A long history of service and sacrifice
Dion R. Nelson Sr. was a dedicated public servant with a fierce sense of duty to his community and his country. As Director of Public Safety for York, Alabama, he was not only police chief, but also fire chief. For 16 years, he was in the Army Reserves and served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On September 24, 2005, his public service came to a tragic end. During a period of heavy rain associated with the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, Chief Nelson was involved in a fatal car crash while responding to another automobile accident. His car hydroplaned on the wet roadway and struck the rails of a bridge and another vehicle.
"He was always coming up with new ways to improve the departments he directed and he was the kind of leader that provided solutions and not criticism," York Mayor Carolyn Gosa said of her 34-year-old police chief. "The personnel adored and respected him. He new how to treat people with dignity and fairness," she added.
This past May, Chief Nelson had his name added to the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. He was one of 21 African American law enforcement officers to be killed in the line of duty last year, and among nearly 600 who have made the ultimate sacrifice throughout our nation''''s history.
According to the records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), the first known African American officer to die in the line of duty was William Johnson of the Jacksonville (FL) Sheriff''''s Office. On April 10, 1870, he was picked up and slammed to the ground by a drunken man after responding to a disturbance call. He died two days later of the injuries he suffered.
Among the 13 other African American officers who were killed on duty during the 1800s were Portsmouth (VA) Patrolman John Wilson, who was shot to death during a civil disturbance that broke out at a political event on November 11, 1871; and William L. Copeland, a Little Rock (AR) police officer who was stabbed and beaten to death in December 1885 by a state prison convict who was allowed out at times to perform odd jobs.
More African American officers died in the line of duty in 2001 (33) than in any other year. Of course, that included 9-11, the deadliest incident in law enforcement history. Seventy-two officers died that day and 13 of them were African Americans. Among them was William "Harry" Thompson, a popular and highly respected 27-year veteran of the New York State Office of Court Administration. He was at the training academy on Williams Street, just a short distance away from the World Trade Center when the attacks occurred. Captain Thompson, along with several other instructors and officers who were at the academy that day, ran to the scene. He stayed in the South Tower until the very end, moving people to safety and aiding the injured.
James I. Alexander''''s book, "Blue Coats; Black Skin," examines the experience of African American police officers in New York City. He found photographic evidence that African American officers were working in New York City as early as 1865. But it was not until August 6, 1917, that the first New York City African American officer was killed in the line of duty. His name was Robert H. Holmes, who was shot and killed after surprising a burglar escaping from an apartment window. Twenty thousand people lined the streets of New York to honor Patrolman Holmes during his funeral, which marked the first time in City history that flags were ordered flown at half-staff for a fallen police officer.
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