OCSO officers rocked by deaths in Dallas

OKEECHOBEE — No matter what he did sleep would not come.

One dead. Two dead. The final count: five dead and seven wounded.

Unfathomable.

But, blurry-eyed and exhausted Major Noel Stephen was on the job at 6 a.m. Friday, July 8, for a meeting with the department heads of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO).

“I just laid there. Sleep was non-existent because of the events and occurrences in Dallas,” he said. “As you’re hearing the information it takes you back to where you’re recalling events — even though they’re not as significant as this.”

In that early meeting with road patrol Captain Gary Bell, detective Captain John Rhoden and Detention Deputy Lieutenant Scott Deloney they discussed their fears and those of the deputies and detectives under them.

“All of them are family men and I shared my concerns. It’s our job. We’ll watch out for each other, console each other and continue to do our jobs,” said the veteran cop of nearly 29 years. “It’s a helpless feeling we have. We’re sending our officers out in harm’s way for us.

“While 99 percent of the people are fleeing, we’re headed to the problem,” he added.

He went on to say he then gave those supervisors a very simple, but somber directive: “For all those brothers and sisters who lost their lives, let’s all be aware and back each other up.”

After that many years on the job, one would think the major would be hardened to the point very little would bother him. But as he watched the events in Dallas unfold, he had trouble holding back the tears.

These were fellow cops being picked off one by one by possibly as many as four snipers — all armed with automatic weapons and plenty of ammunition.

As the Dallas police officers lined the streets to make sure protesters were safe, five of them lost their lives.

The marchers were peacefully making their concerns known over the deaths of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota at the hands of white police officers.

One of the snipers was later killed by an explosive device that was carried by a Dallas Police Department robot. That sniper has been identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, of Dallas. He was a former U.S. Army Reservist.

Three more men, who had not been identified by newspaper deadline, were in custody.

When asked about the killings earlier in the week, Maj. Stephen chose his words carefully.

“Without having all the information, there’s no possible way to say what was going on in the minds of those officers,” he offered. “While what happened is wrong, there’s still due process.”

And even though the snipers in Dallas were out to kill cops — white cops — the major said there are no racial problems at the sheriff’s office.

“I don’t see it as putting a wedge between our officers. The wedge would be between the public and the officers,” he said. “We have issues like any family.

But, at the end of the day, no one messes with our family. We protect each other.”

He also doesn’t foresee any problems with the public.

“Because of the recent events and copy cats, there’s always concern. But, I take pride in the way our officers interact with the public,” the major noted.

It boils down to having respect for those in the community, indicated Maj. Stephen, and treating community members with respect.

Still, five cops were gunned down simply because they were cops.

“That’s the sad state of affairs — cops are being killed for the badge or shield they wear on their chest. Solely,” Maj. Stephen said.

Sheriff Paul May echoed that sentiment and said the killings in Texas were simply murder.

“These murders of police officers in Dallas appear to be in retaliation of recent police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana. If a police officer commits an act that rises to a criminal level, they should go through our criminal justice system like anyone else and receive due process,” said the sheriff. “What happened in Dallas is premeditated, cold-blooded murder and can never be justified.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these officers and our country,” added Sheriff May.

Maj. Stephen thought back to Sept. 11, 2001, and the sadness he felt and the concern he had for his law enforcement brethren. He then started to talk about the situation in Dallas but had to stop.

“In my almost 30 years on the job …,” his voice trailed off and he fell silent.
The interview was over.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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