Come Sunday the community will mark the second anniversary – Has it really been two years since Aug. 18, 2017? – of the shooting deaths of Kissimmee Police Department Officer Matthew Baxter and Sgt. Sam Howard, one of the worst nights in the city’s history. Ask any KPD or Osceola County Sheriff’s Department employee, or city worker, or most residents, and they can remember clearly where they were and what they were doing.
So can I.
Working for a media outlet, it was the start of a dizzying week of phone calls, interviews and public appearances, all part of an experience I’d never had before. Here’s an account of what it was like to be immersed in it.
That night was a Friday, and the newspaper’s weekend edition was already out. High school football hadn’t started so it was a chance to spend time with family and make some weekend plans.
Around 10 p.m., odd and vague alerts began popping up on phones and in social media: a police shooting was reported, two officers were hit and transported to the hospital. That made my reporter’s “antenna” go up. Local TV news showed screens full of blue and red lights making places and landmarks hard to pick out – this was serious.
Texts to my phone and Facebook Messenger messages came quick, ranging from “What’s going on?” to “I’m hearing things” from law enforcement contacts and friends who tried to tell me things they were probably hearing secondhand.
To get the best information, I thought I needed to get on scene. I messaged one of my contacts I’d be there in roughly 30 minutes and it’d help if we met up – because as a sports reporter at the core I didn’t know what I was doing. With keys in hand I saw a message: Don’t come down here. OBT is blocked off. Vine Street is blocked off, you can’t get in.
Taking that to heart, I sat back down at the computer and kept updating a news story and social media feeds on information I was getting. Feeling stuck on a remote island from the scene, a selfish thought came into my head:
Please, guys, don’t die.
I didn’t know how the community would handle a multiple fatal attack on its police force. For me, I didn’t have the playbook for covering such a tragedy.
Instincts took over. I was fine, although it didn’t feel fine. There was no time to feel. It was time to weed through the things I was hearing: a captain was shot, there were multiple shooters and they were on the loose around town, police had a suspect, they were searching houses in the area.
Former KPD spokesperson Stacie Miller did a great job of putting people with accurate information in front of the camera, like Police Chief Jeff O’Dell, who within two hours of the shooting told us Baxter was dead and Howard was in grave danger — the news would write itself in this town for the near future. After updating web stories and social media, I flipped to a TV station whose digital feed shifted to the hospital, from where Baxter’s body was being transported from Osceola Regional to the coroner’s office in Orlando. I watched live, until I fell asleep on the back room futon. I awoke to find out Howard, too, had died.
When I think back, I kick myself knowing I could have taken the Turnpike, crossed 192 to Shady Lane to Neptune Road and reached the city from that side.
By Saturday morning I felt like the work was done until Monday morning – until I saw a request from a cable news channel producer asking if someone could provide live updates … with their afternoon anchor … live, in about 30 minutes … on national TV.
It’s a comfortable spot for me, as I’ve done radio for years. But this wasn’t comfortable, and when I offered what basic information I had and that we were working to get more, better details – which I don’t think the HLN folks were looking for, but I wasn’t about to make stuff up for this “hits ‘n clicks” jockeys — it felt even more awkward.
Later that week was the officers’ funerals, attended by representatives of countless police departments in the area. It was countless because I kept losing count. O’Dell and Sadia Baxter, Matthew’s now-widow, spoke wonderfully and actually kept the mood upbeat. But it became very, very somber when a voice and bells rang out, signaling Baxter and Howard’s End of Watch. At that moment, police from all over showed they hurt together.
Tomorrow, Saturday August 17, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., right outside of Kissimmee Police headquarters, the community will honor and celebrate what Baxter and Howard did, and their co-patriots do on the streets every single day. We will never forget what they did to serve and protect this community, and how they continue to bring the us together today. Hopefully these community events will help us create better memories than those we all have of Aug. 18, 2017. Thank you Officer Matthew Baxter, and thank you Sgt. Sam Howard.
By Ken Jackson