One of our police officers died over the weekend as the result of injuries from an off-duty accident a few weeks ago. Officer Kevin Ryder was a 21-year veteran of the Newport News Police, and highly regarded by all who knew him. All of us at NNPD extend our deepest sympathies to his family.
Sometimes people wonder why police officers mourn so publicly when one of our own passes, why police funerals are significant, and why do we include several traditions and symbols in our memorializations. Unless you’ve ever spent significant time with police officers, worked countless midnight shifts where you’re only support comes from your shift partners, learned to rely on your co-workers to have your back at all times, and experienced harrowing events within a close-knit team, you will probably not be able to fully comprehend the bond that develops between officers. Policing is one of the few professions where life and death matters are a daily part of the job, and even fewer professions where OUR lives are sometimes the ones on the line. All of this contributes to a significant sense of loss when one of our own passes, whether an active employee or even a retiree.
There is a distinction between a Line of Duty Death (LODD) and an off-duty or natural death. LODD’s are almost always followed by a large and public police funeral, complete with pipes and drums, a long police car procession and hundreds if not thousands of attendees. But even when the job was not the proximate cause of the death, we still see many officers from within and outside the agency attend, to show respect for the departed as well as to show sympathy and support for the men and women of the agency who struggle with the loss. These gatherings of the bravest and dedicated public servants are very cathartic; they demonstrate that despite the national narrative against police in general, people really do care and acknowledge the stress and risks faced by officers every day.
Last week, I participated in the retirement ceremony of a 34-year veteran of our agency who is leaving us for his next chapter. There were a lot of laughs, stories, and an acknowledgement of the contributions that all police officers make to their community. In a way, the funeral of an active officer, even one that isn’t a LOD death, is another way to celebrate their career along with their life. I’d much rather attend a retirement ceremony than a funeral to celebrate a career in policing, but we don’t always get the chance to have our life plans play out as we envision them.
Over my 40 year career in policing, I’ve lost count of how many police funerals I’ve attended, but I know it is way too many, and I find that with each passing year, I struggle more to get through them. Perhaps it is because I’ve had the chance to raise children into adulthood and become a grandparent, and I ache for those whose lives are cut short prematurely. Trooper Chad Dermeyer’s funeral one year ago impacted me significantly, even though I had never met him, as I thought about his beautiful young family left without a husband and father. As a chief, I’ve also lost some officers over the years for natural or accidental causes off duty, and seen the impact on the other members of the police family. I truly believe and refer to agency members as a family; we often spend more time with each other than with our own families, we experience many life events together, we have our dysfunctional moments and members, but during tough times, we come together like real families do.
Along with the humbling honor and responsibilities of serving as chief of a police agency is the paternal role of stewardship of employees. Because we hire mature and responsible adults, train them extensively, and empower them with extensive authority, it would be inappropriate to approach leadership with the parent/child relationship in mind. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking about the burdens of our NNPD family; whether it be those with serious illness, those facing major life dilemmas, those contemplating major career or life transitions, those who may be facing significant discipline, and I must never forget the impact that organizational-driven actions like policy changes and work environment can have on all members. This is why today, as we all are shocked by the unexpected loss of a co-worker, I am deeply saddened not only for his family and friends, but for all of his colleagues here at NNPD.
From past experiences, I know there are some folks who resent police funerals and interpret them as reflecting some inflated sense of self-importance or unworthy for some other reason. I won’t seek to reverse your opinion here, I simply hope that you’ll better try to understand why we do what we do, and ask that you join us in honoring Officer Kevin Ryder and his family with your respect and thanks, just as we will collectively do at his funeral service.