During the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 316 million people in at least 42 states were urged to stay at home and not assemble in large groups. But at least 63 American law enforcement officers died in the line of duty during that period of social distancing. All of those fallen officers deserved the honor of a law enforcement funeral. Most did not get the kind of ceremony they would have received before the disease.
Before the Virus
I was never sworn, never gone 10-8—but through my writing and countless hours of police training I’ve been “sheep dipped” and feel a deep sense of connection with LEOs. So I’ve been to more LODD memorial services and funerals than I can accurately count. The most recent was following the murder of Officer Natalie Corona of the Davis (CA) Police Department in January 2019.
I was in attendance at her memorial service—I didn’t go to the actual burial because I felt that would be an intrusion. Because I didn’t know Natalie.
I know that she was a bright young officer who came from a law enforcement family. I know that she was killed in cold blood while investigating a vehicle collision. And I am close friends with two guys who did know Natalie, so I drove from my San Francisco home to California’s Central Valley to show my support for her family, her friends, and her fellow officers.
The arena on the campus of UC Davis—which holds about eight thousand people—was packed. Most of those present were uniformed officers—of course—but the seating sections set aside for civilians like me were full to capacity. There were people outside the arena who couldn’t even get in.
Following the ceremony there was the funeral procession—there was the gauntlet. Cops stood ramrod straight as they do, but there were also countless hundreds—probably thousands—of people who came out, standing shoulder to shoulder, three or four rows deep, for several city blocks to pay their respects.
After the Plague
That type of assembly for an officer’s funeral could not happen in most places during the pandemic. The throngs of people were not there. The outpouring of support was measured only in how many people viewed the proceedings in a “live feed” on social media.
Indeed, amid the “social distancing” orders issued by various state governors and local authorities, police officer funerals changed dramatically.
One example was the memorial service and funeral for James O’Connor IV of the Philadelphia Police Department. The viewing and funeral for the slain Philadelphia officer were postponed “indefinitely” due to the restrictions on public gatherings.
O’Connor had been shot and killed while serving an arrest warrant. It took two full months from the time of his death for a memorial service to be held, and even at that time, the ceremony was nothing like the gathering of thousands of people who came out to show support for the friends, family members, and fellow officers of Natalie Corona.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “A limited number of people were allowed inside for the 10 a.m. memorial, while a large cavalcade of police officers and vehicles lined the street outside. Most in the church had to sit on opposite ends of the pews, and all had to wear masks. The proceedings were livestreamed.”
O’Connor’s son—also named James—said the restricted service was “not the way we want to say goodbye to my father.”
Another example is the service held for Officer Jason Knox of the Houston Police Department. Dozens of Houston police officers gathered with Knox’s family to honor the life of the fallen LEO, who was killed in a helicopter crash.
In ordinary times, there likely would have been thousands at Knox’s memorial—with officers from across the country getting on airplanes, dress uniforms neatly packed, perhaps even bagpipes stowed in the belly of the bird transporting them from their home airport to Houston.
That didn’t happen. The service was solemn and certainly showed that there was love and respect for the man some have described as “kind, gentle, generous and an honorable American.”
There are many other officers—altogether too many to list in this space—whose memorials and funerals were not as well attended in recent months as they would have been a year ago.
Times have changed, and people are changing too.
Was it prudent to avoid large gatherings of thousands of people during the pandemic? Of course it was. It was reasonable and rational to look at how the disease was spread to come to the conclusion that the way in which line-of-duty-death memorial services had to be vastly different than they had been a few months earlier.
But the change in the vast volume of people who turn out to show their support—officers and civilians alike—certainly had its own, unique impact.
Community members who wanted to show their respects in person were watching the services online, with only the closest family members present in person at the proceedings.
Officers who wanted to get on an airplane and fly across the country to stand in the gauntlet were staying home. Those officers may have played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, but they did so in their living rooms or their dens or—much to their neighbors’ chagrin—on their front lawns.
We were (and maybe still are) in a “new normal” in which the best course of action is to do our level best to be safe, use rational and reasonable measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and try to “flatten the curve” of the spread of COVID-19.
For the foreseeable future, police line-of-duty-death memorial services and funerals will not look like they did before the outbreak of Coronavirus. That’s just a fact.
But when this thing is resolved, I’m guessing that the resolve of American police officers—really, all Americans who would take the time to honor a police officer’s passing—will get right back at it.
Generally speaking, Americans are resilient.
Following Peal Harbor, the country came together. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the country came together.
Among those Americans are law enforcement heroes who have to come to terms with the fact that for at least a little while, LODD memorials and services will be different. The fact that the 2020 National Police Week Candlelight Vigil was done via “live stream” on the internet is what my cop friends would call a “clue.”
Despite what the mainstream media would have you believe—showing video of people fighting in the local big-box store—Americans came together during this crisis. They did so by staying apart.