While survivors were learning to live with their grief at the Hilton hosting the survivors, fourteen miles away there was an entirely different dynamic. Although it was a solemn week, Police Week was established not only to recognize the men and women who have died in the line of duty but also to honor those who are out on the streets every day. An honor it is.
Without being overwhelming, there is an event each day – memorial services, the candlelight vigil, honor guard competitions, and the arrival of bicyclists from around the country. Something recognizing law enforcement and their families, it’s a genuine, non-political display of thanks. There are simple gestures – your first non-alcoholic drink for free at one restaurant and a souvenir mug at another. There are also grander gestures such as the support provided by Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) and the events planned by the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Every where you turn, someone is saying “Thank you”.
It was also a safe haven. There was no need to avert your eyes or hope that someone didn’t degrade you for wearing a shirt that says “I wear blue for my husband”. Each person you passed greeted you with a nod, a smile or a “Where you from?” It was fellowship at it’s finest. It wasn’t six degrees of separation, it was one degree. Everyone either knew someone there or knew someone who knew them. Sadly, everyone also knew someone on the wall or knew someone who knew someone. There were no strangers. Just friends. And if you arrived alone you didn’t leave alone; you left with memories and friendships that will remain long afterward.
It was also the who’s who of heart-broken policing. Heard about Sean Collier? His friends were at the table next to you at dinner. Jeremy Henwood? His sister was happy to give you a hug. Joseph Matuskovic? His partner and survivor of that horrible night wass next to you on the shuttle, his parents were seated in front of you. Jason Crisp? That was his son that was standing near you in the gift shop, the boy with the whose hand tightly gripped that of a friend. Mark Larson? His son was the lost looking boy in the gift shop. Everyone was someone they wished they hadn’t become.
There were also Marshals, Texas Rangers, Homeland Security, Capital Police, Detectives and Patrolmen, some still untouched by tragedy. If you had brought along someone who dreams of a career in law enforcement they were sure to be star struck, my nephew certainly was. He collected business cards and challenge coins as though they were food that would get him through a famine. Each and every officer he spoke to treated him with kindness, respect and offered sage advice. There were no barriers, no fear, and no need to be on guard. It was a refreshing respite from the negative press.
The downside of Police Week? It’s simply not enough time. The days pass quickly as you speak to one person after another, someone who understands everything you say. Conversations are struck up quickly and they can go on for hours. You will meet a young man who has seen two critical incidents in one year, he is barely keeping it together. There’s simply not enough time to find him in the crowd later in the week to see how he’s doing. You will run into the wonderful elderly couple whose grandfather was killed in 1918 and is being added to the wall this year, you can’t miss them and their pride. They’ll hug you every time you see them. You’ll also see the officer who ran to Dunkin Donuts to get you a coffee because you were so happy to see they even had a Dunkin in DC. He’ll thank you again and again just for showing up. His buddies will tease him relentlessly for never getting them a coffee.
You will walk through the Memorial and pass individuals and groups sobbing outright, grown men hugging and crying. No shame to be had, simply raw emotion. Love, fear and sadness can be heard in the cries and seen in the mementos left on the wall. It’s a sight to behold.
Your chest will swell with pride as you watch the processions and stand among the honor guards as they watch their competition. When it’s time to leave, you will feel the full weight of the week hit you and you will choke back tears as you arrive at the airport – or sob openly as I did. It’s an amazing event that cannot be described. It’s overwhelming, breathtaking and phenomenal. Everyone who cares about law enforcement should attend at least once.