When Officer Dale Claxton of the Cortez Colorado Police Department was killed in the line of duty in 1998, Keith McPheeters was the SWAT Commander who — along with his entire SWAT team — handled the call and rendered assistance in the Four Corners area (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona) of the United States. Following Officer Claxton’s death, McPheeters and his colleagues discussed their colleague’s tragic fate, and they talked about ways in which they could inform the public of what it means to be a law enforcement officer and the significance to their families as well. “We were struck by the fact that our families live with that every day, and they never know if we’re coming back,” McPheeters said.
In an attempt to raise awareness of Officer Claxton’s sacrifice, McPheeters — a Captain and 20-year veteran of the Farmington (N.M.) Police Department — founded an organization called Cops on Top (COT). This organization consists of a team of volunteers that include not only law enforcement officers but public servants and other dedicated supporters of officers killed in the line of duty. Together, they undertake mountain climbing expeditions to honor the memories of fallen officers. The organization has the support of and works in partnership with Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS). Through the climbing expeditions, the organization raises awareness about the fallen officers and comforts grieving family memories by preserving the legacies of their loved ones who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
The officers that are chosen to be honored are selected through a nomination process. Once an officer is chosen, the family is contacted to obtain their approval, and cops are the ones who contact the families. The families are informed the expedition will be done in a respectful manner. Individuals from the Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) usually contact the chief of the law enforcement agency to ensure acceptance of the mission.
Troy Bacon, who is on the Board of Directors of the organization and also serves as a Lieutenant in the Patrol Division of the Frankfort Indiana Police Department, became involved in 2005 and has been totally committed ever since. He acknowledged some families don’t want to revisit the pain. “There’s a lot of sensitivity. We’ve got to make sure it’s done right. No matter how high the mountain, regardless of the altitude, they are there to remember the fallen officers,” he said.
Those who engage in the climbing expeditions are individuals who are not new to climbing and are those who have had altitude experiences. The expeditions are largely funded by participants, individuals, or other sponsors that include the Fraternal Order of Police as well as companies such as 511.Tactical, North Face, and numerous others.
There can be two to three participants or larger numbers that climb to the top of a mountain of significantly high altitude. The climbers take meaningful items with them such as photos, banners, plaques, or other things that have significance to the memory the fallen officer.
“We’ll carry anything that’s reasonable. Whatever has unique importance and sentimental value to the family,” said Captain McPheeters.
All items that are taken up on the mountain are brought back and may be given to the family members. Nothing is left behind on the mountaintop. It is also not uncommon for audio blogs to be done during the expedition.
Lt. Bacon began hiking and climbing mountains when he was a student at Purdue University. He made his first trip to the Smokey Mountains — more than 6,000 feet — in 1996 and he fell in love with the concept of climbing. His first big climb was Pikes Peak which was over 14,000 feet.
“I’ve started climbing higher and higher every year,” Bacon said.
In 2005, Lt. Bacon made his first climb with Cops on Top. “Ever since then, I’ve gotten more involved in the experience. I love to participate in memorial services. I love to climb mountains,” he said. In 2009, Lt. Bacon led the expedition for Aconcagua — the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere that is over 22,000 feet — to honor the life of Philadelphia Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbiniski who was killed while responding to a bank holdup. Following the expedition, Lt. Bacon presented Mrs. Liczbinski and members of the Philadelphia Police Department a memorial plaque and other items that were taken to the summit.
In 2010, Lt. Bacon led the expedition to Mt. McKinley in memory of Montana Trooper Michael Haynes who was killed head-on by a drunk driver. “We had two deputies on the team who knew him. It was a pretty big deal. It was quite emotional. It made a huge impact in my life,” Bacon said.
In January 2012, Lt. Bacon is returning to South America to Aconcagua, in Argentina, with eight members of a team. They will dedicate a month of their time to honor the life of another fallen officer.
Stu Frink, a trooper with the Belleview State Patrol in Washington State, understands the genuine meaning of Cops on Top. His brother, Steve, was also a trooper and he was killed in 1993 in a collision when he chased a fleeing felon. Trooper Frink connected with Keith McPheeters through COPS.
“I’m a climber. The circumstances seemed a perfect match,” said Fink.
He acknowledged he experienced some tough years following the loss of his brother. Through his participation with Cops on Top, he has realized there is hope and wants other family survivors to know that. “I climb as much as possible. There’s an opening at the end. There is a way they can represent their loved one by doing it for them or by us doing it for them. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can come out of it. I personally get a lot out of it. The relationships that we build, the friendships out of this are something,” he said.
Those who participate in Cops on Top climbing expeditions are committed to their cause, dedicated in the effort, and skilled in their climbing abilities. They devote their time, money and beliefs in remembering the lives of fallen officers after a year or more following their deaths. “Everyone I talk to in my community support Cops on Top and support what we do,” said Lt. Bacon. And, what they do is attempt to provide solace to the families by letting them know, with the passage of time, that their loved one’s memory is not — and will never be — forgotten.