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Atlanta Officer Killed in Chopper Crash Remembered

Atlanta Police Officer Richard J. Halford was remembered Friday as a loyal friend, consummate professional, doting father and one of the smoothest, coolest pilots in Atlanta.

Halford was killed late Saturday night when his police helicopter crashed during a search for a 9-year-old boy in northwest Atlanta. Shawn A. Smiley, a tactical flight officer, also died in the crash.

On Friday morning, a police motorcade rolled out from Turner Field, tracing a path from downtown Atlanta to I-20, down I-285 and toward Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta.

The memorial service packed the 2,000-seat chapel. Officers in dress uniforms of blue, black and gray streamed in from as far as Alabama.

Speakers described Halford as a man who treated a homeless man no differently than NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, who attended the funeral. He doted on his daughter and left little for his supervisors to do in the way of correction.

"Take an example from Richard," Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said. "Try to make a difference in your small part of the world."

Friends remembered Halford putting his black flight gloves on calmly, even when the emergency calls came in loud and breathless.

"He was bigger than life," said Sgt. Archie Ezell, who grew up with Halford in Columbus, Ga. "Godspeed to our fallen brother."

Halford, 48, joined the Atlanta Police Department in May 1986. For a time, he worked in the department's Zone 4 precinct. Then, he got an itch to join the motorcycle unit.

Halford got his wish and his Harley. He escorted dignitaries, including at least one president. But he eventually gave up the bike to try for the department's newly formed DUI unit.

At least one of his friends was dubious.

"I said, 'Rich, that's a big-boy school,' " said Leroy Champion, a former APD pilot. But Halford persisted. Then in the early 1990s, he felt the urge to try for the air unit.

"I said, 'Rich, that's a real big-boy school," Champion said.

Halford worked in the air unit for more than 16 years. As a pilot, he requested the evening watch, which occasionally gave him time to squeeze in another love --- golf. He eventually logged more than 3,000 flight hours. Colleagues watched his skills at cornering suspects and landing on a dime, and he acquired a nickname: "Cool Hand Luke."

"Richard wanted to fly the night shift for more reasons than playing golf," City Councilman C.T. Martin said at Friday's service. "He actually thought he was the best night-flying pilot in the world."

Richard Joseph Halford was born in Columbus and graduated from Hardaway High School in 1982. He continued his education at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. He is survived by his former wife, a 21-year-old daughter, his parents, a sister and brother, and a number of other relatives.

Halford loved children and coached young boys in football, said Teressa Morrell-Cochran, who met Halford at Tuskegee. Even when his work schedule wouldn't let him actually coach, he would still show up for the games and correct the youngsters on their route-running, she said.

"It's still just sinking in that he's gone," Morrell-Cochran said as she sat high in the balcony after the service.

Sgt. David Tolleson, who worked in the air unit with Halford, said officers are struggling to cope with the loss.

"How do we recover? How do move on? Nobody's been able to give me the answer to that," Tolleson said. "But Rich would have wanted us to keep moving forward."

Tolleson straightened to deliver his eulogy's final line. "Until I see you on the other side, brother, forward pitch," he said. "Fly on."

An officiant read a letter of condolence from Gov. Nathan Deal. A pastor preached from a passage in Job: "The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The mourners filed out into a clear blue afternoon. A huge U.S. flag fluttered in the breeze, suspended between two firetrucks. Bagpipes broke the silence. A dark horse stood saddled, with two empty boots in the stirrups. Rows of uniformed officers saluted, quietly and slowly.

And high above, helicopters flew.

Copyright 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution