Captain Jennifer Horton, of the Fresno County, Calif., Sheriff’s Department, stood erect in the near-shadow of the U.S. Capitol early Tuesday. Her hand covered her heart. Her eyes were straight ahead. Her law enforcement brethren, some 20,000 strong, stood all around as bagpipes cried out.
“Unfortunately,” Horton said, “we get better about honoring the dead, with all our experience.”
The 31st annual National Peace Officer’s Memorial Service held Tuesday marched forward on time and with a martial snap. President Barack Obama spoke, for eight minutes. Other politicians sat on stage, briefly setting aside their own bloodless sniping. Uniformed officers and deputies, including about a dozen from the San Joaquin Valley in California, swarmed the Capitol grounds.
Most directly, the service honored the 166 law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty last year. More broadly, it saluted the 19,000-plus officers who have died in the line of duty during the nation’s history.
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Correctional Officer Jose Rivera, for one, was stabbed by two inmates at U.S. Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif., in 2008, officials say; the inmates are now awaiting trial, with many of the court proceedings under seal. Reedley, Calif., Police Department Cpl. Javier Bejar was shot while responding to reports of another officer down in early 2010. That other officer, Fresno County Deputy Sheriff Joel Brian Wahlenmaier, also died in the incident.
“It’s important for us to recognize those guys who sacrificed their lives,” said Deputy Robert Cerda, of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department.
A far cry from the inaugural 1982 memorial service on Capitol Hill, attended by about 120 people, the event Tuesday morning capped a week’s worth of activities that drew international attention. A candlelight vigil on Sunday marked the annual addition of new names to the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial, including some 19th Century deputy sheriffs slain in rural Shasta County, California. Honor guards, including a two-man delegation from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, took turns standing watch at the Memorial.
“We’ve met people from all over, from the bobbies from London to some police from New South Wales,” said Detective Lori Lightfoot of the Fresno Police Department. “We really wish more officers from the Valley could come and experience this.”
Lightfoot and three of her fellow Fresno police officers were dressed for the occasion Tuesday, with white gloves and blue cords over their right shoulders. They stood abreast, next to an officer from the small Selma, Calif., Police Department. Twenty yards away, Horton and four others from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department held their own ground. Elsewhere, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department was represented.
“Every American who wears the badge knows the burdens that come with it, the long hours and the stress; the knowledge that just about any moment could be a matter of life or death,” Obama told the officers and deputies. “You carry these burdens so the rest of us don’t have to.”
Horton put it slightly differently. There is “a kinship,” she said, bonding those who wear the badge and gun. Although, unlike many of the others visiting Washington in uniform this week, Fresno officers did temporarily disarm themselves.
“There’s a lot of paperwork involved,” Lightfoot explained, and besides, “there are plenty of guns here.”