Its not war memorial. At least not in the conventional sense, but like the Vietnam Wall, the Korean War Memorial, or the World War II Memorial, it commemorates the fallen in what has been a long struggle. But unlike the other memorials, the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. is dedicated to those who have given their lives in a different kind of struggle. It's a war that may never end, but for centuries, men and women, have readily and willingly put themselves in harms way, right here at home, to deter crime and keep the peace.
County sheriff and police departments, state police, FBI agents, Treasury Agents, Secret Service Agents, Military Police, and the list goes on, do their job day in and day out. Most of us, when we interact with the police, do so because that pesky state sticker on our license has expired. That’s a common problem for me. Or maybe, because we decided that the yellow light actually meant "speed up." But there are other times when that interaction is more serious. When we're in an accident, when we're the victims of the crime, or simply when we need help. Its then, that it sometimes it dawns on us, just how much we need these willing and dedicated these young men and women.
The Law Enforcement Memorial lists the names of 21,000 law enforcement personnel, going all the way back to the first European settlements in America who have died in the line of duty. Several on that list come from local departments and like the Vietnam Memorial the starkness of such an immense number of names, reflecting such a long period of sacrifice, stands by itself.
Policing in America began with first colonists. Just as there were in England the American colonists appointed constables and sheriffs to keep the peace. Usually this was a service that was performed on a part time basis and often with volunteer help. Vestiges of that system continued for centuries, and for quite some time, Stafford County didn't have a sheriff, but rather, had a constable.
Though early American cities had hired officers and watchmen, complete with precincts and districts, the first modern police force, in a form we would recognize today, with a military style hierarchy, complete with badges and uniforms was in New York City in 1845. After that, other cities and counties rapidly began organizing departments throughout America.
As America grew, police forces, once entirely locally based began to change. With the turn of the 20th century and the massive growth in the number of automobiles, state police forces were formed. Virginia's State Police Department was officially organized in 1932. They were mobile and covered the entire breadth of the Commonwealth. During their first years they drove bright white motorcycles and roadsters.
At about the same time, another organization came into being, the FBI. This was the first nationwide law enforcement organization. When the Bureau was established in 1908 they had limited powers and their agents couldn't even carry guns. It wouldn't be until 1934, after a wave of kidnappings and bank robberies, that Congress would finally give the FBI the authority and the weapons they needed.
Law enforcement, while the stuff of TV shows and movies for decades, from Dick Tracy to Law and Order, isn't that glamorous. Police work is difficult, challenging and dangerous. Officers never know what to expect next. Sometimes, it's responding to a domestic dispute. Innocuous enough you say, but also considered by many officers to be one of the most volatile and dangerous situations they can face. Stafford lost a Sheriff’s Deputy in 1980 during a domestic dispute call.
Or it's stopping that car on Route One at two in the morning. Approaching the vehicle entirely alone, flashlight in hand, knowing that something isn't quite right. Other times, it's a County Sheriff's deputy responding to an accident scene that's so grim, and so upsetting, that they simply can’t talk about it. But most of all, its being that force for good that protects the community, comes to our assistance in times of trouble, and is ready and available 24 hours a day.
National Police Week starts May 13. It’s a national recognition of the work of law enforcement and their contribution to our communities. It’s celebratory, but it’s also solemn. It remembers those 21,000 young men and women who gave their lives protecting and helping others. From the Colonial Days to 9/11 and beyond they’ve always been on the job. So, if you see a police officer at a gas station, a restaurant, or if you know one, make it a point to say thank you for all they do for us.