The killing of two FBI agents last week at a lake-bordered community in South Florida marked the first time since November 2008 that an FBI agent was fatally shot in the line of duty.
During that same interval, 630 police officers from state, local, tribal and other federal agencies died from line-of-duty gunshot wounds, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund
Why do most shooting deaths of law enforcement officers in the US occur outside of the FBI, which calls itself “one of the world’s premier security and crime-fighting forces”?
Some of the answers are expected: Nearly 90% of the nation’s law enforcement officers serve on local and state police forces. They make more arrests. They are much more likely to encounter potentially violent suspects on a daily basis — whether it be for a traffic stop, domestic violence call or another emergency.
But there are other factors that might explain why fewer agents die by gunfire, say law enforcement experts and former agents.
FBI agents are more likely to build cases incrementally than respond to a 911 call. They often work in multi-agency task forces and generally have more time to plan search warrants and safe execution of them. They build a case against an individual and weigh the danger he or she might present. All of this reduces the likelihood they will draw a gun or have one pulled on them.
Still, the work is dangerous and plans can end in tragedy, as occurred Tuesday when Special Agents Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger and other agents and local police officers tried to execute a search warrant at a Sunrise, Florida, apartment where the suspect was barricaded. He, too, died, although the circumstances have not been divulged.
The Florida case, according to authorities, involved alleged violent crimes against children — society’s most vulnerable. Federal convictions for such crimes can lead to lengthy prison sentences and some suspects may feel they may have a lot to lose, experts say.
“These can be people who think of themselves having big complicated, important lives and they may have a fraudulent exterior,” says Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the FBI and a current CNN senior law enforcement analyst.
Taking a strategic versus tactical approach
While all law enforcement work is inherently dangerous, there are differences in the scenarios FBI agents and local officers typically face.
The latter’s “jobs are more tactical. They often don’t have a plan when they get on their shift, and do not know what will be their next call,” says James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “The circumstances are often more volatile, and he or she can’t control circumstances.” They often have to be in a reactive mode.
Federal agents, on the other hand, are often involved in complex cases, including cyberterrorism, domestic terrorism, online fraud and crimes against children, such as pornography and trafficking.
They are proactive as they gather evidence, following leads and tips and reaching out to other law enforcement agencies.
Local police departments have investigators, too, but the FBI’s hallmark is deep investigations into individuals that can be anywhere — from down the street to a remote hideaway overseas.
“You have the ability to do your homework in advance of an operation,” says Lazaro “Larry” Cosme, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. “It doesn’t mean it will be a foolproof operation.”
FBI agents, when they do move in on a suspect, have a precise plan and contingencies, experts say. And they usually get to decide the time and place of the search or arrest. Often, they move in with an overwhelming force.
“They typically control the environment wherever they go,” says Josh Campbell, CNN security correspondent and a former FBI agent. “It is rare for officers to fire their weapons and receive gunfire.”
But sometimes an operation encounters the unknown. There never will be a “complete understanding of every threat,” McCabe says.
Agents try to reduce risk of armed confrontation
Special agents Alfin, 36, and Schwartzenberger, 43, are being remembered for their efforts to fight sex crimes against children. They worked at the FBI’s Miami office in a unit that investigates online predators, child pornography, sexual abuse, kidnappings and violent attacks.
An hour before dawn Tuesday, they and other officers went to an upscale apartment in Sunrise to serve a search warrant.
Such an operation typically involves local police blocking streets and adding legitimacy, says Campbell.
Going that early has its advantages for law enforcement: They generally have the element of surprise. The subject may be groggy. He or she may have had little time to formulate resistance. The aim is to defuse the situation.
“Generally speaking, that will result in a lower number of violent confrontations,” says Pasco.
The FBI hasn’t said much about the search warrant, other than it was ordered by a federal court relating to a case of violent crimes against children. The FBI Agents Association said it was related to suspected possession of child pornography.
It’s not known whether the FBI knew the suspect in Sunrise had weapons. Details about what led to the gunfire, weren’t available. The FBI has not released an account of what occurred during the shootout.
The gunman opened fire and Alfin and Schwartzenberger were killed; three agents were wounded. Two were taken to a hospital with multiple gunshot wounds and later released. The third agent was treated at the scene.
Usually, experts and the FBI says, the serving of warrants ends without incident. “We do a ton of these warrants in these kinds of cases all around the country, every day,” McCabe said.
But with the profusion of child pornography, “We are getting more people who are reacting violently or unpredictably to a search warrant,” he says.
1986 firefight led to more firepower, training
The Sunrise shooting is similar to a deadly firefight 35 years ago outside Miami that was a turning point in the FBI’s history. On April 11, 1986, two violent bank robbers being pursued by FBI agents opened fire with high-powered firearms, killing two agents and wounding five others before the suspects were killed.
The names and photographs of Special Agents Jerry Dove and Benjamin P. Grogan are on the FBI’s online Wall of Honor. The page lists 81 employees going back to 1925. Some were killed in the 1930s during the gangster age.
The last agent to be shot to death before Alfin and Schwartzenberger was Special Agent Samuel S. Hicks, who was killed in 2008 while trying to serve an arrest warrant in a drug trafficking case at a home near Pittsburgh.
Most of those listed toward the end of the Wall of Honor died as a result of illnesses linked to responding to the 9/11 attacks.
In the aftermath of the 1986 shootout, the FBI issued special agents with semiautomatic handguns rather than revolvers, changed its firearms training and studied the psychological impacts of being shot at, former FBI deputy director John S. Pistole said in 2006.
All of this was aimed at protecting the health and lives of agents.
2020 was one of the deadliest years in history for US law enforcement officers, according to a group that tracks officer deaths in the line of duty.
Law enforcement officers died last year of numerous causes, among them vehicle crashes, heart attacks and gunshots. But more died of Covid-19 than all other causes combined, with 145 out of the 264 deaths attributed to the virus, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
‘Our chosen profession is fraught with danger’
The FBI is conducting an investigation into what happened in Florida.
“You owe it to the patriots who gave their lives” to see whether there are lessons to be learned or ways for agents to better protect themselves, says McCabe.
The loss of two dedicated agents has been a gut punch to the bureau. Law enforcement and others are in mourning.
“Our chosen profession is fraught with danger. Today, this grim reality has taken two of our best from our family,” George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami Field Office, said at a news conference hours after the shooting.
William Beller, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association chapter president, told CNN on Wednesday: “We are all brothers and sisters in law enforcement.” Overcome with emotion, he said, “All I know is I was able to hug my kids today,” and walked away in tears.
Services for the fallen agents took place over the weekend at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
It’s important for people to know that while being an FBI agent is exciting, it’s an incredibly hard and perilous job, McCabe says.
“Moments like this bring reality to them in a very visceral way,” he says. “It will not deter them. They will not turn their guns in tomorrow.”