In remembrance of MIT Officer Sean Collier
A chief shares her memories of attending the funeral of MIT Police Officer Sean Allen Collier who was killed in the line of duty by the Boston Marathon bombers
The following essay was submitted by Shawn de Jong, Chief of Police at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. It has been edited from its original form.
By Chief Shawn de Jong
On Wednesday, April 24, 2013, I attended the memorial service for MIT police officer Sean Collier who was killed in the line of duty on April 18th by the Boston Marathon bombers. This incident will forever be etched in our collective memory as one that brought unforetold darkness, tragedy and loss to Boston and well beyond. Yet these unfathomable moments were met with larger measures of courage, unyielding human compassion and strength. At the time, I was serving as a lieutenant for the Springfield Technical Community College Police Department in Springfield, Massachusetts. Moved by the representation of Officer Collier’s life and purpose against a backdrop of national fear and chaos, I needed to share the memorial service with my community and so wrote this for them.
On the ninth anniversary of Officer Collier’s death, I am reminded that, while often facing undeserved broad-brush anti-police criticism, in 2022 we remain a noble profession made up of officers who demonstrate kindness, courage, empathy and bravery every single day. This is not rhetoric. It is who we are. This 2013 essay is shared with you in the memory of Sean Collier and each officer who gave their lives in service to others.
April 24, 2013
I was in full uniform and in an unmarked cruiser as I headed down the Pike. I knew I would come across a caravan of marked cruisers en route somewhere on the Mass Pike and would be allowed to join in. We all had to arrive at the South Boston staging area by the strict deadline of 9:30. Eventually, a caravan of approximately 150 marked cruisers drove down the on ramp with blue lights. A Massachusetts State Trooper acknowledged me and let me join in just in front of his cruiser. Together we all made our way eastbound. Other travelers on the Pike pulled over on the left and right shoulders to allow us to pass. As we navigated through intersections in South Boston, I recognized the shoulder patches of police officers from across the state directing traffic to get us through the city without delay, replacing the Boston Police officers so they could attend the service.
At the staging site, we were all in uniform, many shades of blue, pressed sharp lines in shirts and trousers and polished boots. We climbed into buses and rode, shoulder pressed against shoulder, knee against knee, in heavy wool and polyester uniforms stretched over body armor. I looked around at these officers seated around me. I recognized the collar and epaulet brass signifying ranks. I saw the chevrons of sergeants and the slick sleeves of the unranked officers. I read the patches of departments from across the state and the nation and beyond. But what we wore on our uniforms on this bus ride from South Boston to Cambridge might as well have been the same from officer to officer. Despite our differences in rank and agency, it was clear to me that in our awkward effort to keep things light, laughing here and there to ease the tension during the brief bus ride, we had a common purpose and a deep need to memorialize a young man who was one of all of us. In moments like this, rank falls away and patches blur. Somehow just being together helped, alone on a bus where we didn’t have to explain anything.
As promised by the Cambridge Police Command Center, we arrived to find a heavily guarded multi-block section of Cambridge. Law enforcement turns out for these services en masse; although officers themselves would be armed, there were concerns about an attempt at large-scale violence against us. Prohibited access to the area by the public was strictly enforced and all efforts had been made to ensure a secure site.
The Mass Ave bridge had been closed, no vehicles were allowed in the large, secured section of Cambridge, a no-fly zone had been established overhead, heavily armed tactical forces were in place along both sides of the streets, and armored vehicles stood idling and ready. EOD K-9s and tactical vehicles, search and rescue dogs, and muzzled police K-9s lined the sidewalks. Heavily armed tactical teams stood with their backs to us, facing the alleys and high rises we passed.
As we walked from the bus unloading area, down Vassar street, we passed a Disaster Relief vehicle and the American Red Cross station presumably staged and prepared in the event something occurred. The streets were filled from curb to curb with a throng of officers marching in cadence, approximated, I heard, at 7,000 in number.
I have attended other funerals of officers killed in the line of duty over the course of my career. Each one deservedly cites a hero, someone who gave everything to the job, including their life. But they seldom include the grief and the thanks of an entire community as demonstrated at MIT on this day.
