Public Finally Got It
by Deputy Chief Rick Conception
Winthrop Harbor (Ill.) Police Department
August 6, 2002
I went to the police memorial service for officers Robert Etter
and Stephanie Markins of the Hobart, Wisconsin police Department
An angry man had intentionally rammed his pickup truck at over 70
mph into the side of their squad car -- as they sat parked on a
side street going over paperwork -- and killed the two police officers.
As is traditional in police work we wanted to attend the service
to both pay our respects and represent our agency.
My partner and I left early in the morning to complete the long
two-and-a-half-hour drive from Winthrop Harbor, Ill. to Green Bay,
Wisconsin. I've been to other police funerals so I sort of knew
what to expect.
There would be the usual memorials and speakers. There would be
the long procession of police cars that would perturb motorists
who really didn't care about what happened but simply wanted to
get to their destinations as quickly as possible. Every now and
then someone walking along the sidewalk might glance up for a moment,
then continue on their way. People mowing their lawn or washing
their car would scarcely even notice all the squad cars parading
by. And at the memorial site a preacher and some politicians would
speak and we would all eventually cry.
I am not ashamed to cry at these things, as a matter of fact I always
say, "I cry proudly and unashamed!"
Crying is part of the natural grieving process and as my father
used to say, "If God didn't mean for us to cry he wouldn't have
given us tear ducts."
I've always considered it a point of pride that Cops cry for one
another. My friends in the business world don't experience that
type of bond with their fellow workers. If a man or woman in the
human resources department of your local corporate America business
firm passes away you'd never see business people from all the surrounding
firms, much less people from out of state businesses coming to pay
their respects. That type of bond just isn't there.
But in Law Enforcement, when a Cop is killed in the line of duty
you see Cops from all over the country driving there to show their
respects and attend the funeral.
Why? It's because we understand that we must rely on each other
for our very survival. I always remind my friends who work in corporate
America that there isn't people hating them and trying to kill them
simply because of what they do. But police officers are targeted
everyday by people trying to harm or kill us simply because we're
police officers. And as I was about to find out people are finally
starting to understand this.
We arrived to the normal scene of hundreds of police cars lined
up for the procession. There was the traditional motorcycle officers
("Motors' as they're known in police circles) that would be leading
the procession to the memorial or burial site. We got out of the
car and began the usual walking around looking at the cars from
all the jurisdictions. A loud reunion of friends who had not seen
each other since the last police funeral could be sporadically heard
erupting every now and then. Everyone had washed and waxed their
cars so they would look good and everyone had on their best uniforms.
All had the dark mourning band across their badge of office.
Whether it was a star, shield, circle, or any other badge of office
a strip of dark cloth to show mourning and respect for the fallen
officers respectfully covered it.
One of the 'host officers' directed us to the refreshment table
where we could get the usual soft drinks, coffee, and snacks while
we waited for the procession to begin. Since there were so many
cars and officers present the snack table was some two blocks away.
No problem. We needed to stretch our legs anyway after the long
drive. It was when we began walking that I got my first clue that
this one was going to be different.
As we walked along the road I did what all Cops do and began looking
around and taking in my surroundings always looking for the danger
or the threat. But I saw neither this day. Instead I saw something
that I had never seen in my 15 years on the job, I saw people lining
both sides of the road. They weren't washing their cars, mowing
their lawns, or trying not to be seen by us. Instead they were sitting,
standing, pulling out more chairs to sit on, bringing their children
out, and even bringing out wheelchair bound elderly people!
They did not avert their gaze the way a lot of street people do
when we look at them. Instead they stared back at us and locked
our gaze. Not in a challenging or disrespectful way but instead
they gave us a look of sympathy, caring, as if they were sharing
our pain. I found myself quickly averting my gaze, puzzled by what
I was seeing. For as long as I can remember the police have always
been the "red headed step children" of the public safety world.
All love the Fire Department and all seem to dislike the Police.
That's the way it's always been.
There's a popular joke that says "The fire department kicks in your
door, breaks out your windows, burns your house down while filling
your basement with thousands of gallons of water and people love
them! We (Police) kick down a door to serve a search warrant on
a drug house and we get sued!" There's truth in all humor as the
saying goes and this joke is one understood by both firefighters
and police alike. But on this day I wasn't seeing any of that dislike
or hate in the faces of these people lining the road. I was seeing
genuine caring and, as I was about to find out very soon, this warmth
here was just the tip of the iceberg.
We heard a quick blast of a police siren and soon saw the flashing
red and blue lights of the squad cars begin to come to life and
we knew it was time to begin the long procession to the memorial
site. First the motorcycle cops roared by, along our right side
ahead of the limousines with the dark tinted windows that carried
the families of the slain officers. As the cars slowly began to
move we tucked our squad car tightly in behind the one in front
of us. As we passed block after block we saw the same thing over
and over, a lot of people lining the roads as we passed.
I commented to my partner that this was kind of unusual and he said
nothing as his head just moved back and forth taking in the sight
of all the people. Then, as we drove under a viaduct we saw something
that just touched our heart so very deeply. Standing on the side
of the road were two young girls holding up signs.
