The Easter weekend assassination of a Texas prosecutor highlights a growing concern about targeted attacks on law enforcement authorities.
It’s a fear one Texas police officer shared with Yahoo News. He and his family spent the past holiday season essentially in hiding after learning his name was inked on a white supremacist gang’s hit list.
“The title of the list was ‘S.O.S.’ which means smash on sight or execute,” the officer said. “If you have an S.O.S. put out on you, that pretty much means they’re going to try and kill you.”
Yahoo News is not identifying the officer for his protection. The threat eventually subsided, but he remains vigilant months later, especially after Kaufman County, Texas, District Attorney Mike McLelland, 63, and his wife, Cynthia, 65, were shot to death in their home 30 miles east of Dallas last weekend, apparently ambushed.
Two months earlier, Mark Hasse, a prosecutor in McLelland’s office, was gunned down while walking from his car to the courthouse.
No arrests have been made, and early speculation has focused on the Aryan Brotherhood (AB), the same group that targeted the police officer.
“That’s how you promote within the AB is to commit these violent acts,” the officer said.
[RELATED: A history of prosecutor deaths in the US]
The U.S. is in the midst of an unprecedented spike in targeted attacks on the justice community, says law enforcement researcher Glenn McGovern.
“We’ve never had this many in such a short period of time,” McGovern told Yahoo News. “This is the most heinous type of crime because it’s premeditated.”
An average year might see one or two assassination attempts on a judge, prosecutor or law enforcement member. In the first three months of 2013, there have been six apparent targeted attacks resulting in six deaths, including the possibly related Kaufman County, Texas, cases.
“Two attacks on two individuals within the same organization in such a short span of time—I’ve never seen that in my studies here in the U.S.,” McGovern said. “I’ve only seen that in Sicily, Colombia and Mexico, but never here.”
In the three years and three months of this decade, McGovern says, there have been 15 targeted attacks on law enforcement in the U.S. That compares with four in the first three years and three months of the 1970s, two in first three years and three months of the 1980s, and six each in the first three years and three months of the 1990s and 2000s.
McGovern, a former police SWAT officer now working as an investigator with the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office, said there is no obvious explanation for the spike.
“No geographic link … the circumstances run the gamut,” said McGovern, who defines a targeted attack as a violent encounter carried out against a specific individual. “The motive behind them looks to be revenge—that’s the predominate motive.”
McGovern started his research several years ago as a way to provide risk assessment and training to colleagues in his own office. Since then, he has authored two books on protective operations and targeted violence.
Last month, he urgently issued a 26-page study to law enforcement associations across the country hoping to increase awareness of “our vulnerability and more importantly an awareness of our surroundings.”
His breakdown of 133 attacks and planned attempts from 1950 to 2012 reveals that more than half occurred at the target’s home, on a workday, with a gun being the offender’s weapon of choice.
That was the case on March 19 when Colorado prison chief Tom Clements was shot dead after answering the door at his home near Colorado Springs. The suspect in that case is a parolee and member of the Aryan Brotherhood white supremacist gang.
Last December, the Texas Department of Public safety warned that the Aryan Brotherhood could be “planning retaliation against law enforcement officials.” That sent officers and federal agents scrambling to try to scrub their personal information from Internet search sites.
“They are going to find out things about you before they do it,” said the Texas police officer whose name was found on an Aryan Brotherhood hit list.
“Don’t commit yourself to a routine,” he warned. “Watch your mail and your neighborhood. Be aware of anything.”