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Columns : Editorial

Police Week: Names on a Wall

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is a vivid reminder of personal loss and grief.

June 06, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Paul Clinton

When you read history books about military operations, the casualties - the people murdered and maimed - become just numbers. The humanity of it, the actual suffering is lost.

It's one thing to read that 600,000 men at arms died in the American Civil War. It's another to realize that George Smith, an individual American, an 18-year-old Indiana farm boy who was loved by his mother, whose sweetheart wrote him weekly, who probably would have lived another 50 years and had kids and grandkids, was killed in the first few minutes of the battle of Shiloh.

The reality of any armed conflict is that people suffer. Lives are cut short, bodies are maimed, and families grieve. Such is the sacrifice made by warriors and their families. And it is really a sacrifice that the whole human race shares because all wars seem to take the best and the brightest first. Their loss is a loss to all mankind. For who knows what they may have accomplished if they had lived out their natural lives. Or what their children might have accomplished, or their grandchildren.

There's been a war on crime in this country since its birth. Law enforcement officers are the soldiers in this war and its casualties. More than 19,000 of the best and brightest Americans have been sacrificed in that war.

What mankind has always done to ease its sorrow at the tragedy of war and to glorify the sacrifice of its warriors is to build monuments. A hundred years ago all of these monuments would have been to collective military units or they would depict great leaders astride their noble steeds, but that changed in 1980 when architect Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The focus of that memorial is the names of the men and women who gave their all in that war.

Carving names into a wall as a memorial is nothing new. Loved ones have been doing it on tombstones for eons. But to take collective loss and personalize it to this level is very much a phenomenon of contemporary America. In this era's war memorials, the individual is glorified and mourned more than the unit or even the cause.

It's this concept that makes the nation's monument to warriors lost to the war on crime so powerful and compelling. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., is really composed of more than 19,000 individual memorials: the names of the fallen cut into the stone. And it is so much more elegant and moving than if someone had erected some impersonal marble edifice to all of the officers who died in the line of duty.

I wish that every American could visit this memorial during Police Week. I have for two years in a row now and I'm not ashamed to say that the experience has never failed to leave me in tears.

The Memorial itself is beautiful. It consists of two white stone walls with thousands of names cut into them. There's also a fountain and two statues of lions (symbolizing officers) guarding their cubs (the public). It's quite moving.

But it's not the names on the walls that leave most visitors dabbing at their eyes. It's the stuff left behind by other visitors.

During Police Week, the walls of the Memorial are decorated with patches, flowers, wreaths, and other tributes sent by agencies. Then there's the personal stuff. The stuff that really kicks the casual observer in the gut is the mementoes left by comrades, parents, and lovers, and the hand-drawn art of the children. All but the most hard-hearted of the public would be moved by the kids' crayon art that say things like: "Daddy, I really miss you."

We have a hard time appreciating warriors in contemporary America and that's just the nature of who we are now. We teach our children that fighting, even to protect themselves and others, is wrong. And we generally don't like to acknowledge that there is evil in the world. But the one thing I think we do still understand is individual loss and grief. These feelings strike a chord somewhere way down deep in the human psyche.

Somehow I think if most of America could visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, especially during Police Week, and see the tangible evidence of what your sisters and brothers have sacrificed to keep all Americans more secure, then you'd be more appreciated. Maybe associating names with the casualty figures might even make you safer.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But names on a wall are a powerful thing.

Read POLICE Magazine's online coverage of Police Week.

Related: What They Left Behind (photos)

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Rick @ 6/8/2011 9:26 AM

The problem is that as these incidents are studied, the facts relate that most of these officers died because they cut corners until one fateful day, circumstances and many misteps led to their demise. One of my Coast Guard compatriots name is one this wall; he died because he didn't take care of his equipment, cut corners and violated policy. Be Vigilent and get additional training. I highly recommend the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar. It was truly an eye opener

Mike @ 6/8/2011 10:42 AM

Rick, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. To state that “most” of these officers died because they cut corners makes you completely ignorant. The officers on this memorial wall are “ALL” Heroes that gave their lives in the line of duty. How dare you minimize them or their memories.

Morning Eagle @ 6/8/2011 1:28 PM

No Rick, "most" of them did not die through some fault of their own. Most of them died because some scumbag criminal DECIDED to kill them. Of course the officer might have made mistakes, we have all done that at one time or another. That does not take away from the fact they were out there trying their best to "Serve and Protect" the public including morons that have no clue about what the job entails. I'll explain it one more time for you. They died because a piece of human flotsam (aka POS) acted purposely to take their life.

Adam @ 6/9/2011 11:41 AM

Rick, despite your buddy's equipment failure, corner cutting and policy violation, I strongly disagree with the wording of your post. To say "most died because they cut corners", is an insult to the families and friends left behind. I'm sure there are some on that wall who did just that, cut corners, but I'll bet there are thousands of names of officers on that wall who did everything by the book and maintained their equipment to the highest level (SWAT Officers come to mind). These brothers and sisters still lost their lives because, as ME perfectly stated, "human flotsam acted purposely to take their life".

Just because we wear a badge and carry a gun doesn't make us any less human. Is there always a piece of equipment that could use a little TLC, of course. Does it always get it. . .no. Kids, sports, court, life in general. . .etc, always seem to find a way to occupy our time, and it's not like you can sit in the stands of your kids ball game and clean your rifle. As far as policy violations and cutting corners, well that is a whole different issue that should have been addressed by the dept., or better yet by his friends and/or partners. If corrective actions had been taken, there MIGHT have been one less name on the wall. I do not know the circumstances surrounding your friend's tragic death, nor am I placing blame, I am simply reading into your sentence and expressing my point of view.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

RIP to all 19,000 brothers and sisters whose names are on the wall and ROT IN HELL to the murderers that put them there!

chris @ 6/10/2011 6:59 PM

I'm in an 11 week training course and today was my day to have the honor of the officer down presentation prior to our DT class. I gave it on a member of my full time department who was murdered by a scumbag through absolutely no fault of his own by a new officer who cut a lot of corners.

Rick, your senseless post shows the shallowness of your own training and besmirches my friends name on the wall. I cried while making that presentation today. I'm not ashamed of that. But he died through no fault of own, he cut no corners. This is a post of honor to those we've lost. How about it stays that way.

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