These girls weren't smiling or giggling as most young girls do in
large group settings, instead they had a somber and respectful look
on their face. I think my partner and I must have read the signs
at the same time. Written in red and blue letters on white poster
bard was the message which read "YOU'RE OUR AMERICAN HEROES! FOR
ALL YOU DO, THANK YOU!" The very moment I read that simple message
and saw the looks on those kids' faces I could feel the tears come
streaming down my face. My partner who had also started to cry blurted
out "I was doing good up until now."
I could only reply with a very coarse "yeah". I sat there in the
passenger seat of our squad car with tears running down my face
falling onto my dress blue uniform. Every time we hit even the lightest
of bumps my medals on my uniform would clank together and tears
would drip down off of my cheeks onto my jacket. It took me several
minutes to gather myself together enough to talk to my partner.
"This is like nothing I've ever seen before" I said.
There were hundreds of people lining the procession routes. They
were all sizes, shapes, colors, and ages. Many were waving flags
some were saluting but all wore that same sympathetic somber look
that I had seen with the people on the lawn when I first arrived.
It was touching! My entire career those two little words -- "Thank
You", that I would have died for -- now were on signs held by kids
and in the eyes of everyone I looked at!
It was just so overwhelming that I really didn't know how to take
it. I wanted to have my partner stop the car so I could get out
and run into the arms of these people, bury my head in their shoulder
and cry my eyes out. It seems that too many times in the job of
a police officer we cannot allow ourselves to become emotional at
even the most tragic of calls.
We have to be strong and concentrate on out duties. But here today
at this memorial service it was our turn to cry, our turn to let
loose with our emotions and for the first time I felt joined with
the public that I served and I wanted to sit down and have a good
old fashioned cry with them. But all I could manage was a slight
wave every now and then and a slight smile. We just did not know
how to take all this show of solidarity and support.
A few miles later it was my partners turn to have his emotional
moment. My partner was a former Fire Fighter and one of the highest
honors and/or tributes that a fire department can give is that of
the "Crossed Aerials." This is when two fire trucks with tall extendable
ladders face each other and extend the ladders to their highest
reach and cross these ladders in the center, and thus you have the
As we made a turn I heard him exclaim "Oh no! This is it!" and I
looked ahead and there they were, two ladder fire trucks with their
tall aerial ladders raised and crossed in salute over the road.
We would drive right under them. This was the first time in my career
that I have ever seen this most honorable of fire service salutes
rendered to a police officer, and it was very moving. Tears again!
As we traveled this 10-mile route the people lining the roads were
just tremendous. They stood out there in the hot sun holding signs,
waiving flags, and saluting us. I was beginning to wonder if I would
have any tears left to cry when I got the actual ceremony.
When we finally pulled into the beautiful park where the ceremony
was to take place, we were met by the sight of all the Motor officers
standing at the position of 'parade rest' in front of their big
Harley Davidson motorcycles.
We parked and made our way to the ceremonial area where the podium
and hairs were set up. I was amazed at all the media trucks with
their big satellite dishes set up and cameras everywhere. At first
I was a little put off by the media because my first thoughts were
that I wanted this to be somewhat private. I wanted to stand here
with my 300 to 500 'brothers and sisters in arms' and have a good
cry. I didn't want the whole world watching me stand there crying
my eyes out.
But then the more I thought about it the more I realized that I
was glad the media was there because I wanted them to see how we
all pull together when one of our own is senselessly killed. I wanted
the people to see that we are humans and we do hurt just like anyone
else who doesn't wear a uniform and risk their life.
The ceremony started and the first speaker put the whole thing into
context for me. Pastor Dan Carlson, speaking with an emotionally
filled voice that crackled as he held back his own tears, spoke
of the September 11th events and how it pulled the country together.
Then he said that as he saw all the support and love for the police
and firefighters who put their lives on the line every day he said
"I was so glad to see that "THEY FINALLY GOT IT! NOW THEY UNDERSTAND!"
There were many other speakers and there many tears cried that day
by many people whom you would not normally see moved to that type
of emotion. And like Pastor Dan Carlson, I am so thankful that people
finally understand what I've been trying to explain for the past
15 years to people I know, that we put our lives on the line willingly
and all we ask in return is a simple 'Thank You'!
Police officers do not put their life on the line for pay, for medals,
for letters of recognition or anything like that. We do what we
do for each other and for the people for whom we serve. Ours is
a noble profession of Duty, Honor, and Service. For that commitment
we are underpaid, suffer the highest divorce rates in the nation,
and often times are killed or maimed in the line of duty.
And for all that a simple 'Thank You' is all we would hope for in
reward or recognition. What kind of men and women does it take to
accept such a horrendous calling? Ask yourself that the next time
you see a police officer.
"I found that writing my reflections down helps me to deal with
and vent my emotions."
Winthrop Harbor PD
Editor's Note, Rick Conception is Deputy Chief for the Winthrop
Harbor Police Department. He has been on the job for 15 years and
has seen a great deal many things (as many other Cops have) both
good and bad.