When you hear the bagpipes warming up in the back lots of the Idaho State Police Headquarters, and when you see the dozens of law enforcement officers in their dress blues and hats cocked just so — merging and gathering from Blackfoot, Lewiston, Idaho Falls, Middleton, Meridian and all across the state — then you know something somber looms.
And when you witness all of this rehearsing near the Idaho Peace Officers’ Memorial, while the judges and the mayors and the county commissioners and the senators and the attorney general and the minister greet one another, and you see families come in close around “The Wall” to touch and take photos and remember the names of the fallen, the time for tribute is nigh.
When you see the state’s law enforcement agencies come together like this, like a family, this is when you realize that death has disturbed the peace and a solemn sadness is about to grip the next hour of respectful remembrance.
I was glad my wet eyes could hide behind sunglasses, and that others, not me, would convey the words of comfort to those still hurting. There are 70 names of fallen Idaho peace officers on “The Wall” of this memorial, and a dozen hands lifted when there was a call for family survivors. They came to their feet in testament, and there was no denying a half-life of pain lingering in their eyes, and no doubt there were scars still healing on their hearts.
It had to have been a life lesson for the Borah High School Men’s Choir and the Orchestra, who performed splendidly throughout the morning. Like me, they likely walked away with a deeper appreciation for those who protect and serve. Their notes soared amid the gravity of bells that tolled for the dead.
To some the last week was just National Police Week, the day of the Idaho Peace Officers’ Memorial ceremony, the day after the candlelight vigil that drew a record crowd. But to these men and women in blue and khaki, and to their loved ones, this was facing the unspoken fear of an untimely fate: death in the line of duty.
Sourcing FBI figures, the Los Angeles Times reported this week that the number of police officers “feloniously killed” in the line of duty jumped 89 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, when a smaller-than-usual number died. More than 130 police were killed from all causes, including accidents.
“Some 51 law enforcement officers were killed during the commission of a felony and in the line of duty. That is significantly more than the 27 officers who were killed in 2013, but still less than the annual average of 64 who died between 1980 and 2014,” the Times reported.
Last year ended with the senseless killing of NYPD officers in Brooklyn, and another in Queens a few months later. Two more in Hattiesburg, Miss., fell earlier this month. Death visited the Idaho law enforcement ranks last week in Coeur d’Alene when Sgt. Greg Moore was fatally wounded on a city street.
Moore’s death, which will be officially noted on “The Wall” in next year’s ceremony, was on the minds of everybody in attendance Thursday — none more than retired officer Michael Kralicek, the keynote speaker, who was severely and unalterably disabled after being shot in the face with a round from a .357 magnum in 2004 while on duty.
In a strong voice that belied his traumatized body, he and his wife, Carrie, explained how they have fought to keep Michael’s name off “The Wall” for a decade. Every step of his recovery was a struggle.
“They said I’d never walk. They said I’d never talk. They said I’d be a vegetable. They said Carrie should just let me go,” recalled Kralicek on one of the inspirational videos he crafted to give others hope. “They were wrong.”
The most fitting term I know for our brave law enforcement personnel is peace officer. It covers all the agencies and it is the end wish of all involved in our society. Even during one of the most contentious years of our time, when police and citizens routinely sparred on riot-torn city streets across the country, we can all affirm our desire for peace.
No doubt our peace officers can come to better understand the people they aim to protect. But that goes both ways. Put yourself in the shoes of your local peace officers. Take the time to peruse the memorial, at 700 Stratford Drive in Meridian.
The men and women who swear to uphold the peace have the same goals and desires in life as you and me. And they have one thing that most of us don’t have: the courage to face the daily encounters that, in an instant, could turn deadly. They know full well how such circumstances could crush them and the future of their families.
They were reminded once again this week when they heard the bagpipes.
Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.