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What's a Cop's Life Worth?

I was in Sitka, Alaska the week of September 5th to train a class of DPS recruits. The mood was uniquely somber. Two Alaska Peace Officers had been shot and killed the week before in Hoonah, Alaska. One of the recruits in the class had been born and raised there and would be returning to serve his community.

While Alaska is immense in size - cut it in two and Texas would be the third largest state - it's populated by just over 686,000 people. We are, in many ways, a small community. The entire state was shocked and grieving. In the smaller law enforcement family at the Academy, the pain was palpable and persistent.

On Wednesday, September 7th, the Academy Commander shut the place down. I joined the recruits, the Academy staff and some of their spouses, local law enforcement and Coast Guard members boarding a local tour boat the Commander had reserved and we headed to Hoonah for a memorial service for the slain officers.

Hoonah is a Tlingit village of less than 800 people on the Chichagof Island about 40 miles west of Juneau, Alaska's capitol. It can only be reached by water or air, which is also true of Juneau. Juneau Empire reporter Klas Stolpe described the scene that day.

Hundreds of people lined the deck of the Hoonah Ferry Terminal on Wednesday, waiting for the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina to bring the remains of Anthony Wallace and Matthew Tokuoka to this small Tlingit community.

Hundreds more waited at the terminal gates, and still hundreds more lined the streets and waited inside the Hoonah Junior/Senior High School gymnasium as the families of the two Hoonah police officers and accompanying law enforcement personnel arrived, along with the urns.

Our Academy contingency was amongst the many hundreds. The recruits had gotten up that morning at o'dark thirty and completed PT before boarding the boat at 0730. It was a 5.5 hour ride for us. I'd been asked to do some scenario training on the trip to help occupy the recruits. We gamely went through the motions but fell silent an hour out.

As we neared the village, every trooper, police officer and Coast Guard service member quietly slipped into the boat's heads to don dress uniforms. The recruits solemnly added white gloves to their Academy and agency uniforms.

The gymnasium was standing room only. The civilian Academy staff and I were invited to sit in the bleachers with law enforcement from around the state and country. While it had taken us a 5.5 hour boat ride from within the state, we were joined by Royal Canadian Mounted Police and American peace officers from as far away as Chicago and New York.

I kept looking for the recruits, who were nowhere to be seen. Just before the remains of Officers Wallace and Tokuoka were brought in, the recruits were seated at the front of the gymnasium along-side the dignitaries in attendance. It was fitting. They bore witness to what the path they had chosen could ask of them - and still they chose. They were the safer tomorrow on which we pinned our hopes.

It was a wrenching day that afforded moments of bittersweet laughter amongst tears shed by even the staunchest of men. Tony and Matt were beloved by the village they served and the service was a celebration of their life as well as a mourning of their loss. Family and village members shared anecdotes of happier times in lives well and fully lived by the two officers.

Our boat ride back was even longer as we had to slow our speed in the dark. A soul-sapping weariness settled on us like black pitch. I walked into my room at the Academy at 2 a.m. Thursday morning. I couldn't imagine the fatigue of the recruits as I dropped into bed like a felled tree.

The next morning we met in the large classroom to begin our trek through the Alaska Criminal Code. Our foray into Alaska's sentencing scheme included examples of minimum mandatory sentences. Eyeing the statute that requires a minimum mandatory 99 years (Alaska has no capital punishment) for the murder of a peace officer, one of the recruits raised his hand. He asked me,

"Why should a police officer's life count more? I have a wife. I don't think my life should be valued any more than hers."

I paused to collect my thoughts. I looked outside the window, then into my heart. I looked at the sincere, young man who'd asked the question. I struggled - struggled to swallow; struggled with the band around my chest; struggled with the stinging in my eyes that threatened to brim over. How could I explain to him? I tried.

I understand that you feel that way. But we, the public, don't.

Yesterday, one of the village members of Hoonah who spoke at the memorial admitted that she didn't know Officers Wallace and Tokuoka. But she said she mourned anyway. She mourned the loss of her sense of security. She said she felt assaulted - more vulnerable, less safe.

We all feel that way. Because we are reminded that you willingly place yourself between us and harm. That you are prepared every day to show the greatest love of all. John, chapter 15, verse 13 - "Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." You stand prepared to do that for total strangers.

We value that. Not enough on a daily basis. But on the occasions we are reminded, we line highways, we travel far distances, we fill gymnasiums, we erect monuments and memorials - all to pay our respect.

If I were killed in my line of work, there would be no sense of public loss. I do not intend to place myself in harm's way to protect citizens I may not even know. You do. My work does not hold the potential of the ultimate sacrifice. Yours does. We value you and your work with the only means we know how, knowing we can never give equal measure to what you give.

I'd lost my struggle against the tears. It seemed like a good time to take a 10-minute break. When we returned, we soldiered on - something these recruits were poignantly learning to do. I strived to be worthy of them.

My husband, seeing my tears as I worked on this article, sat down to talk. He's a retired judge. It's a profession that invites dispassion and detached, reasoned decision-making. He opined that the higher sentence was for greater deterrence of any threat to the public's safety.

That may be true as a matter of public policy, but not public passion. It may help explain the minimum mandatory sentence for the homicide of a police officer, but it's not what filled a gymnasium to overflowing in a remote village in Alaska.

We place special value on those who intend to go in harm's way to protect us; who go to work each day prepared to show the greatest love of all. It is a fierce lesson for a class of recruits. As they go forth, and I remain behind in their shadow, I fervently wish them and each of their fellow peace officers nation-wide and beyond - Godspeed.