Over the years, I have tried to find the words to fully describe the Police Week experience to a cop who has never been there. Words always seem to fail me. I have compared it to having my wife use words to describe the childbirth experience. It just won't work.
This year, it seemed that a light came on in my head. This year, I recognized that the Police Week experience is how cops grieve. It is very comparable to what an agency experiences when they lose an officer in a line-of-duty death -- except on a much larger scale.
I cut my teeth in law enforcement in the Detroit area. Unfortunately, going to a cop funeral was not a rare experience. It seemed that this experience always went the same way. There would be a funeral home visitation where coppers would show up in uniform to pay their respects. From that location, they would travel to the nearby FOP hall where they knew other cops would be gathered. The found solace by just being together.
In many instances, the gathering goes on for days starting at the time of the officer's death and running continuously until well after the funeral is over.
After the funeral, with all of the honor guards, pomp and circumstance again, cops would gather at the FOP hall. There was food, drink, conversation, and simply: time together. It is that process where cops learn to grieve and heal from the wounds thrust upon them in their collective loss.
Cops do exactly the same things at Police Week. There are ceremonies of every kind interspersed with time of just being together. It really doesn't matter what we are doing, so long as we are together. It is truly a healing process.
This year, I invited two pals from South Florida to join me on the trek to D.C. I was truly pleased that they chose to attend. They are deputies from a large sheriff’s office in my area. I offered to show them the ropes. I wanted to do what I could to make their first experience as good as mine had been some years ago. I was given the treat of watching their reaction as this phenomenon called Police Week unfolded before their eyes.
Their reactions were nearly identical to every other cop at his first Police Week experience: they were awed, emotionally overwhelmed, their spirits were bolstered in the fellowship of other cops, and they had a firm determination to return in future years. One of my compatriots literally began crying when he first saw The Wall. It was more profound than he had ever expected.
We stood and watched as the thousands of coppers in the Police Unity Tour arrived. We saw various honor guards from agencies across our land keeping watch at the Memorial 24x7 for the entire time. I took them to the NLEOMF visitor's center so they could get some souvenirs. Not to be forgotten is the FOP Beer Tent with literally dozens of tents, vendors and thousands of cop goodies from nearly everywhere. Of course, there was the beer, too (wink).
Finally, a must-see on the Washington tour is the Irish Channel and Kelly's Bar. Those are places where you can meet someone one minute and it becomes a life-long friendship in our Brotherhood forevermore.
I pointed out the large blue placards/badges that are worn by the survivors - the families who had lost an officer. Those badges were suspended from their necks on a lanyard. At the bottom of the badge was the year of the officer’s End of Watch. I encouraged my newbies to look for badges displaying 2008 as the year. Approach those folks, offer condolences and ask if there is anything you can do for them. It means so very much to those family members.
I want to paint a word-picture. There are about 25,000 cops standing shoulder-to-shoulder in every conceivable nook and cranny of the Memorial. The Memorial itself is comprised of two segments of marble wall with the names of 18,661 fallen officers etched into its surface. Between the two wall segments is a reasonably large open space that contains a reflecting pool. The grounds are lined with immaculately manicured trees and other plantings.
There is a stage at the front. There are hundreds (maybe a couple of thousand) chairs set up for use by the survivors. The throng of cops surrounds the survivors as if to protect them from the harsh reality of the situation.
The Candlelight Vigil service started at 8:00PM; it is now about 9:15. We had heard speakers speak and singers sing. Then, all of the electric lights are put out. The Memorial Candle is lit on the dias and its flame is passed from one person to another until all 25,000 of us are holding our lit candles high in the air for our fallen brothers to see from above.
Suddenly, a voice resonates through the night air and simultaneously, a laser beam of a Thin Blue Line streams strong and proud over our collective heads. The voice we hear is that of Craig Floyd, NLEOMF Chairman. This is what we hear him say as he speaks to our hearts and minds:
They are mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. They are chiefs and sheriffs, constables and deputies, troopers and special agents. They are our colleagues, protectors and friends.
But there is one word that fits them all - hero - not because of how they died, but because of how they lived. Tonight, we honor all of the fallen, and all who continue to follow in their footsteps of law enforcement service - all of them members of America's thin blue line of righteousness, protection and hope.
They advance when others flee, fight when others cower, stand up for what is right when others stand by. Common men and women inspired to perform uncommon acts of courage and compassion - always willing to put the safety and welfare of others above their own. It is their calling, and our good fortune. Each and every day they stand watch over us all, like a lioness protecting her cubs. Tonight, we offer a grateful salute.
We especially remember and honor the fallen. Their legacy of selfless service and supreme sacrifice is forever carved into the marble walls that embrace us tonight. They ensured that the thin blue line spread widely and gloriously to communities across our nation.
In the flickering light of our candles, we are reminded of their goodness and the gifts they gave us - cherished freedoms, an abundant future for our children, a safe America.
As we raise our candles skyward in an act of remembrance and reverence, we honor all members of the thin blue line - those who have died, those who have been left behind, those who continue to serve. May they never be alone... may they never be forgotten.
We were grieving. Together.
