by Gordon H. Gartner, Payson Police Chief
Today, (Tuesday) is National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Day. Many people have never even heard of this day.
Every year there is a series of activities held in our nation's capital honoring law enforcement officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. Thousands of officers gather to mourn and honor those who have fallen. We have our own wall with the names of our dead in Washington and in Phoenix. Both have plenty of room to add new names every year. I had the honor to attend these ceremonies in May 1993. Our former Payson Police Chief, David N. Wilson, was shot and killed Sept. 11, 1992, and my wife and I, along with Payson Police Captain Steve Craig and his wife were there to accompany Chief Wilson's family as his name was added to the wall.
In the weeks, months and years following the death of Chief Wilson there were many struggles and trying times. There were many officers who had to face the reality that our business can become deadly in a split second and without warning. These officers could not only see the impact of losing your life in the line of duty, but could feel the loss. More than once I found officers crying, trying to hide themselves in the restroom or behind the building. The question was always the same: "Why? I don't understand why I am doing this." Some officers chose to retire, and some left for other types of work.
A good friend and I were talking about six months after Chief Wilson's death, and I was telling him about the struggles we were experiencing in the department. He told me that he didn't understand; that he thought police officers deal with death all of the time. He didn't intend any offense and none was taken. He was right, he didn't understand. He couldn't understand. Nobody can understand unless they have had the opportunity to experience what we do.
We have a great job. We get to serve the public in a very direct way. If we write a ticket to you, maybe by slowing you down we have saved your life. If we arrest your child for doing foolish things, maybe we have altered his or her behavior. We also help set community values, protect people and property. It is a great job even though it is the most dangerous type of work in a free society.
We struggle with the loss of an officer because we realize that if not for the grace of God, it could (be one of us).We train our officers well and give them good equipment because we know that they will be walking into harm's way. We also know that we will lose officers every year.
I tell my officers this:
"Your first job is to go home after every shift. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will raise your family like you will. If you are killed in the line of duty your spouse will receive some nice benefits and your name will go on two walls, and maybe we will name a building after you. That's nice, but you won't be there to watch t-ball games or go camping or celebrate anniversaries or birthdays or proms or graduations except in spirit.
"Believe this, the overwhelming number of people we deal with on a daily basis are just people with problems and mean you no harm. However, there are some who do, and they make it hard on everyone. So we must use caution in all that we do in this business.
"We must never assume anything. Never think anything is routine. We must always be alert to our surroundings and as much as we are willing to offer the olive branch first, we must plan on taking cover and throwing a spear because sometimes our very lives may depend on it."