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In the Line of Fire

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The sun was just beginning to set on that day in March 1987 when school Police Officer Roosevelt Ferrell spotted three young men trespassing on the grounds of the Compton, Calif., school he was patrolling. A half-hour after Ferrell ordered the youths to leave the campus, they returned and one of them shot the 51-year-old officer in the leg with a small-caliber handgun. Several days later, Ferrell died of complications from surgery.

Ferrell is the only school police officer in the nation to have been killed in the line of duty, according to the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers.

The 16-year-old who pulled the trigger was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Hundreds of uniformed city, state, and school police officers attended Ferrell's funeral to honor a man who had worked for the Compton School Police Department since 1976.

He was well liked by his colleagues and was considered "an exemplary officer who never shirked his duty,'' Ken Crawford, a fellow officer, said at the time of Ferrell's death.

"It was a severe blow to the department and the district and was very upsetting to me personally,'' says Compton's current school police chief, Michael Nunez, who knew Ferrell.

Ruth Ferrell, who was at home with her grandchildren when her husband was shot, says she was moved by the response from the officers on the force.

"They were 100 percent supportive,'' she recalls. "But, they were also angry and bitter because they had lost one of their fellow officers who was well loved.''

She has kept all the mementos: a plaque from Gov. George Deukmejian, letters of sympathy, the United States flag that the state troopers had draped over her husband's coffin.

Mrs. Ferrell says her husband had been planning to retire soon and start a lawn-and-gardening business. He loved to garden, and already had begun planting roses and a small orchard of nectarine, peach, and apricot trees in their backyard.

Even though her husband had told her that "there may be days where he would go to work and never return,'' she didn't believe it when it happened. She hopes that his death will impress upon the public the danger that school district police officers face every day.

Mounted on the wall of the school police headquarters in Compton, Officer Ferrell's silver-and-gold badge still reminds new recruits of the hazards of the job.

"We all learned something from his death,'' says Jesse E. Tipton, a sergeant who worked with Ferrell for nearly a decade. "We learned that you can't take anything for granted. On a school campus, things can erupt at any time.''ÄÄJESSICA PORTNER

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