Police Week 2019: 'You never meet a stranger'
The rows of honor guard teams, police vehicles and tapestry of uniforms at Police Week shows the diversity of America’s 18,000 LE agencies
On Monday, May 13, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Chair John Ashcroft joined U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Head of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan for the 2019 commemoration of the addition of names engraved in the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, DC.
As each of the 371 names recently added was somberly read, rows of glowing candles grew until the National Mall glimmered with nearly 30,000 points of light.
And there were just as many stories.
A time for comradery and connections
The streets of DC were flooded with visiting police officers. Some were in uniform, coming from or going to memorial events. Others were casually surveying the city. They were not hard to spot with most boldly wearing the typical police paraphernalia seen when you know you’re among friends. Shirts, hats and hoodies sported the thin blue line logo, badges or Police Week themes. Many sported their agency shield or star around their neck with a black band stretched across.
In restaurants, coffee shops and historical sites the presence of fellow officers was everywhere. Conversations were easy. The first question was, “Where are you from?” The second question was, “Did you lose someone?” The answers ignited more questions, more familiarity, more comradery, more connections. Like any memorial service or funeral that I have attended or officiated, there was no shortage of stories and laughter in the mix of misty eyes, awe and reflection.
The normal pulse of the city’s many first responders and its rainbow of police agencies going about their calls with flashing lights and screaming sirens is augmented by thousands of visiting officers and agency vehicles. When clustered around the major events such as the 31st Annual Candlelight Vigil, the rows of precision honor guard teams, police vehicles of all sorts and the tapestry of various uniforms, you get a glimpse of the diversity of America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies.
The haunting tones of bagpipers practicing punctuate the surreal atmosphere of the faithful gathered in the shadows of the great stone monuments and government edifices whose grandeur is fitting for the importance of the occasion.
A time for stories of sacrifice
Just as the sea of light came from individual candles whose flames grew one by one as they were shared, the overarching narrative of courage and sacrifice came from individual stories, one by one.
Sisters Starr Sidelinker and Rhoda Hembd whose brother, Harley Alfred Chisholm, was ambushed and murdered along with two fellow officers in June 2004 in Birmingham, Alabama, have been to 13 Police Week services. They arrived Sunday to an escort of Secret Service agents who met them at the airport. At the Candlelight Vigil, they were escorted by honor guard members to the VIP seating, as are all survivors.
While in DC, the sisters continue the legacy of support they received from Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) by leaving items at the names of officers at the memorial from their home state.
April Brown is a 27-year veteran of the Durham Police Department in North Carolina and has been coming to the services for 18 years “to pay homage to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” including her former colleague Corporal Billy Thomas Gregory who perished during training in 2004.
Brown was traveling with fellow officer Buffy Jones who was attending her 15th Police Week memorial. “It’s the comradery, to be with your people. You get so caught up in the politics and working, so it’s just fun to be with people and see everybody. You never meet a stranger,” Jones said.
Rookie officer Adam Watson with one year of service with the Kenton County Police in Kentucky arrived in DC with Ryan Hill, a three-year member of the department, whose middle school SRO is on the memorial wall. Their FOP sponsored the trip. “It’s something that’s really important,” Watson said. “It’s something we need to see, that’s what we’re here for. It’s a terrible thing, but it’s a good place to come down and connect. It’s sad and it’s happy at the same time.”
A time to remember what they died for
While finishing a meal outside a downtown eatery a group of officers from three departments sat near me and we began to talk. One was the widow of a fallen officer, and five knew other names on the memorial wall. One was a supervisor from North Carolina, another a deputy from the same county, others from Grand Rapids, Michigan, including a father and son. Two females, two black officers, four white officers, two with decades of service, one with one year, and me, the old retired guy who promised not to tell everything I heard.
We all shared war stories. Some grim, some funny. Mostly funny. In one quiet moment between the fellowship of laughter an officer affirmed the rightness of enjoying the day: “It’s what they died for. We owe it to them.”