Sacramento Officer Tara O’Sullivan killed on one of most dangerous police calls: Domestic violence

It’s the kind of call for help that police officers must tackle with nerves steeled and antenna up. Domestic violence.

The reasons are obvious.

“You just don’t know how amped up the parties are,” said Ed Obayashi, who conducts domestic violence training for officers in California. “You’re walking into the worst moment in people’s lives. They are angry. They are frustrated. And they don’t want to see you any more than we want to see them.”

On Wednesday evening in north Sacramento, one such call resulted in the first Sacramento police officer on-duty death in 20 years.

Twenty-six-old Tara O’Sullivan, a first-year city officer, was shot and killed while she assisted at a residence on a “civil standby” call after a domestic disturbance. Essentially, O’Sullivan was acting as a protector.

The shooter subsequently engaged police in a standoff for hours, repeatedly firing at officers before giving himself up early Thursday. A 45-year-old Sacramento man with a lengthy history of domestic violence and battery against women, Adel Sambrano Ramos, was booked into the county jail Thursday on a murder charge.

Police had received a call earlier Wednesday about a domestic disturbance at a residence off El Camino Avenue. After talking with a woman, police agreed to stand by at a residence on the 200 block of Redwood Avenue to safeguard the woman as she gathered her belongings.

Police say O’Sullivan was in the backyard of the home at about 6:10 p.m. when she was shot. Police have not released details of where the shooter was and whether O’Sullivan had spoken to him or even knew of his whereabouts.

Other officers with O’Sullivan were forced to take cover and return fire. It took about 45 minutes for an armored vehicle to maneuver into position to rescue O’Sullivan and take her to a hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.

It marks the second time this year that a young, female Sacramento-area police officer has been gunned down in what appears to be an ambush. In January, Natalie Corona, a 22-year-old Davis police officer, was shot by surprise on the street while she took witness statements at a traffic accident. Her assailant, a man with personal grievances against police, killed himself later that night.

Wednesday’s incident in north Sacramento comes as a shock, police experts say. But they say officers know that when they respond to domestic violence calls they often are walking into an emotional powder keg.

“You hope you can get in and settle the matter and get out,” said Obayashi, a Plumas County special deputy sheriff. “They are so angry, so frustrated, people do stupid things at this point.”

Domestic violence calls not only are among the most dangerous police calls, they also are frequent in Sacramento County, a data review shows. In 2017, Sacramento police and sheriffs deputies were called to handle 4,800 such incidents, an average of 13 a day.

In more than half of those cases – 2,653 – there was a weapon in the house, although that weapon was a gun in only 45 of the cases.

Law enforcement may be the occupation whose members are most likely to be assaulted and killed in California. At least 71 law enforcement officers have been killed by an assailant while on duty in the past 17 years, according to the state Department of Justice.

The leading cause of death the last two years was from a gunshot, data shows.

Officers typically go in pairs to domestic violence calls because of the volatility of the situation, former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said.

O’Sullivan, who had just graduated from the police academy, was reportedly shadowing another officer at the Wednesday evening call.

Officers typically would question the woman asking for the escort: Is your antagonist at the house? Are there weapons? Is he violent? They also will check databases, if they have names, to see if the disputants have any prior history of violence.

Their goal is to calm the situation, but sometimes one party is so emotionally upset that officers are forced to make an arrest and even defend themselves physically, McGinness said.

“It underscores that it is an inherently dangerous role to go into the life of people who are unstable and prone to violence and acting out of emotion,” he said.

Obayashi, who previously handled domestic violence cases as a public defender, said clients who were arrested for assaulting the officer often said they didn’t really have a beef with the officer. “They say, ‘The officer didn’t do anything. I just lost it. I just didn’t care anymore.’ “

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.
Mike Finch joined The Bee in July 2018 as a data reporter after working at newspapers in Alabama and Florida. A Miami native, he has been a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors since 2012 and studied political science at Florida International University.