Tricounty News

Officer’s death brings back memories of another police tragedy

The shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker touches many of us, even those who didn’t know him. I’m one of countless people who never got a chance to meet this outstanding young man.

His death reminds me greatly of another Central Minnesota police officer who was killed in the line of duty, St. Joseph’s Brian Klinefelter.

I was the senior writer at the St. Cloud Times in 1996 when Klinefelter was killed and one of the lead reporters on the story. In fact, the night of the shooting, the two men who are serving sentences for being a part of that shooting were arrested just a block from my St. Cloud house. I was asked to cover the story that night and was outside in my neighborhood when it suddenly was blanketed by law enforcement officers from several jurisdictions.

It turned out that as I approached the spot where the two men were arrested, I found myself walking alongside then Stearns County Sheriff Jim Kostreba. The night was frigid, well below zero. I remember Kostreba didn’t have a hat on and I made a comment about that. It was all I could think of to say in such a tragic situation.

I remember the look on Kostreba’s face as well as the officers’ on the scene. It was a look of sadness, of anger, of great loss.

The daytime high the day of Klinefelter’s funeral was 40 below zero. I say that only because the chill of the air that day was not outdone by the chill of the scene as squad cars with lights and sirens blaring came filled with officers from around the state. They came to pay respects to their fallen brother.

There are many similarities between the deaths of officers Klinefelter and Decker. Both men were “ambushed” at night. Klinefelter as he pulled over a vehicle in St. Joseph, and Decker as he was checking on a man who was apparently suicidal. Both officers were young, Klinefelter 25, and Decker, 31. Both were married with young children.

And by all accounts, both were upstanding young men and officers, a job they loved and were dedicated to.

I’ve thought of Klinefelter often during the past 16 years. I always feel the same. What a gigantic loss to his family, friends and community. Now, I will think the same of Decker, a man I never met but whose life touched mine nonetheless. I lived in Cold Spring, the city Decker was serving, just a few years ago when he began his work there. I grew up near Kimball, a community Decker also served in exemplary fashion. Today I call St. Joseph home and live just blocks from where Klinefelter was shot and he died.

But regardless of where one lives, when a life such as Klinefelter’s or Decker’s is taken, it affects us all.

Police officers in small towns receive little pay for the jobs we ask them to do. Sure, there are times when they respond to a rabid squirrel in a tree or stray dog walking the streets, but there are countless more occasions where they respond to domestic disputes which are often the most volatile situation any officer can be asked to respond to.

According to Decker’s Police Chief, Phil Jones, one of Decker’s strengths as an officer was a skill he possessed that calmed people in such situations. Decker was particularly skilled in dealing with people struggling with mental health problems or suicidal tendencies, Jones said.

Unfortunately, on the night he was killed, Decker never got the chance.