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Two veteran police officers and a third cop on the job less than a year have been identified as the victims in the Baton Rouge shooting Sunday, the latest knot in a recent string of bloodshed that has left citizens and several police dead.
Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson, a 10-year-veteran, and Matthew Gerald, 41, who had been serving on the Baton Rouge police force for less than a year were killed in the attack. Brad Garafola, 45, a 24-year veteran of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's office, also died, officials said.
Three other BRPD officers were wounded in the ambush by a shooter now identified as Gavin Long of Kansas City, Missouri. The suspect was killed by police.
Word of Jackson’s death spread quickly through his small development in Denham Springs, rippling across the grapevine from neighbor to neighbor. A fellow officer who lived nearby and who was waiting to change shifts with him, could be heard screaming once the terrible news broke.
Outside of Jackson’s house, about 13 miles from where he grew up in Baton Rouge, a pair of sheriff’s deputies cars stood sentry as family grieved his killing on Sunday. Neighbors soon gathered at his door, some with ice chests filled with bottled water for the officers and others mourning the loss of the dedicated 10-year police veteran.
Jackson, 32, married and the father of a new baby boy, was gunned down alongside two fellow officers about a half-mile from Baton Rouge police headquarters on Airline Highway.
Marcus Tillman, a former Baton Rouge police officer who was Jackson’s partner for a time, said that when he heard that Jackson was among the dead, he literally fell to his knees.
“I’ve never cried that hard in my life,” Tillman, who now lives in Dallas, said in a phone interview shortly after the shootings. “Honestly, it felt like my soul was being yanked out.”
Tillman said he was at church when he initially heard about the shootings. He walked in and an officer friend offered his condolences. When Tillman called his former captain on the Baton Rouge police force, the captain relayed the terrible news that Jackson was killed. According to Tillman, the captain told him that Jackson and a rookie officer he was training were responding to reports of someone firing shots not far from police headquarters, and that as soon as the two stepped from their vehicle they were fired on.
Tillman said Jackson had been “stressed out” and “depressed” by the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Dallas, and said many he knew on the force had been discouraged. “I remember Montrell got on Facebook the other day and posted that he hopes that his son won’t ever become a police officer so he wouldn’t have to deal with the BS that comes with the job,” he said.
Tillman was already on the force, when Montrell graduated from the police academy and was soon assigned to the Third District, where Jackson was killed on Sunday. Tillman and Jackson never shared a squad car, but would patrol the same zone. In 2007, Jackson was one of three Baton Rouge police officers who suffered smoke inhalation while trying unsuccessfully to save a toddler from a burning apartment.
“We backed each other up on every call,” Tillman said, sighing deeply at the fact that, had he still been a Baton Rouge police officer, he very likely would’ve been by Jackson’s side when the shooting began. Tillman served as a Baton Rouge police officer from 2003 to 2010 before leaving to take a job with the Plano police department. He recently ended his career in law enforcement.
“I would’ve been right there with him,” Tillman said. He was told a rookie trainee who was under fire alongside Jackson took a gunshot to the face.
Joycelyn Jackson also got news of her brother's death while in church.
“I didn’t want to break down in church but it was just something I couldn’t hold,” she told The Washington Post. “He was a wonderful person. A wonderful person.”
"It’s coming to the point where no lives matter," Jackson said, "whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or whatever."
Kristi Vick Godal, Jackson’s next door neighbor and the daughter of a retired Baton Rouge police officer, said Jackson was pained by the events surrounding the killing of Alton Sterling and the protests that followed in its wake.
“He loved his city,” Godal said. “It is an absolute tragedy. He was a police officer but he was also a proud black man.”
In a July 8 post on Facebook, read aloud by Godal over the phone Sunday, Jackson admitted that he was “physically and emotionally” exhausted by the rising tensions between the officers of Baton Rouge and its black citizens.
“I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me,” he wrote. “In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core. When people you know begin to question your integrity you realize they don’t really know you at all. Look at my actions they speak LOUD and CLEAR. Finally I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer. I got you.”
Godal said Jackson served as a mentor to her children since their father was killed in 2011. “He was a big man,” Godal said. “But a gentle one.” She spoke with Jackson almost every day, often through social media, and said he was seen as a steady, calming force as the president of the development’s homeowner’s association.
“We’ve all just been devastated,” Godal said. “An extremely special human being was stolen from the earth.”
The shootings on Sunday come on the heels of a pair of killings of black men by police — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on July 5, and Philando Castile a day later in Falcon Heights, Minn. — that sent fiery protests rippling across the country. A day after Castile's killing, a gunman hiding under the cover of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Sterling's and Castile's names ambushed a group of police officers in Dallas, killing five and wounding several others, including two civilians.
At the same time, protests in Baton Rouge grew in size but also in terms of turmoil with police. Officers in riot gear swooped in to suppress protests, arresting hundreds in the process.
The families of Castile and Sterling have called for peace and an end to violence committed by and against police.
"We are disgusted by the despicable act of violence today that resulted in the shooting deaths of members of the Baton Rouge law enforcement," said Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Alton Sterling's son, Cameron. In the wake of his father's death, Cameron has become an emotional face of the children of those killed by police, as viewers from around the world watched his anguish and tears in front of news cameras.
McMillon, in a statement, said her family is "heartbroken for the officers and their families" and that they are praying for them and for the city's leaders.
"As my son Cameron and I have said from the beginning, all we want is peace. We reject violence of any kind directed at members of law enforcement or citizens," McMillon said. "My hope is that one day soon we can come together and find solutions to the very important issues facing our nation rather than continuing to hurt one another."