Every year beginning on May 15th, the United States observes Peace Officers Memorial Day and National Police Week to recognize and pay tribute to the law enforcement officers who have given their lives in the line of duty.
This week, I joined thousands of families of the fallen and their larger law enforcement families who came to Washington, D.C. to mourn their loss and honor the 252 additional names that will be etched into the National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall this year.
The deep feelings of pain and sorrow they are experiencing are something I am all too familiar with. In 1982, I lost my partner and best friend, Sergeant Sam Hicks, who was ambushed, shot and killed investigating a homicide. Just two years later, my friend, patrol partner and Academy classmate, Mike Raburn, was stabbed to death while serving a civil warrant.
Their deaths remind me every day officers are willing to respond to a call for help regardless of an individual’s political views, race, religion, or criminal history. Like my friends and those who lost their lives before and after them, officers are willing to sacrifice their life for those they serve.
Despite this, I have watched over the past several years as tensions between local police and their communities reach a boiling point, eventually resulting in violence, abuse of property, and tragic fatalities. Unfortunately, I fear this is becoming the new norm and that social media, smartphone videos, and the 24-hour news cycle, while important to the free flow of information, have often times only exasperated these heightened emotions and led people to see our protectors as the enemy.
This was the situation in Baltimore, Maryland where tensions were already high between law enforcement and residents before the tragic death of Freddie Gray. After his death in April of 2015, crime in Baltimore escalated to unprecedented levels. The two months following Gray’s death were some of the deadliest in Baltimore’s history, and in 2015, Baltimore had the most murders per-capita in the city’s history. It experienced a 63 percent increase in homicides from 2014 and a 72 percent increase in nonfatal shootings.
We, as a country, cannot let this continue. We must return to civility.
As I looked out at the tens and thousands of family members and law enforcement officers at the memorial service this past Sunday, I felt like I saw the America I know, the America that represents us at our best. With the U.S. Capitol as the backdrop, I watched as members of law enforcement with different colored uniforms, family members of all races, and department patches representing every state, cried together, comforted one another, and came together to honor those who gave their life protecting the freedoms we all enjoy.
What I saw on Sunday was a microcosm of what our cities and neighborhoods can and should be. Despite our differences we’re all in this together. The United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world because we’re built on a foundation of a self-governance that gave birth to an unprecedented level of personal freedom and liberty. From that grew a country with unlimited opportunity that gives even the most underprivileged the chance to succeed. All along the way a vital piece of our citizen government, law enforcement and first responders, have been protecting these freedoms. We do not prosper when police view all citizens as potential criminals or when communities view law enforcement as a limiting force on our freedoms. We are at our best when we are united under a common goal, and no goal is more widely shared than that of keeping our loved ones safe and providing a better future for our children and generations to come.
I understand that in many neighborhoods across America, the wounds are deep and the rift is wide. It will take time and hard work to regain the trust and civility that has been lost or wasn’t there in the first place. But it must begin and end by recognizing that we are all on the same team. By challenging ourselves to focus on our aligned ultimate goal of maintaining safe communities, I am confident crime in our cities will decline, lives of young men and women will be saved, and perhaps next year, fewer families will be making the trip to D.C. to honor their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe.