Authorities in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have arrested two young black men and a 13-year-old who were allegedly involved in a plot to harm police officers. The cops said on Tuesday that they had caught a 17-year-old who had stolen guns from a pawnshop and planned with three others to use them to shoot officers; according to officials they were seeking ammunition, but weren't sure when or where they would target police. The arrest of the 17-year-old was followed by the arrests of 20-year-old Malik Bridgewater, and a 13-year-old; one suspect is still at-large. (They also arrested a 23-year-old named Trashone Coats, who bought two of the stolen guns but was not linked to the plot.)
Threats against police officers tend to be relatively common occurrences, and according to Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, like most threats they're often not credible or acted upon. But the alleged plot was just the latest in a string of threats and targeted attacks on police following the shootings by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge last Tuesday and of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the following day. These incidents have the nation on edge and threaten to escalate tensions between police eager to protect themselves and protestors critical of law enforcement violence.
The worst attack on police came on Thursday night, when Micah Johnson sniped five officers dead and wounded seven others at a protest in Dallas. But there were other, less publicized incidents. Earlier that day, 37-year-old Lakeem Keon Scott had opened fire on motorists and a Day's Inn in Bristol, Tennessee, apparently attempting to draw out a police response and shoot officers. He injured one cop before being shot and apprehended.
A day later, 22-year-old Stephen Paul Beck of Valdosta, Georgia, allegedly called 911 to report a car break-in, then ambushed responding officers, injuring one before being shot. In Ballwin, Missouri, a man pulled over for speeding shot the cop in an apparent ambush before speeding away. Yesterday, someone inside an SUV in Washington, DC, opened fire on a passing police cruiser, resulting in a shootout that ended with the arrest of all five of the car's occupants. And in a more contentious incident, on Sunday police in Houston shot 38-year-old Alva Braziel, who they claim refused to drop a gun and instead lowered it in their direction (activists claim that he had his hands up when he was shot).
None of these violent encounters were explicitly linked to the Castile and Sterling deaths or Dallas, but alongside a spike this year in police fatalities in the line of duty, they've created an aura of heightened confrontation and risk between police and minority communities.
Baton Rouge in particular has been the site of several major threats over the week following Sterling's death. On Thursday, someone illicitly accessed Baton Rouge government servers and leaked details from 50,000 police records, including names, address, emails, and phone numbers. Around the same time, a meme started circulating claiming there would be a weekend-long "purge" of the city's police. Although never substantiated and was brushed off by local officials as a spurious hoax, the "purge" showed up in a leaked FBI warning reportedly issued to Louisiana law enforcement as a sign of general heightened danger to them over the weekend.
"Because of the recent officer-involved shooting… and the media attention to it," Pasco told VICE, "obviously [Baton Rouge] would be a place where, because tensions have risen, concerns [about police safety and threats] would arise."
These incidents, police say, contributed to the decision to respond aggressively—and in full riot gear—to a series of mostly peaceful protests over Sterling's death held over the weekend. "We have been questioned repeatedly over the last several days about our show of force and why we have the tactics that we have," Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie told reporters at a Tuesday press conference. "Well, this is the reason, because we had credible threats against the lives of law enforcement in this city."
Marjorie R. Esman, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, told VICE that while police have to take threats against them seriously, she hopes they'll be handled through targeted and discreet investigations rather than through clampdowns and increasingly aggressive policing, especially against protestors.
"From the community standpoint, there's a man dead at the hands of the police, and there was a massive overreaction that I think just about everybody believes was a massive overreaction by the police," she said. "It's incumbent on the police now to act differently so that the community does not act badly to their presence… That relationship can only be healed at the initiative of the police."
It remains to be seen whether that relationship will continue to fray, and whether attacks against police and harsh tactics against protests will encourage the police and activists to see each other as enemies. Sterling's funeral at the end of this week could give us a sense of how tense things are. But unfortunately, given the tenor of comments from local authorities over the last few days, it looks like there will be a lot of fear in the air.
"Look at what happened in Dallas—a peaceful protest, and then some madman," East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff Sid J. Gatreaux told NBC in the wake of the recent arrests. "The threat speaks for itself. We can't take anything for granted anymore."
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