The Last Full Measure of Devotion
What follows is the text from a speech I gave on May of 2016, at the annual rededication of the memorial erected Jefferson Square Park in honor of the law enforcement officers who died while protecting and serving our community.
I am greatly honored to have been asked to say a few words in honor of the men and women whose names are etched on this monument. I knew some of these officers personally; others I knew by reputation; and one I only came to know back when I was the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney assigned to prosecute the man who killed him.
As I thought about what I could say to honor the memory of these officers, it occurred to me how much the job of “police officer” has changed over time.
My friend Jack “Frenchie” Helm’s father was a policeman back in the 1920s. Frenchie loved to hear his father talk about his job, and I loved to hear Frenchie talk about the father he so clearly adored. It was a purely political job back then. You got hired because you knew somebody or knew somebody who knew somebody at City Hall. He was paid very little and there was no pension. He and his fellow officers, all of whom were white men, were not particularly well educated or well trained. The apocryphal story he would tell Frenchie to illustrate this point was about the day he and his partner were taking a report about a draft horse killed by a motorcar near 28th and Dumensnil - when they realized that neither one of them could spell “Dumensnil,” They solved the problem by dragging the horse four blocks over to Oak Street. Officer, and later Sargent, Helm would take the streetcar into work to walk his beat where the major crimes he policed were bootlegging, drinking, and gambling - but only to the extent they were conducted too openly or notoriously. He did not carry a gun. He never felt he needed one. He felt safe. He treated people with respect and, in turn, was treated by people with respect.
I have lots of friends who were police officers in the 1970s. The job wasn’t political to the same degree by then, but it was still a predominantly white male organization. The money was a little better, and there was a pension. Some of the officers got to drive those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time-but-what-a-disaster-that-turned-out-to-be station wagons. During that pre-EMS era, if a person suffered a serious injury, they only had about a 75% chance of survival unless they were transported at top speed to the hospital strapped on a gurney in the back of one of those wagons, in which case their chances dropped to about fifty-fifty. Notably, and more alarmingly, the six-shot revolvers the officers carried were no longer optional. They were not optional because they were deemed necessary in response to the first wave of gun-violence associated with the burgeoning drug trade. Like the Vietnam War veterans that many of them were, they sometimes felt disrespected, and at unsafe in the neighborhoods they patrolled.
Almost one-hundred years since Frenchie’s dad walked the beat and going on fifty years since the last of those police station wagons were finally junked, today’s police departments are made up of men and women of all races, who are better educated, better trained, better equipped, and better paid than their law enforcement predecessors. All of which should combine to make this the golden age of policing. But while our presence here today is a tangible sign of the respect that many, in fact most, people in our community still have for those who serve and protect us, it also seems as though the level of disrespect and mistrust is at an all-time high. Whether or not the job is, statistically speaking, more hazardous than it ever was as a result, it can certainly feel that way to the people on the job. A job that has gotten so big and so complex that there is no amount of training that will allow an officer to be all of the things he or she may be called on to be throughout a given workday or to control how their attempts to do so are perceived and received by the communities they serve. We could, and most definitely should, spend a great deal of time talking and thinking about all of the cultural, sociological and historical factors that have gone in creating that potentially toxic dynamic, but what it comes down to, as is so often the case when it comes to people, is a mutual lack of understanding. An inability, and sometimes an unwillingness to try, to see the world as others see it. To see ourselves as others see us.
But here is what I think people, whatever else they may think or feel about policing or police officers, have to understand and appreciate about how the people who police our community see the world. A couple of years ago there were officers on the scene at a shooting investigation during which more shots were fired in a separate but related incident just down the block. Maybe a year later, officers detailed to the Pegasus Parade were there when, for whatever reason or no reason at all, people started shooting at each other. On both occasions, both of which were particularly memorable because they were captured on video, people did what people do. They panicked. They screamed. They ran away as fast as they possibly could. They tried to hide. And on both of those occasions police officers did what police officers do. In the face of all the panic, screaming, running and hiding, the officers ran as fast as they possibly could towards the gunfire. Into harm’s way to put themselves between the threat and the justifiably frightened public. That’s why in remembering and re-dedicating this monument as we do each year to those who gave their lives in service to our community, I think about what Abraham Lincoln said in his brief remarks to those gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to dedicate a cemetery to those who gave their lives in service to our country. President Lincoln said, in part:
We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave souls who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
We stand with the men and women of law enforcement who carry on the unfinished work which those who came before having so nobly advanced, who stand ready at a moment’s notice and without a moment’s hesitation to risk their own safety to ensure the safety of others as we remember and honor the fallen. Those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
Out of respect for the both the fallen officers and the fellow officers and family members I knew would be in attendance, I put a great deal of time and thought into writing something I thought would be appropriate to the occasion. When I read through what I wrote, I was satisfied that I had managed to get down on paper what I believed to be the heart of the matter. As prepared as I thought I was to say out loud the words I had written, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was to hear them. I’m not sure about what it was in that moment that got to me but, in short, I got choked up.
I had to stop more than once to keep my voice from breaking and only managed to get through it by not making significant eye contact with the people in the crowd who were trying hard not to make eye contact with each other so that they wouldn’t get choked up too. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I know that now that I am in my fifties that kind of thing happens to me way more often than in the previous four decades combined. It can be over something relatively inconsequential, like the first ten minutes of the movie UP - a &%$# cartoon. I cried. (Hey! don’t judge me if you haven’t seen it). Or it can be over something of enormous consequence, like standing by the Star of David marking the gravesite of the relative of a cherished member of my extended family buried in the American Cemetery at Normandy while looking over a sea of markers for the overwhelming number of other nineteen-year-olds who didn’t live long enough to have a family, much less an extended family, of their own. I couldn’t stop crying. But what I remember remembering back on the day I gave this speech at the Fallen Officers’ Memorial dedication, was when I was giving the opening statement at the trial of the man who took Deputy Sheriff Greg Hans away from his family all those years ago.
What I remembered was that I cried then too.