SEATTLE - Nothing’s been the same in the Seattle Police Department since two officers were ambushed on Halloween night by a gunman. One of them, Officer Tim Brenton, died.
Brenton was a rising star at the Seattle Police Department. He trained other officers in the East Precinct.
First Watch roll call begins at 3 a.m. in the East Precinct. Since Brenton’s death, the Sergeant’s briefings are a lot more specific and officers are listening a lot more intently. As they leave roll call and head to the basement to load into their cars, the officers walk past a precinct landmark - the "Wall of Fallen Officers." Brenton’s name has just been added.
"It's a sad day, it's very hard," said Officer Steve Leonard.
Leonard and Brenton were hired on the same day and would often see each other during shift change.
"You try to hope that you never forget," he said.
Stretching south from the ship canal, the East Precinct is a long narrow sector that includes affluent homes and impoverished neighborhoods.
"Every person that you contact, you have the ability to make a difference in their life," Leonard said.
Leaving the sanctity of the precinct, Officer Leonard finds a city still asleep.
"Police officers like to say, business as usual," Leonard said. "But obviously the recent happenings in the community have put us all on extra alert."
A new GPS tracking system helps officers better watch out for each other.
"For officer safety, if an officer didn't answer his radio,” Leonard said.
Leonard is soon racing to back up officers investigating a suspicious vehicle.
"It's instantaneously, whereas before it might have taken a few extra seconds to get there. We all have really rallied around each other. I think it’s strengthening us,” he said.
You'll see three or four cars respond to a call now, even for a typical warrant arrest. The recent rash of police shooting is a reminder of how quickly typical can turn tragic.
"Most of our shift is eight hours of boredom with five minutes of excitement," Leonard said. "You train for that five minutes of action."
Much of the time patrol work is lonely work - it’s hours of tedium, interrupted by flashes of adrenaline and anxiety. Dawn brings Leonard a moment of solace as he stops in the Madrona neighborhood to watch a brilliant sunrise over Lake Washington. But Leonard won’t stop for long because he knows an officer stopped in a car can be a target.
"You know, you get copy caters. You get that mentality. ‘If I’m gonna go down, I might as well go down in history, as, you know, a cop killer,'" Leonard said.
Leonard says he does this job because he likes helping people. Sometimes that means patrolling a school where an intruder has been robbing kids.
"(He) robbed two students, one at knife-point last week, taking items off the students, IPODs, gold chains," he said as he sits outside of the old Meany Middle School building which now houses Nova High School.
Sometimes the job means laying your life on the line. For Leonard that happened on March 25, 2006. It was a warm Saturday morning and he was driving around Meany Middle School. He thought he heard firecrackers and then saw a group of dazed kids standing on the street corner.
"They were just kind of all staring at each other like they didn’t really comprehend what was going on," Leonard said. "At that point they said, 'There’s a guy in the house with a shotgun that has shot people,'" Leonard said.
Leonard was the only officer nearby. He pulled up near the house and got out of his patrol car.
"I had my gun out and was moving up the sidewalk. Then the calls started coming into 911 from the people that were in the house," Leonard said.
As he approached the house, he saw the gunman.
"I yelled, ‘Seattle Police, show me your hands.' He (the gunman) immediately stopped dead in his tracks, spun the gun and pulled the trigger and dropped," Leonard said.
Kyle Huff had committed suicide, leaving behind six dead and two wounded. It would come to be known as the Capitol Hill Massacre.
And Leonard says it made him more compassionate as an officer, which is why, nearly four years after the Huff murders, on a Wednesday morning in January, as Leonard’s shift nears the end, he takes time to counsel a homeless man who'd been attacked.
Leonard encourages the man to check into a shelter or to ask a sister who lives in Seattle for help.
"Everybody needs help at sometime. I’d rather see you somewhere safe than out like this around unstable people," Leonard said.
As Leonard heads back to the East Precinct, it would be tempting to try to forget all of the human misery he has seen.
"You try to move on, but you never forget," he said.
In the final two months of 2009, six police officers were murdered in Western Washington. That has departments everywhere looking for ways to make policing safer, but it will always be a dangerous job.