National Police Week: A time to remember

It was Sunday morning, May 9. My clock radio woke me and, as always, it was tuned to the all-news channel. Two stories made it through the cobwebs.

A police officer in Alexandria, Va. had been involved in a fatal shooting. He had responded to a domestic disturbance call and was violently attacked by the male suspect. The officer's life was in danger and he was forced to shoot and kill his assailant.

In Maryland, State Trooper Anthony Jones was clearing debris from the roadway at an accident scene when he was struck and killed by a drunken driver.

There were few details offered in either case, but I heard all I needed to know.It hit me like a ton of bricks. While my family and I slept safely and soundly that night, one police officer was killed, and another easily could have been. As I climbed out of bed, I was struck by the eerie timing of the news: Sunday, May 9, was the official beginning of National Police Week, a time to honor and recognize the extraordinary service and sacrifice of America's law officers.

The importance of the week now seemed a little clearer.

The week would be filled with similar poignant reminders. Later that same day, I drove to Virginia Beach, Virginia to ride my bicycle on the first leg of what is called the "Police Unity Tour."

The 15 miles we rode that day was a mere warmup for the more than 150 riders who would bike some 250 miles to Washington, D.C. over the next three days. But it gave all of us a chance to pay a special tribute to two officers in the Virginia Beach area who were killed the previous year. Rod Pocceschi was a Virginia Beach police officer who was shot and killed during one of those so-called "routine" traffic stops. His assailants, who were speeding, had just robbed a local store. One of them was a six-time convicted felon. When our bike caravan passed the site where Rod was shot we all stopped and dismounted. We gathered around a makeshift memorial-with a cross as its centerpiece-which had been erected almost immediately after the shooting. Rod's sisters, Gina and Jacci, thanked us all for remembering Rod. We bowed our heads in prayer and then rode off. For the next few minutes not many words were spoken. There was a lot to think about.

When we came to the end of our 15-mile ride, the family of Norfolk Police Officer Sheila Herring was there to greet us. Sheila was shot and killed in 2003 while responding to a shooting at a local bar. Sheila's mom was with us and it was Mother's Day. I could only imagine what a bittersweet day this must be for her. Thankfully, next to her stood Sheila's identical twin sister, Sharron-no better reminder of Sheila and the wonderful memories she left behind.

Three days later, on May 12, the bike riders from Virginia met up at the Jefferson Memorial with an even larger group who had started out from New Jersey. The more than 500 bike riders and support personnel then rode to the Memorial where I was proud to greet them along with many others. After some heartfelt expressions of gratitude, Police Unity Tour leaders, including Pat Montuore, Harry Phillips, Scott Humphrey and Lenny Gigintino, presented me with a $600,000 check for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Donations from the Police Unity Tour, which started in 1997, now total more than $1.5 million.

On the night of the Police Unity Tour arrival ceremony, we held a special reception in honor of our many volunteers who come every year from around the country to assist us. To put it simply, National Police Week and all of the many activities and events associated with it could not occur without our volunteers. We had a very special guest join us at the reception-Marlee Matlin, who won a "Best Actress" Academy Award for her performance in "Children of a Lesser God." One of our longtime volunteers, Burbank Police Officer Joe Dean, had made the arrangements. Marlee has a special affinity for law enforcement. She is married to a Burbank police officer.

Marlee and her husband, Kevin Granbalski, were part of a much larger contingent of Burbank officers and top government officials who had traveled across the country to be there when the name of one of their own officers, Matthew Pavelka, was added to the Memorial. Matt had been shot and killed in 2003 during a traffic stop. Another Burbank officer, Gregory Campbell, had also been shot and critically injured in the incident. Greg also joined us that evening, and it was a touching scene to see Greg embraced tightly by his wife, Sandra, during most of the night. Many police families joining us that week had only memories to hold onto, but Greg's wife was obviously counting her blessings that she had much more.

On the day of the Memorial Candlelight Vigil, May 13, a luncheon was held to honor a special group of law enforcement officers who had received the Memorial Fund's "Officer of the Month" award during 2003. Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI, was the keynote speaker for the event. He referenced many of the award winners in his remarks, including Rodney Chambers, an Amtrak police officer who overpowered and arrested a man attempting to rob a store with two hand grenades; and U.S. Postal Inspector Bill Paliscak, who was one of the lead investigators in the Anthrax contamination cases immediately following 9-11. In an exceptional display of selfless courage, Bill placed himself at risk in order to save other innocent lives and was exposed to "weapons grade" Anthrax. He is now seriously ill as a result, and received his award from Director Mueller in a wheelchair.

Director Mueller also had special praise for one of the other officers being honored. Murphy, North Carolina Police Officer Jeffrey Postel had arrested the elusive Eric Rudolph, a cold-blooded killer on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted List." Rudolph was responsible for the Atlanta Olympics' bombing that killed one woman and injured more than 100 other people. He was also accused of planting a bomb at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama that killed Police Officer Sande Sanderson. Officer Postel had been on the job for less than a year when he arrested Rudolph. Director Mueller showed a little self-deprecating humor when he joked that Jeff had accomplished something the FBI had been trying to do, without success, for the past five years.

Later that night, more than 20,000 law enforcement officers and survivors of the fallen gathered in Judiciary Square for the 16th annual Memorial Candlelight Vigil. The Attorney General of the United States, John Ashcroft, delivered the keynote address, and United States Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell received our "2004 Distinguished Service Award" for leading the ongoing effort to build the National Law Enforcement Museum.

Earlier in the evening, Senator Campbell attended a reception with the 86-year-old founder of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, U.S. Representative Mario Biaggi (Ret.). It was only fitting that the founder of the Museum and the Memorial were standing side-by-side when Motorola's Senior Vice President, Jim Sarallo, announced that Motorola was pledging $3 million in cash and products and services to help build the National Law Enforcement Museum. The two legislators-and former lawmen-were able to witness together another historic milestone in the effort they have led to honor America's police officers.

After the announcement was made at the reception, all of the guests walked across the street to the Memorial where 362 new names would be officially dedicated. One of those names belonged to Night Marshal Virgil Untied of Minburn, Iowa. He had been shot to death during a grocery store robbery in 1931. Somehow his story of supreme sacrifice had been forgotten by history. But, on May 13, 2004, and forever after his name would be forgotten no more.

The family of Nigh Marshal Untied had traveled all the way from Iowa to be there when his name was dedicated on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. On the plane ride over they had a chance encounter with one of Motorola's top officials, Mike Worthington, who was coming to formalize his company's $3 million commitment to the National Law Enforcement Museum.

Mike said if any second-thoughts about the importance of that $3 million deal existed, they were erased on that plane ride. Night Marshal Untied's story needed to be told and Motorola was going to make sure that it happened.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2022 Police1. All rights reserved.