What It Means to Remember

Losing colleagues & friends is another occupational hazard of this profession

By Joseph Padilla  |   Jun 9, 2016

2016 National Police Week ceremonies were held in Washington DC, May 15–21. Throughout the U.S., law enforcement agencies remember their fallen officers with memorial services. I’ve taken the time after these events to reflect on the loss of the officers I have known.

The Denver Police Department held their ceremony May 12 to honor the 72 Denver officers killed in the line of duty. This is an annual event that honors those Denver officers who paid the ultimate price. While working for DPD I personally experienced the death of friends/fellow officers killed in the line of duty. I found out how tragic it is to lose an officer you’ve worked with.

While attending police memorial services I listened as names of friends I had lost were read, along with so many others I never knew. The reading of their names sounded so formal. The speeches, the 21-gun salutes—they were all conducted to remember these officers. After the ceremony was over, everyone leaves and then waits until the following year to acknowledge the officers again. Their families and friends on the force are deeply affected by their deaths. Every day they remember them and how they lived.

Some I’ve Known

As a rookie officer in the 1980s working District Two, I frequently talked to a friendly day-shift officer named Pat. He was a popular with everyone and would always laugh and tell jokes. Officer Pat Pollock was shot and killed on December 12, 1986 while attempting to arrest a robbery suspect. Pat was the first police officer I worked with who was killed in the line of duty.

I transferred to District Four in 1986 and worked with a young officer still in training. Jim was shy, but confident, and always had a smile on his face. Officer James Weir was shot and killed on June 3, 1987 while investigating a family disturbance.

In 1988, I was a detective assigned to the Vice Bureau. I knew Detective Bob Wallis, frequently running into him at police headquarters and I worked with his son in the Vice Bureau. Bob was struck and killed by a robbery suspect on February 9, 1988.

Later, as a sergeant I returned to District Four. A great young officer named Shawn worked the overnight shift there, everybody liked him. He worked off-duty at a local Taco Bell and if an officer would stop by while he was working there, Shawn would actually go into the kitchen and make the visiting officers food himself. The last time I saw him he made me a couple of his special burritos. Officer Shawn Leinen was shot and killed by a juvenile suspect on February 25, 1995.

Officer Ron DeHerrera was struck and killed by a stolen car on March 26, 1997. He was new on the job and newly graduated from the police academy when he was killed. His mother used to babysit me when I was a child. Bruce Vanderjegt was shot and killed on November 12, 1997, although I didn’t know him well, I had met him a couple of times when we covered each other on calls. He was a fit, highly educated man with a young family when he died.

On September 6, 2000 Officer Dennis Licata was fatally injured on a police motorcycle en route to a fatal industrial accident. I was the lieutenant in charge on the scene of the industrial accident and had requested assistance of Dennis and the motorcycle officers when he was killed. Dennis was a former NYPD officer I knew well. I sat on his hiring interview, we had worked in the same district station and at off-duty jobs together. His death was devastating to me. Seeing him lying motionless in the street is something I will never forget. I was honored to be part of the contingent of officers accompanying his body back to New York for burial.

Then there was Donnie. I worked with him in District Four and in a specialized unit as his sergeant. I knew Donnie very well. He often confided in me on personal issues and gave my son his dog Junior when he could no longer keep him. Officer Donnie Young was ambushed and shot in the back on May 8, 2005. Donnie’s death left a void and a loss that is still felt daily by many of us.

When I think of Donnie I can’t forget the good times we had together both off and on the job. Thoughts of him bring a smile to my face as I recall several of his antics. He was great to work with, had several close friends on the job, and was always very active as a police officer. I recall the time our team conducted a drug investigation in an apartment complex. I told him to kick in a door. He looked at me and said, “Kick it?” I repeated, “Kick it.” He proceeded to fall on his back as he tried to kick the door open. His partner stepped over him and kicked the door in as Donnie laid there, but he quickly jumped up and rushed in to assist in the arrests.

The last officer killed while I was on the job was Celina Hollis. She was shot and killed on June 24, 2012. I didn’t know her, but she was tragically killed as she entered a large crowd to investigate a disturbance. Several officers were present and it affected them deeply.

The Reality of Loss

Words cannot describe what it is like to lose a fellow officer. To many of us it is like losing a member of your family. They are not an anonymous name on a wall to be remembered once a year, but were courageous people who were murdered for what they did for a living. Police departments merge people of different races and backgrounds together. These people develop into a close knit group that work together and feel the same emotion and sense of loss when a fellow officer is killed.

In my career some of the most cherished and difficult moments are those memories I have of the fallen officers I had the privilege to work with. I wanted to share some brief thoughts on how their loss affects us all. In the end, I hope society mourns the loss of a police officer and what they stood for.

But only their families and fellow officers can truly remember them for who they were. That is our duty and our privilege.