"In 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed May 15 as National Peace Officers Memorial Day and the calendar week in which May 15 falls, as National Police Week. Established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1962, National Police Week pays special recognition to those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others." National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Bradford and Union Counties got an early start on National Police Week by holding their memorial for the fallen officers of those two counties on May 11 at the First Christian Church in Lake Butler, Florida. It was a very solemn, moving ceremony in which not only the fallen officers but also their surviving family members were honored. I won't detail everything that was done at the ceremony, but I will say that I was especially moved by the BCSO Color Guard's presentation of the U.S. Flag, the playing of Taps on the trumpet, and the playing of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.
Sheriff Brad Whitehead had asked me to speak at the ceremony, sending the invitation through my cousin, Deputy Sheriff Todd Hanlon. I immediately accepted, feeling honored to have been thought of to deliver such an address. My feelings of being honored soon gave way to feelings of apprehension. Despite the fact that I was a trial lawyer for 32 years, I am somewhat lacking in social skills, and one of my greatest deficiencies is a propensity to say something inappropriate on solemn occasions.
I frittered away several weeks trying to think of the right thing to say, and I finally decided to approach the task as I would the giving of an opening statement. In the giving of opening statements and making of final arguments, I am a disciple of the great Roman trial lawyer, Marcus Tulius Cicero. Cicero posited that the advocate should always write his speech out word for word before giving it, but never read the speech. I don't know how many final arguments and opening statements I wrote over the years, but I'm pretty sure it somewhere above 200. I once mentioned that I had to leave a meeting early to write a final argument, and one of the lawyers there asked me "When did you start writing out your final arguments?" He knew that in my early days I always flew by the seat of my pants. My answer: "When I got tired of losing cases." I wish I had read Cicero at the beginning of my career as a trial lawyer rather than toward the end. But I digress.
I wrote my speech, and then I tried it out on various family members, getting their feedback. After each critique of my speech, I rewrote it. This is something else I always tried to do as a trial lawyer. When I finally had the last draft of the speech down, I printed it out in large type and highlighted key words. I would have the speech there on the pulpit when I delivered it, but I would not look at it unless I needed minute details like dates or unless, as sometimes happens, I drew a complete blank. Even after I had the speech in almost final form, the revision process never stopped until I got behind the pulpit and began speaking. For example, my research had identified 16 fallen officers from Bradford and Union Counties. When I got to the church and studied the agenda, I learned that there were actually 25 fallen officers, so my last revision was to change the number 16 to the number 25.
The resulting speech was very close to what I had written, but there were omissions and additions as I felt moved to expand on some points and completely forgot others. Here, then is the final draft of the speech I gave. It is not 100% identical to the speech I gave, but it is awfully close to it:
In the current political climate, where it is so popular to criticize and even demonize law enforcement officers, I am frequently reminded of a sign I saw in a police department squad room some 40 years ago. It read “We, the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long with so little that we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.” That little sign exemplified the law enforcement officer’s job—long hours, inadequate equipment, poor working conditions, microscopic paychecks, separation from family, and little appreciation from the public. Things have really changed in the past forty years. Now the officer’s job consists of—long hours, somewhat better equipment, slightly improved working conditions, small paychecks, separation from family, and outright hostility from much of the public.
One thing hasn’t changed at all over the years, though, the spirit of self-sacrifice that lives in the heart of every good officer. When disaster strikes, when others run away from danger, the good officer runs toward danger. As I speak these words, somewhere in this great country an officer is risking life and limb in the execution of his or her sworn duty. This willingness to face danger in service of community exacts a great cost—sometimes the ultimate cost. I have seen this cost firsthand. In my 32 year career in the criminal justice system I handled seven cases where officers lost their lives in the pursuit of their duties. Many of these men were my friends. I knew them, I knew their families, and I learned to appreciate the unimaginable suffering caused by such losses.
One of my first cases came in the early morning hours of July 6, 1976, when I received a call from the county jail saying that two deputies had been killed. As an Assistant State Attorney in a small county, I frequently got after-hours calls, but never one like that. I got up and started dressing, then stopped. It couldn’t be. It had to be a prank call. I started to call the jail to make sure, but decided it would be better to just go on down. When I got to the jail, I saw the sheriff standing in the doorway and I knew it was no prank. In short order I was on the crime scene looking down at the bodies of two officers. Two good men, two good friends, shot to death by a man who didn’t want to get his probation revoked. It would be no exaggeration to say that was the worst night of my career as an Assistant State Attorney, and its memory haunted me for years.
One of my last cases came in the early morning hours of May 30, 2002, when a young deputy sheriff responding to a burglar alarm swerved to miss children walking in the middle of the dark, unlit county road that I lived on. He lost control, hit a tree, and his car burst into flames. I had watched him grow up in the church I attended, and he was a good friend of my youngest son. You couldn’t hope to meet a finer young man. To say that his family and friends were devastated would be an understatement.
According to the Officer Down Memorial Page more than 22,000 officers have been killed in the line of duty since the founding of our nation. That’s more than 22,000 tragedies like the ones I just described, and 25 them occurred in Bradford and Union Counties. Each of those officers has touched us and continues to touch us in ways that we cannot even imagine. There’s a recent field of science called Chaos Theory which describes something called the Butterfly Effect. According to the theory, an event as insignificant as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Africa can cause a tornado in Florida, and that tornado in Florida can shake the limbs of a tree in China. Every event causes a chain reaction of events that result in undreamed-of consequences. Let me describe one small Butterfly Effect of the sacrifice of one of those 25 officers I just mentioned. On May 23, 1961, a Union County Deputy Sheriff was shot and killed investigating a domestic violence complaint. An eighth-grader got into all kinds of trouble when he skipped school to go and watch the final arguments in the resulting murder trial. He came away from that trial resolved to be a prosecutor. He made good on that resolution with a 30 year career as a prosecutor. More than a half century later that eighth grader is standing here speaking to you tonight. We should never forget that each one of these officers deserves our eternal gratitude for giving the last full measure of devotion to make our world a safer place, and never forget that their influence continues in the lives of those they touched.
I want to close by addressing myself to the young officers who are present. I want to give you a challenge: Always remember these fallen heroes who have gone before you; always strive to honor their memory; and always try to conduct yourselves so that your Butterfly Effect will continue the legacy of good that flows from their sacrifice.