West Memphis Police Deaths Highlight Risks Cops Take : The Two-Way The reality of danger to law enforcement officers from armed criminals was sadly realized in West Memphis, Ark. when two police officers were shot to death by men reportedly armed with at least two AK-47s after a traffic stop.
NPR logo West Memphis Police Deaths Highlight Risks Cops Take

West Memphis Police Deaths Highlight Risks Cops Take

In his speech to a joint session of Congress Thursday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon warned U.S. lawmakers that if they didn't reinstate the assault weapons ban, not only would it result in the continued U.S. by Mexican criminals of military-style semiautomatic weapons in their attacks on police and military in his nation but a future in the U.S. where similarly armed criminals attack American police.

I couldn't help but notice that almost 900 miles away from where Calderon spoke and nearly around the same time, a scene very much like what the Mexican president warned of happened.

The reality of danger to law enforcement officers from armed criminals was sadly realized in West Memphis, Ark. when two police officers were shot to death during a traffic stop by men reportedly armed with at least two AK-47s.

The officer who made the initial stop of a van with two men inside was on drug interdiction according to an Associated Press story.

An excerpt:

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. (AP) - Two men armed with AK-47s ambushed and killed two officers who had stopped them on an Arkansas interstate, then died in a shootout with police who had tracked them to a Walmart parking lot, authorities say.

Sgt. Brandon Paudert, 39, and Bill Evans, 38, were killed Thursday while "running drug interdiction" on Interstate 40 in east Arkansas, West Memphis Police Inspector Bert Shelton said.

The local sheriff and a deputy were shot and injured in the subsequent shootout, authorities said.

The events started when Evans stopped a minivan with Ohio plates, with Paudert arriving moments later as backup, Assistant Police Chief Mike Allen said. Two men got out of the van with the assault rifles and opened fire on the officers, Shelton said.

"In what was probably only a few minutes, Officer Evans was shoved to the ground and the men in the minivan started shooting at both officers," Allen said. Investigators believe the van then sped away, Allen said.

Paudert, the son of West Memphis' police chief, died at the scene and Evans died at a hospital, authorities said.

Authorities declined to say why Evans stopped the minivan or what was found inside.

A story in the West Memphis Evening Times reports how the suspects were cornered in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It has fewer details than the AP about the weapons used.

At about 1 p.m., the suspects' vehicle was spotted in the Walmart parking lot. In a well-orchestrated and coordinated effort, police converged on the parking lot, blocking all escape routes. As several officers approached the vehicle, the two suspects sped up making an attempt to exit the parking lot but were stopped when an officer with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Law Enforcement division rammed his four-wheel drive truck into their van. The game warden was not identified.

According to Sadler it is uncertain who fired the first shots but the pair was killed in a gun battle that left Crittenden County Sheriff Dick Busby and his Chief Deputy W.A. Wren wounded. They were both taken to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.

Shoppers at Walmart were whisked to the rear of the store by store employees. No one inside the store or on the parking lot was injured. Sadler credited the extensive training Arkansas law enforcement officers must have for safety of Walmart customers as shots were being fired outside.

Sadler said the two men were armed with a "long" rifle and a handgun but would not elaborate further on the types or caliber of the weapons.

Police in the U.S. have long faced a threat from criminals with high powered, semi-automatic, military style weapons. That was one reason the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004 was passed in the first place.

Of course, the criminals could have just as easily ambushed the police with hand guns. It's the element of surprise that makes for a successful ambush more than the type of firearm used.

Still, the irony between the timing of Calderon's words, and the scene that played out in West Memphis Thursday is striking.

What's also worth noting is the daily and most unnoticed bravery of police officers who must approach vehicles during traffic stops never knowing if they are encountering someone homocidal who is armed and might try to get the drop on them, as apparently happened in West Memphis yesterday.

It's something to think about the next time you pass a police officer on the highway who's approaching a car he or she just pulled over.