A sad and solemn procession traveled yesterday through the streets of Lancaster as relatives, friends and colleagues of Sgt. Steve Owen bid farewell to the decorated member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who was gunned down Oct. 5 in an ambush attack while performing his duties.
The morning procession, broadcast over local television stations, caused closures of numerous thoroughfares in Lancaster as thousands of onlookers—including youngsters waving American Flags along the route—lined the streets to pay their respects to Owen. The procession included a riderless horse (owned by Owen as a member of the mounted detail) with a pair of boots mounted backward in the stirrups. Those attending the private service at Lancaster Baptist Church listened as several members of Owen’s family as well as friends, colleagues and Sheriff Jim McDonnell spoke in heartfelt terms about the popular 29-year peace officer whom many in the community considered an outstanding public servant and a friend. Owen, 53, was cremated.
‘Unrelenting dedication to community’
“The level of support and the outpouring of prayer from the community has been unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my 33 years with the Sheriff’s Department,” Capt. Pat Nelson of the Lancaster station told mourners inside the church. Nelson said Owen—affectionately known as “Bullfrog”—demonstrated unrelenting dedication to the community he served since 1992 in a variety of positions with the department.
“He was also a coach, a friend, a mentor to so many other members of our community, and I’m proud to say that he’s been my friend for over 20 years. We will all miss him terribly,” Nelson said.
McDonnell told a story of how Owen met his wife, Tania, on the job, and about his efforts to assist the community during his off hours. He said Owen represented the best of law enforcement and set an example deserving of being met by police and sheriff’s deputies.
“We have examples out there coaching and mentoring, many because of Steve’s example,” McDonnell said. “There are people—fathers, mothers, daughters, sons—who wear the badge who go out there and answer calls, because whenever something goes wrong in life people call 911 and the police respond. Every 61 hours in America, a police officer is killed in the line of duty because they and their families chose a profession that puts them between harm and the public we serve.”
Dignitaries honor ‘a good man’
Also in attendance were Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, and County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Law enforcement officers from as far away as New York attended the service.
Trenton Trevon Lovell, 27, has been charged with capital murder and faces one count of murder with the special circumstance allegations of murder for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest and murder of a peace officer. If convicted, Lovell, a parolee, faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In Lancaster, the city council is expected to vote soon to rename Lancaster Community Park to “Sergeant Steven Owen Community Park” with Mayor Parris explaining that the veteran lawman “deserves to be remembered by the residents of the city of Lancaster and the Antelope Valley.” Last weekend, the Minnesota Vikings honored the Owen family at a game in Minneapolis where they wore custom T-shirts with his picture printed on the front. A long-time Vikings fan, Owen had made plans to attend a game there this season, therefore the Vikings organization placed Owen’s picture on the “jumbotron” in recognition of his service.
Outpouring of gratitude
Mourners on Oct. 8 held a candlelight vigil between Sierra Highway and Cedar Avenue; the Owen family released a statement that evening: “The continuous outpouring of encouragement, gratitude, and respect for him that has come from our community and across the nation has brought us the comfort and the strength needed to survive this tragedy. You have all truly touched our hearts.” At the beginning of the week, a GoFundMe page established by the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association had received more than $45,000 which will later be presented to the organization’s Star and Shield Foundation.
Owen’s death preceded the killing of Palm Springs officers Jose Vega and Lesley Zerebny who became the first officers in the department to die in the line of duty in more than five decades. The pair had responded Oct. 8 to a domestic disturbance call in the small desert community and, 10 minutes after calling for backup, were gunned down by suspect John Felix who after barricading himself in his home for nearly 24 hours, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of multiple murder and murder of a police officer in the line of duty. Vega, 63, was scheduled to retire in December after 35 years of service. Zerebny, with the department for one and one-half years, had recently returned to work after giving birth to a daughter.
Increase in ambush murders
The deaths took a particularly hard toll on Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes who commented to the press: “I consider the brutal murder of a police officer to be a very heinous crime … I’m awake in a nightmare right now. If there’s ever a time to pray for Palm Springs PD, it’s now.”
Like Lovell in Lancaster, records show that Felix had a history of arrest. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, after an initial charge of attempted murder in 2009 and was sentenced to two years in prison. In 2013, Felix was accused of resisting arrest with Palm Springs police on the same street where he reportedly killed the two officers. Police reported that on Oct. 8 Felix wore body armor and had high-capacity rifle magazines.
Owen’s death has renewed concerns about the feasibility and practicality of Prop. 47, a state measure passed in 2014 which has reduced the number of persons behind bars; opponents, particularly those in law enforcement, believe the measure has placed more peace officers—and the public in general—in danger because some of the former inmates have a violent past. A similar prison-
related ballot measure, Prop. 57, seeks to increase parole opportunities for inmates and will be voted on in November.
