WHO HAS BEEN TO WASHINGTON D.C. FOR POLICE WEEK?
I hold classes for cops across the country on the topics of technology and tactics. As I finish the course material each time, I turn to the group and pose the question above.
Of a group of maybe 20, I might see one or two hands. Maybe none. “Who has heard of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in D.C.,” I continue. Thankfully, most of them have. It is then that I try to tell the story.
I must admit that explaining Police Week is like my wife trying to share her experience of child birth with me. She uses words that I know (or can look up). The words somehow always fall short of making me feel what she felt.
I know it’s the same in a classroom with a group of cops. Words alone just don’t cut it. Yet, I hope to touch a nerve or strike a chord in the heart of just one of those cops. I hope to light a fire in the heart of just one. Most of the time, the effort succeeds. For that I am grateful.
WHAT IS POLICE WEEK LIKE?
It starts with the preparations. I feel a spark inside as I make the hotel reservations. I talk to my past travel companions, confirming who will be going each year. We always reminisce about what we did in years past (though carefully not admitting to anything incriminating in front of our wives). We wonder what this year will bring — much like a starry-eyed kids wonders what Santa will bring for Christmas.
Having lived in Detroit until a few years ago, D.C. was within driving distance. We could make it in 7+ hours by car (DON’T ASK).
Now that I’m in Florida, air is the only practical choice.
The trip there feels like Christmas Eve Day when I was a kid. I am eager with anticipation. It’s tough to sit still. It’s almost impossible to focus on any of the things my wife or the job needs done. The last time I felt like that was in college when a VW bug full of us traveled from Michigan’s cold to a South Florida beach in March/April for Spring Break. Yippee!
I’ve been part of Police Week ten or eleven times. With each repeat visit, I think that it will feel like “old stuff” this time. I sort of fear the “been-there, done-that” sense will set in. It doesn’t.
The hotel is swarming in cops. They are in plain clothes. Many have their badges hanging around their neck. Many don’t. But there is no mistaking them for who and what they are: COPS.
It feels like arriving at a huge family reunion that is already underway.
After unpacking our gear, we jump on the Metro (tin gets you on gratis) and head for Judiciary Square – the Wall.
Let me explain the geography. The Wall in total takes up most of a city block in central Washington D.C. The Wall itself is actually in two sections sitting at opposite sides of the Memorial, shaped like parenthesis. It is shrouded in manicured trees and shrubs. In the center is a reflecting pond and a large NLEOMF badge etched into the granite surface.
The Wall is divided into panels (sections). On each of the panels is a portion of the names of the 20,000+ fallen officers that have been etched into its stone surface. The newest names are always on the very bottom rows of each panel. You now have a sense of what it’s like, from a physical standpoint.
There are usually throngs of people there. Along the Wall are mementos that have been left there by friends, by survivors, and by agencies from all across the country. Those mementos tell a message of love and of loss. Some start out, “Dear Daddy …. I miss you …”
The totality of the experience is overwhelming – to say the least. Grown men are shaking hands and hugging vigorously as old friendships are renewed. There are pats on the back. There are eyes filled with tears and hearts filled with pain, everywhere.
Each year, I’ve worried that I won’t “feel it.” Then, I reflect: one of my brothers is lost in the Line of Duty (on average) every 53 hours. THINK ABOUT THAT.
I’ve really never kept track. But, I suspect our initial visit consumes a couple of hours of time as we pay homage to the new names and comfort the survivors who have lost someone close. It’s sort of like going to a funeral for few hundred of your closest family members all at the same time. We visit. We laugh. We cry. We try to bolster one another through the rough spots.
For most, this is a “must-do” function on the Washington tour circuit (wink). It is nearly a 24×7 activity. Nearby one finds a few familiar haunts: the Irish Channel Pub, the F.O.P. Lodge #1, and the F.O.P. Beer Tent which has a zillion of vendors selling every kind of cop thing you can imagine – and some that you can’t.
If you decide to hang out at the Irish Channel you can almost bet that sometime late in the evening, a group of pipers will round the corner from the Memorial, march up the street, and join you in the pub while playing Amazing Grace and everyone holds their beers high in remembrance and respect.
The beer spots will be jammed with cops. Yet, there will be no arguments. Aaaah yes, cops, guns, and beer – what a great mix (wink). Everyone acts as if you are their best friend, I guess, because you are. There are no strangers here; only family.
This is another part (a very important part) of the family reunion and the experience. You will see more cops in once place than you’ve ever seen anywhere before. After a beer or two, you will come to the realization that our family is greater than any single agency, greater than all of the bad bosses, greater than any state, it is the greatest group of people you could know. And, you are part of it.