The next afternoon, the three of us from Florida found two new very best buds from Bentonville, AK (home of Wal-Mart). We were sitting in the sidewalk serving area of the Irish Channel Tavern. It is rumored that beer is served at the Irish Channel, but those reports remain unconfirmed as of this writing (grin).
We were having a great visit - just being together when a very uncommon event occurred. Passing by our table, looking for a seat was a group of 4 adults and a 5 year old child. Each was wearing a survivor badge. The year on the badge: 2008. We looked somewhat in disbelief because survivors had not been seen at The Channel before. Survivors typically didn't hang with a bunch of beer-drinking coppers. But they were here and now was the time.
As they neared our table, we all stood to pay our respects. I asked about their loss. He was an officer from Pennsylvania. In attendance as survivors were: his daughter, his wife, his Mom & Dad and his partner. Amen. Doing the only thing we knew, we bought them a round of drinks, patted them on the back, and extended our sympathies. They took a table just one away from ours.
The cops around them were grieving in their own unique way: a mixture of laughter, sadness and beer. Those survivors sat among us and we knew they were hurting, but we just didn't know what to do.
One of my traveling partners found a piper who came to the table of survivors and played Amazing Grace. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. Coppers nearly swarmed that family as they extended their support.
Afterward, we re-grouped and talked about how fortunate we are to be part of such a huge brotherhood that is so tightly wired together. Amen.
If you haven't been yet, I hope you'll consider coming to Police Week in the future. It's a trip you won’t regret. If you can't be there, please do what you can to remember the fallen and their families wherever you are.
I wrote an article recently, published on Officer.com, It started with this sentence, "I've penned a few articles urging the real cops among us to be part of Police Week in D.C. each May."
There are those who took my words to mean that the determination of who is (and is not) a real cop hinges on whether or not the person has attended Police Week. I didn't say that and I didn't mean to imply that. For whatever confusion came, I apologize. I should have made my intent more clear.
The rest of that earlier article listed steps that a real cop could take to honor the fallen no matter where they are, e.g. at work, in their hometown, in church, etc. I hoped that everyone could sense that they were a part of honoring and remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
But to the point: this epilogue is about real cops vs. plastic cops. One can see the plastic guys in lots of places. Their names will be at the top of the list of any detail posted for overtime. Similar postings by the Salvation Army or Toys for Tots that seeks volunteers to get toys for poor kids at Christmas won't find their names anywhere on it.
The plastic cops can always find ten things to complain about, and rarely (if ever) see anything positive about the job. On payday, their biggest concern is to be certain that they got paid for every minute of extra/overtime work. If so much as a few minutes are missed, they whine and throw a tantrum.
When a hot call comes out, i.e. man with a gun, etc. they will tell dispatch that they are "tied up" on a traffic stop or some other benign activity. When the crew goes out for a beer after the shift, rather than engage their co-workers, they will spend their time ensuring the badge bunnies (or their equivalent) know they are a cop. They have no compunction (even if they are married) about "nailing" one of the women and proudly letting everyone else know of their "accomplishment."
This year, there was a group of plastic cops sent from the northeast by their union - all expenses paid, of course. When asked what they thought of the Candlelight Vigil, their response was, "We were playing cards in the room and didn't realize the time; we didn't make it." When asked what if they had visited The Wall and seen the mementos from families and fellow cops, their reply was, "Yeah we saw it off to the side as we got off the subway, on our way to the beer tent." Chances are, these guys wouldn't even be in D.C. if it weren't on the department's or union's dime.
Real cops on the other hand, come in all sizes, shapes, career paths and styles. They will be there for those in need, be it a fellow officer or a member of the community. While they like getting paid (don't we all), money is not the lynch-pin of determining whether or not they will get involved in an activity.
They will be at a fellow cop's funeral - no exceptions. They will help their fellow officers with needs both big and small. They are proud to their core of being a cop. They may be frustrated or pissed-off at the administration, but they could not imagine being in any other line of work.
They walk by The Wall or other memorials to the fallen and choke up. They hear a piper playing Amazing Grace and tears will appear on their cheeks. They see a surviving wife and child and yearn to reach out with an expression of love and concern.
When asked about truly meaningful experiences on the job, they will cite how they saved a life or put an indelible mark of goodness on a young child or a frail senior citizen.
Real Cops support the world around them - because that is what they do. They right wrongs and defend the truly weak, whether on or off duty. Their pastor likely knows who they are. And they spend time with their families because they truly enjoy those moments together.
They are constantly scanning for possibilities to be a better cop and be a better person. They look for ways to improve the lives of those they care about.
Real Cops epitomize a phrase etched on the marble walls of The Memorial,
It is not their deaths that made these officers heroes. Rather, it is how they lived.
The line between real cops and their plastic counterparts has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they've been to Police Week. It has everything to do with how they live and what they stand for.
If you fall into the plastic group, please stay home. You won't understand. You will get in the way and you will perpetuate the myth that says Police Week is just a big party.
If you are a Real Cop you have earned a place of honor at Police Week. I hope and pray that you will be able to experience it at least once. You will carry its memory with you for the rest of your life. If you cannot be there, go in God's presence. Go and continue the good works of your truly fine and worthwhile life.
Be safe out there.