Looking Back: Tragedy, Invisible Killers, and the Death Penalty

POLICE has covered lessons learned, weapons of mass destruction, and capital punishment.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

In past May issues, POLICE covered lessons learned from an incident that took four officers' lives, response to chemical and biological attacks, and a history of capital punishment. Here is a look back at the pages of POLICE Magazine 10, 20, and 30 years ago.



What Can Be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy

On March 22, 2009, what began with a traffic stop by one motor officer ended in the shooting deaths of four Oakland (CA) Police Department officers: Sgt. Mark Dunakin, Officer John Hege, and SWAT officers Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai.

Wanted parolee Lovelle Mixon shot and killed Dunakin and Hege, who arrived as backup, during the traffic stop. "Witnesses to the shootings called 911 to report that officers were down and one of the largest manhunts in the history of California commenced…Two hours after the manhunt began, it ended."

But upon entering the apartment where Mixon had fled, two SWAT officers were mortally wounded as Mixon opened fire from his hiding place in a closet.

The article "What Can Be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy" discusses the dangerous "fatal funnel" SWAT officers found themselves up against. It also suggests that having another agency's tactical team respond might have been prudent considering the emotional impact on the Oakland SWAT officers after two fellow officers had been shot just hours before.

More generally, the article asks readers to think about how they would have approached the situation, not to criticize the agency's and officers' tactics, but to gain a better understanding of how to handle similar situations in the future. "Analyzing the events that left four officers dead is painful," the article acknowledges, "but asking questions can help other officers come home alive."



Managing Chemical and Biological Attacks

Opening with the example of two bags being left at a shopping mall food court, a May 1999 "Officer Survival" article demonstrates how easily multiple unsuspecting victims and responders attempting to help them can die from the effects of a chemical or biological attack. An innocuous looking package could show up anywhere at any time and cause immense damage.  

This is why, as they are most likely to be first on scene, officers must learn the characteristics and warning signs of chemical and biological agents, the article instructs. It advises officers to "Look Before You Leap," by first being on the lookout for multiple victims showing the same symptoms. Then officers should "be cognizant of strange odors, unexplained liquids, aerosol cans, cylinders, or tanks in the area," as well as the presence of dead animals. Staying at a good distance is prudent. This advice is as relevant today as it was back then. 

On March 22, 2009, what began with a traffic stop by one motor officer ended in the shooting deaths of four Oakland (CA) Police Department officers.On March 22, 2009, what began with a traffic stop by one motor officer ended in the shooting deaths of four Oakland (CA) Police Department officers.Photo: POLICE Magazine


Capital Punishment…Then And Now

A May 1989 special section examined the death penalty, including an article on public opinion whose deck read, "Why and how executions are carried out has changed over time." And oh how it has. The article goes on to say, "According to one nationwide opinion survey, 42 percent of Americans favored capital punishment in 1966. More than 75 percent were in favor by 1986."

But now the pendulum seems to have swung back. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported, "Public Support for the Death Penalty Drops Below 50% for First Time in 45 Years." In 2018, another Pew poll found an "Uptick in Death Penalty Support, Though Still Near Historic Lows."

Then as now, states' stances on the death penalty vacillated. And execution methods have gained and lost favor: "The witch burnings used here 300 years ago were replaced by public hangings the following century. The firing squad, which is still used in some states, has been used, as well as the gas chamber, electrocution and the newest twist in execution—lethal injection."

Now lethal injection is the favored form of capital punishment, in states where it's currently allowed. But debates over which lethal cocktails should be allowed complicate matters, as do individual prosecutors' and judges' stances on the death sentence. 

As the article states, "The history of capital punishment also is a history of controversy."

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Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
Managing Editor
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