Why are more police officers getting killed?

Black Band on Police Badge
CBS/AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The police killings began Jan. 1 with the fatal shooting of a deputy in Ohio. And the violence has continued, reports CBS News justice correspondent Bob Orr.

So far this year, 26 officers have been gunned down - 44 percent more than the 18 shot and killed at this point in 2010.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund fatality statistics

Many of the fallen have been ambushed by violent career criminals with easy access to high-powered weapons.

"The officers are responding to what are called routine calls or a crime call and are being shot and killed before they even get to the location," said John Timoney, the former Miami police chief.

St. Petersburg, Fla., had not lost an officer in a shooting for 30 years - until Jan. 24 when police cornered a fugitive in the attic of his home. Chief Chuck Harmon said when officers tried to handcuff the suspect, he began shooting.

"He hid a gun in the attic. He pulled the gun out and shot the officer, basically at point blank range in the head," Harmon said.

With officer Jeff Yaslowitz dying in the attic, police attempted a rescue. The gunman opened up with a fury of fire.

Sgt. Tom Baitinger, wearing a bulletproof vest, was killed by a shot from above.

Over seven hours, nearly 300 shots were exchanged. Police fired 100 canisters of tear gas and used a bulldozer to knock a hole in the house to get to the shooter. With two officers and the gunman dead, the mayor ordered the house torn down.

A state attorney's investigation found police in St. Petersburg did nothing wrong that day. They followed good police procedures. But they were caught in a trap set by a desperate fugitive.

Incredibly, just one month later, St. Pete police suffered another loss. When officer Dave Crawford tried to question a 16-year-old about a possible car theft, Crawford was killed by four shots to the chest.

"As a chief, like I said, you wonder is this somehow your fault," Harmon said.

Now, Harmon is left with unanswerable questions - and worry.

"None of us know when the next one is coming," Harmon said. "And none of us know why it is spiking like this."

More powerful guns, hardened criminals, desperate economic times - all may play some role. Crime analysts see no common thread to explain the deadly assault on police.

But, with officer deaths climbing at an alarming rate, no call is routine.