Linda Pope faced a flood of red and blue lights as she arrived at the hospital on the night her husband was killed.
Cincinnati Police Officer Daniel Pope had been shot in the head while trying to serve a domestic violence warrant on a 20-year-old man who fled the scene and shot himself. Now, as Linda sat in the hospital exam room being told her husband didn’t survive, it felt like the walls were closing in.
Pope lost her husband just five days before their seven-year wedding anniversary on Dec. 6, 1997. To her, he is 35 years old forever.
“You never forget. You never stop hurting. The pain becomes a little bit less sharp, and it dulls over time. But you never stop loving them. You never stop missing them. You never stop wondering what would have been, what could have been,” she says.
Pope learned a tragic lesson that is still playing out 20 years later: Domestic abusers aren’t just dangerous for women — they are also deadly for cops.
In 2017, more officers were shot responding to domestic violence than any other type of firearm-related fatality, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. From 1988 to 2016, 136 officers were killed while responding to domestic disturbances such as family arguments, FBI data show. By comparison, 80 were killed during a drug-related arrest in the same period.
And in just the first few months of this year, six officers have died in domestic violence-related shootings. One of them is Officer Justin Billa.
The first time Erin Billa met Justin, they were 5 years old. In her middle school scrapbook, she circled his name, with the word “cutie” written next to it. She never dreamed that nearly 20 years later, they’d get married. She never imagined that she would lose him.
It was almost 10 p.m. on Feb. 20. Fonda Poellnitz, 58, was dead, and her ex-husband Robert Hollie was a wanted man in the domestic violence shooting. When Officer Billa reported to Hollie’s home in Mobile, Ala., shots rang out. Billa was rushed to the hospital and a SWAT team moved in, finding Hollie had killed himself.
Billa, 27, later died at the hospital. He’d been an officer for just two years.
“I literally felt like my heart was broken in a million pieces,” Erin Billa says. The man who came home with flowers and gave her the 1-year-old son who looks just like him was never coming back. “I love you, too,” were his last words to her.
On March 28, they would have celebrated their third wedding anniversary.
A dangerous pattern
The pattern of repeated abuse makes domestic violence calls particularly dangerous for officers. A 2008 study by the National Institute of Justice determined that victims of domestic violence are more likely to call the police after repeated assaults have already taken place — which puts police officers in an even more volatile situation when they do respond.
“If someone breaks into your home, you’re going to immediately call police. You’re not going to let someone break in 10 times. But with domestic violence, it’s unique in that way, that the call could represent something that’s been percolating over time,” says David Chipman, senior policy adviser at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a former agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for 25 years.
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