The names of 321 fallen officers were dedicated on the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the 25th Annual Candlelight Vigil.
Photo credit: Photo by Frank Borelli/Officer.com
I didn't used to go to Police Week. There was no excuse. I live within a comfortable driving distance but am not a "city" person. My wife never wanted to go; she was sure that once she visited the National Law Enforcement Memorial then fate would conspire to put my name on it. I'd been an officer for over 20 years before I went the first time... but I haven't missed a year since. Every year it's a different experience but the one constant is the brotherhood. Somehow, DC feels a LOT safer when you see a fellow law enforcement professional everywhere you turn.
For me this year, Monday the 13th of May was a full and busy day. I am blessed to (mostly) work from home and I had plenty to get done in the office before I went up to the LE Memorial so I was up at 0500 and enjoying my first cup of coffee. By 0900 I'd had breakfast and gotten the office stuff done. A quick shower and I began my travel into Washington DC. By noon I was at the LE Memorial and I'd gotten a text message from my Chief of Police asking (which means "do it") me to meet him at Tent City.
For those of you who might not know, "Tent City" is a collection of vendors, manufacturers and other supporters for the DC FOP. It's not HUGE but it's not small and all of the vendor tents (hence the name) are situated around the large middle main tent: which houses a bar that might fill a small warehouse. You can get beer or soda and, depending on how Mother Nature is behaving, enjoy the shade or get out of the rain. The DC FOP runs a food stand area and there are usually 100 or more vendors on hand. It's a very social atmosphere where you can meet fellow officers from as far away as Sidney, Australia - like I did this year.
I took the shuttle bus over to Tent City from in front of the DC FOP HQ (around the corner from the LE Memorial) and found my Chief waiting for me just inside the main gate. It was a nice surprise to find out that he didn't need anything from me and there were no fires to be put out; he simply wanted to say hi, encourage me to enjoy the day and chat for a few minutes. He had family members with him and was "on duty" but happy to not be in the office.
When he left I met a brother officer / friend who had come down from Pennsylvania for Police Week. We strolled around Tent City, got some lunch, did some shopping (stuff for my wife and son) and then headed back over to the Memorial. When we got off the shuttle bus, once again near the DC FOP HQ, we walked back to the LE Memorial with a slight side trip to take some pictures of "historical" cruisers that had come in from all over the country. (You can see all the photos on our facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/officercom).
I'm proud to say this was the fifth year that Officer.com has live streamed the Candlelight Vigil via the Internet so that the experience can still be shared, even by those who can't make the trip into DC for whatever reason. I checked in with our tech guru at the Memorial and then went in search of dinner. I knew that once it got busy around seven o'clock I wouldn't get another chance to eat or drink anything until well after the Vigil ended. So, after checking that the tech guy was good to go, I headed over to a pub called the Irish Channel. Along the way I met some officers from Montreal, Canada and was entertained by their jokes about patrolling on moose-back.
At the Irish Channel I met up with a friend of mine and his wife and we had some "quick eats" - salad, chicken tenders, etc. We didn't have any salt or pepper on our table and the server didn't slow down enough for me to ask her for some (that was Victoria, originally from Ireland), so I stepped over to the next table where I saw they had extras. At THAT table I met Lynette from Harrisonburg, VA, who had an accent that sounded more like Alabama than VA, and who put salt in her beer even though she didn't look old enough to drink. After jokingly teasing her for a few moments I managed to secure the salt and pepper shakers and escape with my life (few things are as dangerous as an angered southern belle, but all the teasing was good natured fun so I didn't lose any flesh or body parts as I escaped). In all honesty, no one was angry and everyone was laughing - and ten minutes before we had been total strangers. Police Week is cool like that.
After dinner I walked back to the LE Memorial and was talking to one of the representatives from the Memorial Fund when we heard a story about common sense and compassion. It seems that one of the surviving family members had been overcome by grief almost immediately upon arriving at the Memorial site itself. There were no plans in place for the contingency of immediately having to transport a survivor back to the hotel but the person was obviously in desperate need of such.
Now, as a cop of over 30 years I can't begin to tell you how many times I've been asked to give a citizen a ride somewhere, sometimes FAR out of my jurisdiction, and had to turn them down. Most of the time, being honest, I was glad to have the excuse to turn them down and sometimes, if they argued and were aggravating enough, the words "It says 'police,' not 'taxi' on the side of this vehicle," came out of my mouth. But here we were in the midst of one of the largest gatherings of professionals in DC and we had an individual who needed our support; our compassion, and our immediate assistance.
Quite unexpectedly, a representative of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) stepped up. Captain Lawrence Harrington, from the Sixth District, approved a patrol officer to transport the survivor back to the hotel - not just a few blocks away... but in the next city over in Virginia. It was an immediate and necessary solution to an unexpected challenge and showed the kind of leadership we all hope to find in our agencies. It also spoke well to the leadership potential within MPDC and several of us were impressed by the Captain's unhesitating decision to do what was necessary to support a survivor. I'd especially like to commend Cpt. Harrington and offer him up the thanks of the entire law enforcement brotherhood. God forbid, but if any member of my family ever needed that kind of support, it's good to know that men (and women) like him are around to help.
Shortly thereafter the Candlelight Vigil began and I was tied up with coordination efforts at our streaming site as well as helping where I could with some information services if the Memorial staff needed any assistance. The Vigil was as moving as always and I was impressed, as I am every year, that no one was burned and no accidents happened as THOUSANDS of people held burning candles to memorialize and remember the fallen officers of 2012 and those of history's past who had escaped notice until now.
After the Vigil a great many officers headed back to Tent City to share their grief, tell bold stories about wild adventures and scary experiences and, in general, recharge their emotional batteries using the energy of the fraternal bond to do so. I started my trek home and finally got in bed at almost one in the morning the 14th. After a 20 hour day on the 13th I thought I'd be exhausted but I had a hard time falling asleep (at first). My mind was full of the day's memories from thinking about people I'd met (from Sidney and Montreal) to new friends I'd made (like Lynette who is NOT from the deep south but sounds like it), to commendable acts of compassion (thank you again, Cpt. Harrington) to seeing the sea of burning candles held by one huge family who supported each other through recognition of loss, expression of grief and the strengthening of the bond that holds us together through the worst of times.
Yes, the day was like that. As I type this I am looking forward to today when the National Fraternal Order of Police will hold the memorial service on the west lawn of the Capitol Building. Tens of thousands of uniformed officers, standing tall in their best, cleanest and most polished ceremonial uniforms, will be on hand for another service that will honor the fallen - and remind the living that the job carries undeniable risk. Part of the reason we're willing to take that risk is because we know that the entire LE family will come together around OUR family should we have to make the ultimate sacrifice. It strengthens our commitment to stand tall as part of that Thin Blue Line that separates our society from the criminal flood that would wash over innocent people should we falter.
THAT is what I'll remember about Police Week 2013: a day filled with experiences like no other, to be found in no other location, with people who made a pilgrimage to honor those who demonstrated the path we all stand prepared to follow, hoping fervently we never have to.
If YOU haven't come to Police Week, I encourage you to put it in your plans for next year. Bring a friend and see what it's all about. If you can make it just one time I'd be willing to bet you find a way to make it every year after that.
Stay safe!! See you next year?