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Courage on canvas: How a forensic artist’s portraits give fallen cops new life

Officer Jonny Castro has painted over 80 portraits (and counting) in honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their communities


Officer Jonny Castro has painted over 80 portraits (and counting) in honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their communities.

Photo/Jonny Castro

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In March 2015, a 30-year-old Philadelphia police officer entered a GameStop to purchase a video game for his son’s birthday — a gift he would never deliver. Officer Robert Wilson III was shot and killed during a gun battle with two would-be robbers who came into the store while Wilson was at the counter.

As with every line of duty death, the officer’s passing rocked his department and the law enforcement community at large. As the first anniversary of Wilson’s death approached, his colleague, Philly Officer Jonny Castro, reached out to Wilson’s family for some personal photos to use as reference. He wanted to give Wilson an opportunity he never had while he was alive — to proudly wear the sergeant’s uniform he had earned posthumously. Carefully decorating the uniform with intricately detailed depictions of the Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor the sergeant also earned after his death, Castro painted a portrait of a man who died a warrior.

From art school to Iraq

Growing up, Castro never imagined himself becoming a cop. His mind was on art; he got into sketching at an early age because of his father, who also had a knack for drawing. He admired illustrators — from the animators behind classic Disney films to the iconic movie poster work of Drew Struzan — and at 18 decided to further hone his skills by going to art school for graphic design. Then, early in his freshman year, Castro watched along with the rest of the nation as the Twin Towers fell.

Like many young Americans, the devastating attack that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people galvanized a need deep within Castro to serve his country. He dropped out of school in his second year and joined the Army, serving as a military police officer in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Upon returning home from overseas, he joined the police academy and worked patrol for nine years before transferring to the department’s graphic arts unit to work as a forensic artist. For Castro, who wasn’t sure he’d ever make a career out of drawing, the marriage of his passion for art and passion to serve was an unlikely stroke of luck in an already unusual career path.

Courage on canvas

When Castro posted the portrait of Wilson to social media, along with a detailed caption in tribute to the fallen officer, it garnered a massive response from both police and the public. It was the first of over 80 portraits (and counting) that Castro has painted to honor and humanize those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their communities.

“I do it to get their stories out there,” Castro said. “A lot of times it’ll [the death of an officer] just pop up in the news, but you really don’t know what happened, you just see it [the headline] on Facebook. I do it to let people know that it wasn’t just a cop that was killed; it was somebody’s father, somebody’s husband — it was a human being.”

With a digital tablet, Castro captures these stories of bravery in brushstrokes. The constable stabbed to death while stopping a terrorist attack. The detective fatally ambushed while sitting in his patrol vehicle. The master sergeant shot and killed while confronting a homicide suspect. Every portrait of valor comes with its own tragic backstory, but through Castro’s work these officers live on — immortalized in digital ink, their lives discussed, shared and honored far and wide through social media.

View a slideshow of the portraits in the Courage on Canvas series.

Upon completion of a portrait, Castro also reaches out to the fallen officer’s police department and ships copies of the prints to the agency and the officer’s family. He pays for all of it out of pocket, funding the project through occasional commission work.

“They’ve very grateful,” Castro said. “I’ve gotten thank you cards from their departments, their chiefs of police. I’ve got one from the mayor’s office of Cleveland. I hear from them a lot and I keep in contact with them. Sometimes they’ll send me pictures of their prints hanging up in their houses or their family members with the prints that I gave them.”

While Castro will never forget any of his interactions with the people who knew and loved the subjects of his portraits, one series of “thank yous” that stick out for him in particular are those that came from the families of the three Baton Rouge officers slain in a targeted attack last year.

“The three Louisiana officers were some of the earliest I’ve done,” Castro said. “I remember watching it [the ambush] live as it was happening. At the time I didn’t think I was going to do all three. But after I posted the first one, Matthew Gerald, I saw his wife had commented on the post, then one of the other officer’s wives commented … I felt like I had to do the other two. I’ve spoken with probably all of their family members — their wives, their sons and daughters. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s cool to know I actually reached them all the way from Philadelphia.”

A burden worth bearing

For many officers around the country, one of the hardest aspects of the job is coming to terms with the reality that donning the badge and uniform comes with a potentially deadly risk. Given the nature of Castro’s work — around 8 to 10 hours of painting per portrait — his immersion in that difficult truth is arguably deeper than most.

“A lot of times you’ll read these stories about how they’re walking up to a house and they’re ambushed or they’re sitting in their car and they don’t even know what’s coming,” Castro said. “It’s crazy to think that … I don’t work in patrol anymore, but there’s hundreds of thousands of cops that still do it every single day, and they don’t know what they’re walking into. It’s difficult to know that these were the stories behind what happened to them — that was their last moment. It’s tough to think about while you’re painting.”

But for Castro, it’s a burden worth bearing.

“There’s a lot of tension going on between police officers and the general public. This is a way for people who aren’t police officers to see these officers as people too,” Castro said.

Another grim reminder of the dangers cops face every day: the sheer number of officers killed on duty means that despite his best intentions, Castro, who works on the portraits in his spare time and can only do two per week, is having trouble keeping up. He entered 2017 with the goal of painting a portrait of every fallen officer killed this year. He even set up a “Wall of Heroes” bulletin board in his office, where he hangs 3 inch by 5 inch prints of each cop. But by March, he was already behind in double digits.

“It’s not like I’m picking and choosing what I want to do. If an officer is killed and I see the funeral is coming up, I’ll try to get it done in time,” Castro said. “I get a lot of requests and it’s not that I’m choosing not to do it; I just don’t have the time to.”

Despite this backlog, Castro hopes that he can meet his goal by the end of the year. And the work doesn’t stop there. In addition to law enforcement officers, Castro has also paid tribute to other first responders and members of the military. He’s even expanded his tributes to include civilians. Earlier this year, Castro honored Robert Godwin Sr., the 74-year-old man who was brutally gunned down at random while he was walking home on Easter Sunday.

In memory of

While Castro’s work has received a lot of attention, he doesn’t do it for the recognition or praise. He made it clear that his mission is to honor these heroes and share their stories — he wants the attention on them, not himself.

“I’m not really doing anything other than portraying these officers the way they would want to be remembered,” Castro said.

The only thing he asks in return for his work is that people share these stories — that they spread the word and remember these lives taken far too soon.

Cole Zercoe previously served as Senior Associate Editor of Lexipol’s and His award-winning features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

Contact Cole Zercoe