What is happening with guns in the City of Brotherly Love?

The cold-blooded shooting of a Philadelphia police officer yesterday in East Oak Lane was the city's third shooting of a cop in four days, part of a national trend in which criminals are demonstrating an increasing fearlessness of taking aim at law enforcement officers.

The assaults on police officers, coupled with Tuesday night's brazen shooting of three civilians and a cop in a crowded Center City district, seem to be a wake-up call that violence is not confined to the less-than-law-abiding in the city's impoverished quarters.

"There is a criminal element in this city and around the country that have completely lost any respect for authority," Mayor Street said outside the hospital where Officer Charles Cassidy had been taken after being shot in East Oak Lane, "and the proliferation of guns and weapons in this city and in cities around the country make this a very tough and challenging and difficult job for the Police Department."

In a sense, Street is right. Gun violence is a national problem - violent crime is up across the country, and fatal shootings of police officers are up 39 percent nationwide this year, to 61.

"There are more brazen criminals operating on the streets of our nation, criminals that are more cold-blooded in their nature, with less respect for human life and certainly for police authority," said Craig W. Floyd, chief executive of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, which tracks police deaths.

But violent crime is also a local problem, made worse by the timing of Tuesday night's shootings, during a nationally televised debate of Democratic presidential contenders at Drexel University, where the audience emerged to see Center City lit up by police helicopters and frogmen searching the Schuylkill for a suspect who shot three civilians and an officer.

"It's a disgrace, and it's a damn embarrassment," said Michael Nutter, who is nearly certain to win Tuesday's mayoral election. He has been critical of the Street administration's response to a four-year increase in violent crime.

New approaches

"I don't know what it's going to take to have this administration and the Police Department develop a different set of policing strategies," Nutter told reporters.

Robert Eddis, the past president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, who spent much of yesterday consoling Cassidy's family, said rank-and-file officers were "dazed and confused" by the violence directed at them.

"Right now, you're an officer on the street, you've got to be scratching your head. . . . In order to do the job, you really have to have a clear mind. You have to be in a position where you go out there and do the job without worrying. I don't know how a young officer can do that tonight."

While Philadelphia police officers and their supporters posted angry messages on electronic bulletin boards yesterday calling for "zero tolerance" of criminals, experts said the rise in violence directed at police officers was a direct outgrowth of the proliferation of guns and a willingness of criminals to use them.

"If we see violent crime going up nationwide, it means police officers are at greater risk as well," Floyd said.

Experts said police shootings peaked in the 1970s, partly as a political response by militant black groups directed mostly at white police officers, said Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the decades since, fatal shootings of police have dropped dramatically because of better police training, improved gear - bullet-resistant vests and better guns - and better emergency medical care.

Not specifically targeted

The recent increase in attacks on officers does not appear to be specifically directed at police; they just happened to get in the way.

"That speaks to the level of gun violence in the city," Sherman said.

"It's not an issue in terms of police-minority relations, as it was in the early '70s. It's an issue of so many guns on the street and so many gun crimes being committed that police are just walking into more of it because the density of those events are greater," he said.

The recent rash of police shootings seems to underline that point.

Early Sunday, Officer Sandra Van Hinkel was shot in the leg when gunmen in a rowdy crowd gathered outside the KoKo Bongo club in University City began firing at the police. On Tuesday, Mariano Santiago, a traffic officer, was shot in the shoulder after responding to a drive-by shooting behind the venerated Union League in Center City. And yesterday Cassidy was shot in the head after interrupting an armed robbery at a doughnut shop that had been held up before.

Sherman, an advocate of the more aggressive police strategy known as stop-and-frisk, said police needed to focus their attention on removing guns from the street and on the repeat offenders who are disproportionately responsible for much of the violence. He said more aggressive policing does not necessarily mean offending the innocent public; British police are trained to search for guns "politely," while explaining the larger social aims to inconvenienced citizens.

"That goes back to the fundamental issue of whether the way to prevent police officers from getting killed is to get more guns off the street, even if in the short run it may risk more confrontations with people who don't want to get their guns taken away," he said.

The national effect on Philadelphia's image from this week's violence is unclear. Most of the participants in Tuesday night's presidential debate, including the battalion of national journalists who were visiting Philadelphia, may have been so focused on the jousting among candidates over the war in Iraq that they failed to notice the domestic war a few blocks from the auditorium.

"We've got seven presidential candidates in the city, showcasing and highlighting Philadelphia, and in the middle of a two-hour debate we've got murder and mayhem in the city," Nutter said.

"This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated under any set of circumstances, ripping out the heart and soul of the city. We're in the middle of a crime crisis and need to come to grips with that."