tin Man. Her husband of 18 years was getting dressed and offered to take Ryan, their six-year-old son, to school, since his wife didn't want to embarrass their boy with a mom who thought she was a "Wizard of Oz" character.
"He said, 'I can't give you a kiss because of all the makeup.' And I said, 'No, I left a spot for you on my forehead.'"
He kissed Norma, and then called several times that day to see if she had won best costume yet.
The last phone call from her husband came at 4:15 that afternoon. "I said, 'I hope you're not telling me you can't pick up Ryan!" and he said, 'No. I just called to tell you, 'I love you.'"
Shortly after that conversation, Norma Williams, officer's wife and mother of two, became a widow. On Halloween 1985 their son watched as his dad was gunned down at his school. Tom Williams and his family never knew they were threatened and in danger.
Officer Williams was the target of a planned hit. He had just testified at the trial of Daniel Jenkins for a robbery he investigated. "Jenkins had a philosophy of 'no witness, no case.' He wanted to kill everybody, including myself and my children," Norma Williams says. Months later, during the preliminary court hearings, officers told Norma that one of the people they had arrested "had come down our street and showed detectives our home...Jenkins wanted myself and my children to be murdered as a way to get Tom to not testify.
"The lead detective told us that Jenkins was dating a senior at my daughter's school, who followed my daughter's activities and reported back to him. It comes out I had been followed to work in Simi Valley, and they [Jenkins' associates] had followed Tom taking Ryan," she adds.
Jenkins had hired men to kill Officer Williams, his son, and his wife. But the hit men reportedly balked at the last minute at killing a little boy, forcing Jenkins himself to assassinate the 13-year LAPD veteran.
Most threats against police officers are thankfully not like what the Williams family endured, but rather verbal threats used to control, harass, and intimidate the officer, says retired ATF Agent Bart McEntire, owner of Instinctual Survival, a threat-consulting business. The common threats officers hear—the ones uttered at the time of arrest like "you'll be sorry"—are often ignored. And rightfully so: "By responding, the officer allows the suspect to become the 'director' of the event, much like a three-year-old in the throes of a temper tantrum," explains McEntire, author of "Not for Self But Others," a memoir of going undercover with a violent white supremacy group.
Other types of threats—threats mailed to an officer or left on voice mail—are "where we really begin to see the psychological warfare battles," says McEntire. Tack on threats to family members, which are delivered to make the officer fearful for the future, and stress really begins to escalate.
"Unless officers have been trained and understand the utterance of threats, they can quickly lose composure believing the suspects really intend to hurt their families," McEntire warns.
But situations involving threats at the next level—where violence is a grave possibility—are different. "That kind of threat is no longer being levied to control, harass, or intimidate," says McEntire. "It's a personal act to right a wrong, where the only action in the threatener's viewpoint is to injure or kill."
Some whole police departments and police units have been the target of this "intent to injure or kill," which former California Attorney General (now governor) Jerry Brown deemed "urban terrorism."
In late 2009 and early 2010, a chain of attacks plagued a Southern California anti-gang unit. Hemet-San Jacinto Gang Task Force members grappled with booby traps. For example, a utility line was redirected to flood offices with gas. It only would've taken a spark for a deadly explosion. Suspects are now in custody.