Events go on all week. There is the Blue Mass, the Law Ride (Motormen), multiple gatherings for surviving family members, the Emerald Society Pipe Band Service, Honor Guards from everywhere standing at the Memorial (24×7), and the arrival of the Unity Tour, just to name a few.
To me, the peak of the week is the Candlelight Vigil. It is always held on May 13th at dusk at the Memorial. Due to construction of the Police Museum, THIS YEAR the Vigil will be held at the National Mall. There are famous people giving speeches. There are songs sung that will stir your heart. There is the awe of watching a sea of 25,000 candles come sweeping to light as we hear Amazing Grace sung and watch a laser driven Thin Blue Line appear over our heads.
We hold our candles high, inspired at the notion that our fallen brothers and sisters are looking down from above and can somehow see those lights and our tears.
Then, there is the Final Roll Call where the name of each officer that has been added to the Wall that year is read aloud for all to hear one last time.
We stand together (yes, about 25,000 of us). We cry together. We pay our respects together. We grieve together. We try to support the Surviving family members whose pain is even greater than our own.
Being cops, once that’s over, we try to find solace in a brown bottle with an adult beverage inside. (wink) We usually do that until the sun starts to rise. (sigh)
The second hallmark event of the Week is the Police Memorial Service which is always held on May 15th on the steps of the Capitol. Since I’ve been going to Police Week, it has been attended by thousands of cops, mostly in uniform.
Every year of his term, President Bush spoke to us. President Obama attended occasionally. You can bet President Trump will be there this year. The names change, but the message is clear and resonant. Sympathy and gratitude are extended for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and simultaneously thanks given those who continue to stand guard over our freedoms.
THE REAL REASON YOU SHOULD BE THERE
A couple of years ago, I decided to take one last walk by the Wall on the night before our return trip home. I had been with brothers, consuming a few ‘barley pops,’ and thought it would be my last chance to see the Wall for another year.
I had begun my walk down the east side of the Wall. I was trying to soak in the totality of the experience: the new names etched at the bottom, the wreaths or remembrance, the cards, the pictures, and the notes taped carefully in place.
I came upon a young man, I’d estimate about 25 years old. He was stooped before the Wall, touching a name etched there. The name was at the bottom, so I knew it a recent loss. It was obvious to me that he was crying. A woman of about the same age stood behind him, touching him lightly on the shoulder.
I stopped and stood next to him. I too, touched his shoulder. He stood up and looked at me with tears streaming down his face. I asked of the relationship to the person on the wall. “He was my FTO,” the man struggled. With that, he hugged me and sobbed on my shoulder. I held him tight and reminded him that his FTO is now in a better place. I also reminded him that he will never be alone. Never.
After a few moments, we shook hands and parted company.
Just before leaving, I came upon the most profound memento of the entire week.
I saw a single sheet of loose-leaf paper, complete with 3 holes that had been taped to a very low spot on one of the panels. The writing was in pencil. I stooped over to read it. It looked like a memo, with headings and all.
It began –
TO: Officer Joshua Mathew Williams
FROM: Your daughter, Lisa
Realizing what it was, I checked the area, and sat down on the ground in front of this panel so that I could fully absorb the letter.
I am 13 now, and am really growing up fast. I’m very different, looking like a young lady. My mouth looks like the front end of a Cadillac because, you see, I have braces.
I am playing soccer this year and I was in the school play. I just had a small part, but I did my best, because that’s what you taught me to do.
Johnny is 10 now, and he really makes me mad sometimes. But, Mom says that I have to be patient because he’s my little brother and we all need one another. We’re doing OK, but I know that Mom really misses you. I see her sitting in her favorite chair looking at your picture. I think she cries sometimes.
We miss you, Daddy, and we wish so badly that you could be here.
P.S. Thanks for taking the time to paint the pictures of the sunsets, Daddy. They are hanging in the hallway. I see them every morning when I get up. They remind me of you and how lucky we are to have a Daddy like you.
I have read that letter to the students of every class that I have taught since that day. I’ve made sure that a copy is in their student books.
We can’t tell this story too much.
Spring Break for Cops? Maybe. For me, it’s a time to recharge, refocus, and get my mind around the “Big Picture,” once more.
If you’re a cop who stays on the job simply because it is a regular paycheck, stay home. You’d probably just get in the way.
If being a cop is in your heart, be there. If you’re a cop to the center of your being, show up. If you’re a cop with all your heart and soul, you need to share in this experience. Do it once. Chances are you’ll never miss it again.
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? I welcome them all. Leave comment below. You can reach me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to hear from you. More important: I hope to meet you in D.C. in May.
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