Then-Vice President Biden and the other speakers reminded us how kind Officer Collier was, how loving and caring and giving. Collier’s brother told us funny things about Sean that only a brother can tell. From all of these stories, it was apparent that Sean Collier was everything you hope for in a police officer. And even more than his love for others, he was loved by the MIT community. This was not rhetoric. This was a truth reflected in the shared thoughts and sentiments of the MIT students, faculty and staff submitted online. It was present in the silence of the crowd as the uniformed stood at attention and in salute as his coffin was carried onto the field. It was present in the muted clapping of 7000 pairs of officers’ hands, the sound hauntingly muffled by white cotton gloves. It was present in the tears of the MIT Symphony Orchestra’s first violinist, which she tried to discreetly wipe away.
The Prelude and Postlude from the orchestra, the Chaplain’s prayers, the songs from James Taylor, the beautiful Boston Police Pipes and Drums, and the final bugle of Taps all rang out across Briggs Field in reverence of a fallen officer and friend.
I did not know Sean Collier. I know some of his colleagues at the MIT Police Department just as I know many of the other officers who arrived on Briggs Field for this service. I have worked closely with many of them over the years. I know their serious-get-down-to-business side and their let’s-go-have-a-beer side. I also know their kindness, their toughness and their resilience through tragedy. And because I know that about all of them, I knew Sean Collier. He was one of us and we are him. And everyone was there to pay tribute to his life and memory and to hope for better things.
The wool was unyielding under the sun. Drained physically and emotionally, sweaty and thirsty, we left Brigg’s Field at the closing of the service and reversed our earlier trek, heading down Vassar on foot back to the bus loading area. The heavily armed presence was still there. This time, MIT students, faculty and staff, held back by barricades and many layers deep, watched us. Some held signs that said “Collier Strong.” Some looked sad, some cried, some smiled and some waved. It felt as if we were all there together pulling through something hard that changed our lives more than almost anything else. But we were pushing forward, citizens and officers alike, on either side of the barricades, with a renewed – and hopefully not fleeting – sense of mutual trust and kinship.
Crossing the barricaded Mass Ave and Vassar St. intersection, for a brief and rare moment, it was nearly silent except for the drone of a fleet of waiting nearby buses, swept by EOD K-9s before we boarded. The paradox of kinship and risk in that intersection was inescapable and troubling. I want to believe we all held closer to one than worried about the other at that moment.
I returned to campus depleted after a long day and walked into our police station. I was met by one of my officers. He looked tired, having had only a few hours of sleep since he last got off duty. He asked about the service. I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t just asking as a matter of form. He sincerely wanted to know. This isn’t new to him. He had attended the service for Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose last summer. But for some reason, all of us need to know the details of each slain officer’s service because they are a touchstone for something we don’t really talk about. So I told him what I told you here. Then I pinned the folded program from the service to the board in our roll call area. It has Officer Collier’s photo on the front – the same one we are all so familiar with now. I geared down and headed home.
Later, I tried to identify the looming tension I felt. There is of course a sense of loss in our law enforcement community that we all feel. There is an uneasiness in knowing our vulnerabilities and the risks in our work. One never expects it to get easier and it never does. But what I have discovered is that your relationship to risk and loss of life changes as you are tested over time and your responsibilities shift. When you are a young officer, your concern is keeping yourself and your partners safe. The exponential responsibilities grow as you move up the ranks. When you are Chief, your concern is keeping them all safe. I am comforted by the eagerness with which my officers need to understand their own vulnerabilities in knowing Officer Collier’s. This eagerness is a complicated and unfortunate necessity in law enforcement. But it tells me they are paying attention and that alone may help to keep them safe.
I am glad I attended Officer Collier’s service. I had hoped there would be no others to attend, though there were in time. The Boston Marathon bombing was a horrendous experience for all, but I know Thursday night, April 18th, 2013, was particularly difficult for our police community. What we learn from tragedies such as this is personal. Memorials like the one for Sean Collier provide opportunities for larger lessons and for genuine hope for something better. I think we all trust that there is much out there that is better. If, as was demonstrated on Briggs Field by citizens and police alike, we can hold onto some measure of mutual trust in the end, we will have realized something better. Knowing what I now know about Officer Collier, he understood this and lived his life and did his good work at MIT with that in mind. I was pleased to represent my community at the service in 2013, but I am indeed more honored and humbled to bring Officer Collier to you again in 2022. And in continuing our own good work in our communities with that same simple goal of trust and benevolence, we honor him and his life.
About the author
Shawn de Jong proudly serves as the Chief of Police at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She has served exclusively in higher education law enforcement since 1990. The communities she has served include UNC-Wilmington as a certified criminal investigator, Boston College as Detective Sergeant, and Springfield Technical Community College as Lieutenant and then Chief before moving on to Holy Cross in 2018.