My bearing was fairly well under control until the Last Call, and that’s the part that tears up anyone who has attended a funeral service for a police officer fallen in the line of duty.
Yes, the eulogies, the widows and children left behind, parents paralyzed by grief, fellow officers in procession as a sign of solidarity, the ceremonial flyover, and the loss to the community pull deeply at my emotions.
But it’s the Last Call that gets me every time. The radio dispatch calling out the departed officer’s radio number forces me to acknowledge the tragedy of the officer’s death; the risks we accept every day in protecting our communities.
On Sept. 6, the Last Call was in honor of Draper (Utah) Police Sgt. Derek Johnson, who was ambushed and killed on Sunday, Sept. 1, while on routine patrol in Draper, a city about 15 miles south of Salt Lake City.
Sgt. Johnson had noticed an oddly parked vehicle and pulled over to investigate. He was shot behind the wheel of his police cruiser and was able to drive a few blocks before crashing into a tree.
Sgt. Johnson never got out of his patrol car or drew his weapon during the incident; a man in the car Sgt. Johnson was stopping to investigate gunned him down. Despite heroic efforts to save his life, the young officer died that same morning.
Sgt. Johnson was 32-years-old. He leaves behind a wife, their 6-year-old son, and a community of 44,000 residents, witnesses to the first Draper police officer killed in the line of duty since the agency was established in 2003.
I was told that police work had been his life’s ambition, and it showed in his devotion to law enforcement and the many awards he received, including the Life Saving Award and the Distinguished Service Award. He was the 2012 Community Policing Officer of the Year.
He was known, liked, and respected. An estimated 1,200 people attended a candlelight vigil held in his honor less than 24 hours after he was shot and killed.
The day of his funeral, Sept. 6, was sunny and warm, although I don’t think inclement weather would have kept anyone from attending. Six bagpipe players led Sgt. Johnson’s casket into the arena where his services were held. His widow and their son followed. Family, friends, and fellow officers speaking at services recalled his dedication to police work. They will always remember his infectious personality.
He was a smiling man, said a woman introduced as his sister-in-law.
“Please make sure you smile today because that’s what he would want,” she told mourners.
Crowds gathered outside the arena placed hands over their hearts as the eight pallbearers carried the American flag-draped casket to the awaiting hearse.
The funeral procession along the 1 mile route to the cemetery was led by hundreds of motorcycle police as they traveled slowly past thousands waving flags and flanking both sides of the street. They passed beneath an American flag that firefighters had hoisted above the street earlier that day. The last car arrived one hour after the first car had stopped at the site of interment.
The gravesite was dedicated and officers presented Sgt. Johnson’s wife the flag that had covered his casket. Inside the folds were the spent shells from a three honor volley. Taps played and four helicopters flew overhead in the missing man formation.
The Last Call was made in the silence of mourning from the center that received Sgt. Johnson’s “mayday” call. Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) dispatcher Kris Whitney, who took over the police radio at the time of the shooting, gave the 42-second salute in a measured and controlled voice (the full transcript is in a Your Space story profiling Whitney).
She was truly amazing, and I wiped back tears listening to her. Sgt. Johnson will never be forgotten, and I am forever humbled by the steep price this officer paid in protecting the community he served.
According to statistics released in May 2013 by the FBI, 47 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty during 2012.
Circumstances involved investigations, traffic pursuits or stops, tactical situations, ambushes, answering disturbance calls, drug-related matters, robberies in progress, and transporting, handling, or maintaining custody of prisoners.
The officers brought altruism, bravery, and the spirit of public service to their work and paid the ultimate sacrifice to help keep their communities safe.