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Russ’s Legacy: Ode to a Fallen Officer

“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.” 

Something’s are easy to write, some are not.  Some topics are easier to cover; we can talk about policing, equipment, war stories about a good arrest or a nincompoop and their actions.  Could be funny or sad but they’re easier to talk about and easier to write about.

Not so with tragedy.  You see Russ’s passing was the Good Lord’s will.  We may not understand the whys of the Lord’s plan but we understand that in the end it was a blessing.  Cancer in a young man only in his 50’s is tragic but when the man is a former police officer confined to a wheelchair from a tragic pursuit crash, it’s even more tragic and harder to understand.

At the time of the accident Russ was a young, vibrant, and full of life police officer.  Although I didn’t know Russ that well, he was on afternoons and I was on 7:30 at night till 3:30 in the morning, we worked for the same agency and that made him my Brother.  Occasionally when my partner and I had a Monday night off, we would play volleyball with members of the three to eleven shift at a local Salvation Army gym.  I can remember Russ as an athlete; kind of reminded me of a pro baseball shortstop.  I was diehard volleyball player and Russ was competitive and that made for some interesting games – fun but intense.  Postgame we’d all go to a local wing joint for beers and hot wings.  Cops socializing with other cops, it was fun and all of us enjoyed it.

Russ was a hustler on the street as a cop which meant that he was active answering calls and initiating police activity.  He was not just in the game to collect a paycheck.  He was a real cop, a cop’s cop.

Tragedy Strikes

It was a stupid reason to flee from the police.  The driver was blasting his car stereo when Russ and his partner attempted to pull him over.  Taking off through the residential streets fleeing from the police, the driver put himself and every other motorist in the area at risk for what, nothing more than a summons for loud music.

Rounding a curve the patrol car lost control and impacted with the utility pole.  The police vehicle impacted with a wooden utility pole, and wrapped around the pole with Russ’s side, the passenger side pushed into half of the width of the car.

Russ survived but with traumatic injuries which put him into a coma and left him unable to walk and to talk.  Confined to a wheelchair after coming out of the coma, Russ was lucky to be alive.

Over the years Russ would learn to communicate by typing out his statements onto a keyboard which was translated by computer into a synthetic voice which would become Russ’s voice for over twenty years.

Russ could still smile and laugh though, that was all his own.

Brought into police academies by his loving mother Barb, Russ would tell the cadets about how proud he was to be a police officer, have that silver badge pinned on his chest and the chance to do police work.  Russ and his Mom even went to the National Police Officer’s Memorial ceremony in D.C. as guest of our honor guard.  I remember he even had his picture taken with John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted and Sheriff John Bunnell from the wacky police video show.

Lessons Learned

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from Russ’s legacy.  At the time of Russ’s crash ABS (Anti-Lock Brakes) were brand new.  The patrol cars with the ABS were very fast.  The only problem was that we received absolutely no training in the ABS system.  I can remember driving down a city side street trying to come to a stop at an intersection on the bumpy road and having the pedal drop down and begin to pulse as we drifted into the intersection.  We didn’t know what it was and being trained to pump the brakes, didn’t understand that the computer system of ABS was more efficient for stopping.

We didn’t have much post-academy emergency response or pursuit driving training.  The result was frequently bad actions led by our egos instead of common sense driving based on our limitations and the risks involved in unrestrained police pursuits.

We did some great training after Russ got hurt.  Why does it always seem that it requires such tragedy to motivate federal, state and local governments and police agencies to do the right thing and train their people properly?

Lessons Still to Learn

We mourn, we grieve for Russ but we still have so much to learn from the man.  Such as how to handle life’s most serious roadblocks with such grace, dignity and humor, to put our bad days in perspective of a man who could still love and laugh while unable to speak and move without assistance.

And to slow down, drive under control, consider the risks before and during a pursuit or emergency response and for supervisors, to terminate pursuits before someone gets seriously hurt or killed.  We think we’re invulnerable and it won’t happen to us, so some of our Brothers and Sisters don’t even wear their seatbelts.  Why on Earth do we think we’re special?  How selfish and unprofessional to put our spouses husband or wife or our children’s dad or mother in such risk that we may put our families through such a tragedy as well!

In many ways we forget the Russ’s of our profession.  We don’t want to look because it could possibly happen to us.  How sad that those of us who’ve given so much receive so little from us after their accident, incident or injury.

I’ve struggled with Russ’s passing because I question whether I could have done more.  And so I offer this column to my Brother – Officer Russ Long.  May God hold him in the palm of His hand…until we meet again!

My wish is that you would heed the lessons from Russ.  That you would consider slowing down and driving under control, if not for yourself, for those you love.