There is a memorial in Washington, D.C., you may not have visited. You may not even have heard of it. In a city dotted with monuments and memorials devoted to heroic leaders and wartime dead, there is one the tourists often miss, this one a somber tribute to those who have laid down their lives in a war that never ends.
If you take the D.C. Metro to the Judiciary Square Station, at the top of the escalator you will find yourself at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, on the walls of which are inscribed the names of the federal, state, and local police officers who have died in the line of duty since our country was founded. Isaac Smith, a deputy sheriff in Westchester County, New York, was the first to fall when he was shot to death on May 17, 1792. His name is now one of more than 17,000 inscribed on the memorial’s marble walls. The names of the 156 officers who died in 2004 were recently added, along with those of 259 others who died in previous years but had not yet been recognized on the memorial.
I was there on Sunday, joining the hundreds of police officers from all over the country and beyond who came to Washington to honor their fallen comrades and mark the beginning of Police Week. Also in town were the survivors of many of those fallen officers, some making return visits after losing their loved ones in years past, others there for the first time. Over the course of my career I’ve attended more police funerals than I care to remember, but the images that remain with me from those occasions are those of the parents, widows, and children as they enter the church and gaze upon the flag-draped casket. To be in the company of so many people who have suffered so greatly is an experience of indescribable poignancy.
In a ceremony on the Capitol’s west lawn on Sunday, President Bush addressed a crowd of several thousand, many of them police officers in uniform standing in orderly ranks on the rain-soaked grass. “The tradition of sacrifice and service runs strong among law enforcement,” the president said. “The fallen officers we honor this afternoon honored that tradition of service and sacrifice, and the flag of the United States of America flies at half-staff today in memory of their courage.” He then spent nearly two hours greeting the survivors of fallen officers, throwing the day’s schedule into chaos but generating not a word of complaint.
The event at the Capitol was followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial itself. Survivor families came by the busload, and I found myself standing near those who had come to honor a police officer who died last year. On February 5, 2004, New Jersey State Trooper Bertram Zimmerman III was working with a stakeout team of fellow troopers in Cape May County when he was called to assist in the pursuit of a robbery suspect. He was killed in a traffic accident while on his way to join the chase. As is all too common, his death was little noted in the media, even in New Jersey. Today he is probably remembered by few outside of his family, friends, and coworkers. I mention him here in the simple hope that readers will spare a thought for him and those he left behind, the people who got that dreaded knock at the door last February 5.
“It’s been a long day,” Zimmerman’s father said at the conclusion of the ceremony. “A long day, but a good day.”
Already this year, 53 American police officers have lost their lives in the line of duty, 53 new names to be inscribed in the marble before next year’s ceremonies. How many more will follow?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.