McDonnell has been a vocal critic of Prop. 47 since its passage. He told KABC 790 last week that Owen’s murder is “changing the conservation” about allowing convicted persons with a history of violence a “second chance” before completing their intended sentence.
Rethinking Props 47, 57
“I think it’s time we had a serious conversation about this issue,” McDonnell said. “We all believe in second chances and a chance for redemption. But there are a limited number of chances where somebody doesn’t get a free pass to continue to do this type of violence we see over and over again in so many different cases.” McDonnell pointed to next month’s vote on Prop. 57 as an opportunity for the public to consider the consequences of the early release of felons—some with a history of violence—back into society.
“I would ask the public to read those (ballot measures) very closely and very carefully, because a lot is at stake,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell referred to the history of the suspected killer (Lovell) who had been arrested 11 times, first as a juvenile on suspicion of selling marijuana, and was jailed or imprisoned twice. Owen responded to a burglary report in the 3200 block of West Avenue J-7 where he radioed that he had found the suspect. Seconds later Lovell reportedly shot Owen at point-blank range and then stood over him and fired four additional rounds into the deputy. Lovell subsequently entered a residence and held two teenagers at knifepoint before fleeing and was later apprehended by members of the Sheriff’s department Special Enforcement Bureau. McDonnell said the brutality of the murder, along with the background of the suspected killer, may divert voters from California’s current approach to reforming the criminal justice system and reducing the population of the state’s overcrowded prisons.
Honorable intent … but flawed
Because Props 47 and 57 make certain drug or property crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies, law enforcement personnel, as well as County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, have been reluctant to endorse early-release measures in citing a recent spike (12.7 percent in 2015) in overall violent and property crimes compared with 2014 as reported by Los Angeles Police Department data. After Prop 47 passed, Lacey said an estimated 4,000 in-progress cases would have to be reclassified (from felony to misdemeanor) and, statewide, about 4,800 felony inmates would become eligible to petition for resentencing. Lacey, like many observers within the judicial system, believed then that the “treatment aspect” for persons addicted to drugs and alcohol was the most positive aspect of the new law.
McDonnell told the Los Angeles Times last year that much of the blame for the rise in crime in California could be attributed to the passage of Prop 47. He said more Californians are at risk for crimes than they were prior to its passage.
“I look at 47 and the intent behind it was an honorable intent, one that would focus on treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenses and low-level thefts,” McDonnell said. “In order to be successful in doing that, I believe we should have front-loaded the treatment portion with funding from the state, but we didn’t have any of that. Instead what we have seen then is an increase not only in property crime but also in violent crime. It’s taking a steady toll throughout the county.”
Proposition 57 also has its critics, including Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert—along with about a dozen more district attorneys statewide—who believe the measure is poorly written and may expose a flaw in the penal code, if potentially violent prisoners are released.
Brown stands with proponents
“It’s one of the most dangerous initiatives that we’ve seen in the history of criminal justice,” Schubert said. “The [penal] code only defines what is a ‘violent’ crime. All of the other ones, if they’re not included, by default, they’re considered ‘non-violent.’” Shubert explained that offenses like sexual assault, domestic violence and assault with a deadly weapon may fall into those [“non-violent”] categories.
Gov. Jerry Brown this month said Prop 57 will restore fairness to a criminal justice system “on steroids.”
“Why not give some of these people a second chance? Isn’t that human nature?” Brown posed to the San Jose Mercury News. “Aren’t redemption and forgiveness what it’s all about? If we take away all of that, the inmates have no hope. We’re throwing them in a cell with no hope.” To date, proposition backers have raised more than $8 million while opponents have collected less than $275,000, mostly from an arm of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies association and the statewide district attorney’s group.
Patrol officers at greatest risk of murder
Shooting deaths of law enforcement officers nationwide have reportedly spiked 78 percent in the first half of this year, including an increase in ambush-style assaults like the one that killed five officers in Dallas, Texas in July. Also that month, six officers were shot in a single incident in Baton Rouge, La, with three dying from their injuries. A report released this summer by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (OMF) revealed that 32 officers nationwide have died this year of firearms-related incidents (compared to 18 during the same time span in 2015), 14 of which the result of an ambush.
Statistics released by the OMF find that, since 2000, there have been about 9.5 ambush killings of law enforcement officers each year nationwide. This number has been declining in recent years (down to about six per year) but 2016 got off to a violent start with the deaths of three deputy sheriff’s in Maryland in February and March, and the murder of a police officer in Virginia’s Prince William County in February. The International Association of Chiefs of Police published a study in 2013 specifically analyzing police ambushes (where an officer is suddenly attacked without apparent provocation) and found that the average ambushed officer is 38 years old with 11 years on the job. Of those killed, 38 percent were patrol officers, 17 percent were deputy sheriffs, and 15 percent sergeants—all of whom were most likely to be first responders to any 911 call.