03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ambush of a Cop

On Halloween night a light-colored, early 1980s Datsun 210 pulled alongside a parked Seattle police unit. Brit Sweeney, the trainee behind the wheel of the cop car, sensed danger. She ducked and shouted at her field training officer, Timothy Brenton. Shots rang out. Sweeney, grazed in the back, jumped from the car and began firing at the fleeing suspect vehicle. Brenton, a 10-year veteran, slumped on the passenger seat, killed instantly by multiple gunshot wounds.

A bugler playing "Taps" will usually trigger it, or a bagpiper's rendering of "Amazing Grace." But there's another moment in the memorial service of a slain police officer that guarantees I'll lose it.

As the service for Officer Tim Brenton was wrapping up at Key Arena last Friday, the amplified voice of a Seattle police radio dispatcher broke into the proceedings. Uniformed officers gathered from throughout North America froze, knowing what was to come.

"3 George 13..." The dispatcher paused. "3 George 13..." Then, "Officer Timothy Brenton. Gone but never forgotten."

Every police officer lives with the prospect of sudden violent death as an occupational hazard. Most keep the dreadful realization tucked far back in their minds, the better to function from day to day, shift to shift.

The slaying of a police officer raises difficult questions, none more crucial than whether it was preventable.

Do we hire the right people, police candidates with the strength and agility, the mental and emotional constitution necessary to protect the community, and themselves? Do we provide the best possible safety training during the academy, and reinforce it throughout our officers' careers? Do our cops understand the survival benefits of treating people with dignity and respect, of behaving with maturity and self-discipline? Do we set effective policies and procedures, procure the finest safety equipment, give our officers the backing they need in order to make it home at the end of each shift?

In almost every cop killing, there is something that could have been done differently, some small difference that might have saved a life: improved communication, better training, different tactics, updated equipment...

But Timothy Brenton's killing could not have been prevented, not unless he'd picked a line of work other than the one he'd aspired to all his life.

Brenton was murdered because he was a cop and for no other reason. And his killer, whatever his tortured motives, used as his means the one thing cops fear most, and condition themselves not to think about: ambush.

It's rare, a police killing that comes out of nowhere, an attack even the most well prepared cop can't see coming or defend against. But it does happen.

I think back to the 1983 slaying of San Diego police officer Kirk Johnson. Johnson had spotted a county sheriff's deputy standing next to a marked car in a local park. Kirk pulled up to say hi. The deputy responded by pulling a .357 magnum and firing numerous times, killing Johnson instantly. The county "cop" turned out to be a 16-year-old. With parents vacationing in Mexico, the kid had slipped into his stepfather's uniform and gunbelt, lifted the keys to the green-and-white, and gone joyriding. In the youngster's mind, as the SDPD officer approached, he had a choice: get in trouble with his stepfather, or kill a cop.

Consider this. Your job puts you in an eye-catching uniform, a conspicuously marked car, instantly recognizable as "law enforcement." This knowledge affects almost everything you do: where you choose to stop a car, where you park when arriving at the scene of a domestic violence 9-1-1 call, where you sit to do your paperwork. This state of mind helps explain why police officers tend to develop a high degree of social isolation and in-group solidarity. Unless you live with these realities, goes the argument, you can't really understand what it's like to be a cop.

The phenomenon also helps explain why some officers become so fixated on safety that they become a liability to themselves, and to the community.

From all accounts, this obsession does not describe Officer Tim Brenton.

Tim became a Seattle police officer a year after I'd left the department in 2000. He was, to those who knew him a gentle and decent man. A loving son, husband, father, brother and friend, he was quick to smile, crack a bad joke, pull the occasional prank on fellow officers. He was a good cop and, as a field trainer officer, a good teacher.

As I write this, a suspect in Brenton's slaying, Christopher John Monfort, is in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center, shot by detectives after he'd pointed a gun at them. Monfort is also suspected of torching police vehicles at a city maintenance yard nine days before the killing, and of leaving behind a threatening note. Explosive devices and at least two guns were found in his apartment. One of the firearms, a military-style assault rifle, is thought to be the murder weapon.

We may never know why the shooter did what he did.

What we do know is that Monfort never gave Timothy Brenton a chance. And that is why so many of Tim's brothers and sisters in law enforcement are in a unique emotional place. They understand better than anyone what it feels like to be singled out not because of who they are but for what they do for a living.