Milwaukee Police Cope With Third Officer Death In 8 Months

Nationwide 16 Law Enforcement Officers Killed This Year In Line Of Duty

Milwaukee Police car
Milwaukee Police stage on the city’s south side Wednesday, February 6, 2019 after responding to a call of an officer being shot that morning. The officer, 35-year-old Matthew Rittner, was taken to a hospital where he died later that day. Corri Hess/WPR

The fatal shooting of Matthew Rittner Wednesday morning was the third time in eight months the Milwaukee Police Department lost an officer in the line of duty.

Rittner was serving a search warrant on the city’s south side to a man suspected of illegally selling firearms and drugs when multiple shots were fired. The 35-year-old later died at Froedtert Hospital.

Jordan P. Fricke, a 26-year-old Milwaukee man, was arrested in connection with the shooting at the scene by the members of Rittner’s unit, the Tactical Enforcement Unit.

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Rittner’s death has shaken Milwaukee and the department, which will have to bury their third colleague in less than a year.

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Assistant Milwaukee Police Chief Michael Brunson Sr. held back tears as he talked about how difficult this has been for the department.

“In eight months this is the third line of duty death we’ve had in our city,” Brunson said. “This officer was well loved by everyone in our department. And we are deeply impacted by this loss for our agency. We’re asking for prayers and your support from all of our city residents during this extremely difficult time for us.”

Steven Dykstra, a psychologist with the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, said the department didn’t just lose co-workers, they’ve lost people in the line of duty.

“They died because of the risks they take every day, and that is a thing for their co-workers, and also for the families of the people who remain, it makes the risk very real,” Dykstra said.

Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Michalski, 52, was shot and killed in July while responding to a call related to a suspect wanted on gun and drug charges. Jonathan Copeland Jr., 30, pleaded not guilty in August to the killing.

Officer Charles Irvine Jr., 23, died in June while he and another officer were pursuing a suspect with a lengthy criminal record. The squad car crashed as they chased the suspect on the city’s northwest side.

Irvine’s death was the first time in 22 years a Milwaukee Police officer was killed in the line of duty.

Brunson said Wednesday the department has a robust chaplaincy program and a psychologist at the department available for officers.

“We also talk about leaning on each other at this time, depending on each other and obviously prayer is very important,” Brunson said. “To the city and everyone, three deaths in such a short period of time, this is a lot to bear.

Dykstra has spent more than a decade working with law enforcement agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department.

He said the officers are not only carrying the burden of their loss, but also the burden of wondering what danger they could face on the job every day.

“The effect of that stress and trauma over time on police officers is very similar to the effect of stress and trauma some members of our community face,” Dykstra said. “One of the unfortunate effects is that shared experience sometimes drives a wedge between them. They are all at times so stressed, so traumatized, so worn down by their common experience that they lose sight of the fact that they share an enormous amount in common.”

As of Friday, 16 law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty nationwide, according to the Washington D.C.-based National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. That is up from 12 during the same time in 2017.

Eight of the 16 officers died from firearms-related deaths, six deaths were traffic related and two were classified as “other.”

“Every one of these fatalities represents a shattered family, a shattered department that’s grieving for the loss of a colleague and in many cases a shattered community,” said Steve Groeninger, a spokesman for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Last year, 144 federal, state, local, tribal and territorial officers died in the line of duty, a 12 percent increase over the 129 officers who died in the line of duty in 2017, according to the group.

Two officers from Wisconsin died in 2018, both were from the Milwaukee Police Department.

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