Accused police killers are often felons who should not have had guns

TAMPA - The number of officers gunned down in the line of duty increased by 24 percent last year, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. This year is on track to be even higher.

Tampa Bay has seen more than its share of tragedy recently, with five officers killed in the last year.

Too often lately, we've seen the funerals on TV. Men and women standing at attention for their brothers and sisters in uniform. Families dealing with heartbreak.

Sandy Kocab lost her son, Tampa Police Officer Jeff Kocab, just last year.

"My world crashed around me, and it was hard to pick up the pieces," Kocab remembers.

For Sandy and the other families who have suffered the same loss, the hope was that their tragedy would be the last. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Three St. Petersburg officers were killed in two separate incidents earlier this year.

"Losing them was reliving the incident all over again," said Nitika Jennings, daughter of Sgt. Ron Harrison of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department, who lost his life on the job in 2007.

"You just start to think it's not going to end. It felt like this is just going to continue," said Lorraine Yaslowitz, wife of Jeff Yaslowitz, one of the St. Petersburg police officers who murdered in January.

While violent crime is down nationwide, many officers report they're seeing more guns on the streets. 16-year old Nicholas Lindsey says he bought a gun for $140 before he allegedly shot and killed St. Petersburg Officer David Crawford. St. Petersburg Police Chief Chuck Harmon believes officers are facing more danger.

"You almost see a little bit of a different attitude of people being willing to use those guns, and that's what's scary," Harmon said.

In the last five years, 9 Tampa Bay officers have been shot and killed in the line of duty. 6 of them were killed by convicted felons who should never have had a gun in the first place. When Jeff Yaslowitz and Tom Baitinger were searching for convicted felon Hydra Lacy in January, he was reportedly waiting for them in the attic with a gun legally purchased by his wife.

"I would think that if Hydra didn't have that gun, he'd be hiding in the attic and it wouldn't have happened. Jeff would have been able to cuff him and bring him down," said Lorraine Yaslowitz.

The I-Team has discovered that the city of St. Petersburg had a huge spike just last year in the number of convicted felons arrested in possession of firearms. The arrests went from 109 in 2009 to 167 in 2010, an increase of 65% in one year.

"I still think the biggest problem is folks getting their hands on guns that are showing up as being stolen," Chief Harmon said.

Our research shows in the past two years, more than 1,700 convicted felons were arrested throughout the Bay area charged with illegally possessing a gun.

It's a problem that's making the already dangerous job of patrolling the streets even more dangerous. Law enforcement leaders say it's time for lawmakers to increase the penalties for felons with weapons.

"It would hold these individuals accountable. At the same time, I think it would send a message," said Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats.

Right now the penalty is a minimum 3-year sentence. Local sheriffs and police chiefs hope to convince lawmakers to make the prison time even longer.

"If there is anything good that can come out of these tragedies, it ought to be a real serious look at how we protect our law enforcement officers across the state," said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee.

The families of Ron Harrison, Jeff Yaslowitz, and Jeff Kocab know tougher penalties won't prevent the death of every officer. But the hope is to make the community safer and potentially save another family from going through the heartbreak they experienced.

"It just seems it's out of control. So whatever we can do, the general public, whatever we can do, we've got to stand behind our law enforcement officers. We have to stop it," said Sandy Kocab.

Kocab says if a bill is proposed, she'll be first in line to fight for it in Tallahassee. Sheriffs Gee and Coats say they want the Florida Sheriff's Association to take up the cause next year.

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