It is an uneasy time to be a law enforcement officer, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz told the crowd gathered under a tent at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens Friday afternoon.
"The past 12 months were especially painful in the public safety community," Kamenetz said, noting the national spotlight on police today is rarely positive.
"Americans are questioning the role of police in our society and challenging the role of law enforcement in ways not seen since the 1960s," he said.
But the several hundred relatives, friends and first responders, who braved the very rainy afternoon to attend Maryland's 31st annual Fallen Heroes Day ceremony, know the meaning of sacrifice and service, Kamenetz said.
Two of the four officers recognized at the ceremony were Harford County Sheriff's Office Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and DFC Mark Logsdon, killed in the line of duty Feb. 10 in shootings in Abingdon.
Their shocking murders hung heavy over the annual ceremony, which featured an especially prominent Harford County presence. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and Pastor Nathan McDade, of Joppa's Mountain Christian Church – where both deputies lay in state and where Deputy First Class Dailey's funeral was held, were among the invited speakers.
"There is no question that everyone here who wears the badge chose the calling out of a desire to serve," Kamenetz said. "It is no wonder if they are disturbed when their motives are questioned and their decisions second-guessed."
He added it is especially challenging when the media conflates "wrongdoing by a few with the indictment of an entire profession." Some may believe the sacrifices are forgotten, but "is this really true? Is the sacrifice forgotten?"
Kamenetz said "loud headlines" are making other voices harder to hear, pointing out the photos of a Sheriff's Office patrol car smothered in flowers and balloons after Senior Deputy Dailey's and DFC Logsdon's deaths, the people who stood on overpasses for funeral processions, the messages of support.
"The outpouring of support from across the state is simply staggering," he said, before adding that such displays can be found every day, when he sees the salutes, the flags and the Facebook posts of residents who care about the sacrifices of their first responders.
"They come from ordinary people who understand what sacrifice means" and who know what it means "to die for a safer, better world," he said. "There is comfort in seeing that, in a divided world, unity is possible still."
In addition to the two Harford deputies, Montgomery County Police Department Officer Noah Leotta and Prince George's County Police Department Det. Jacai Colson were honored in the ceremony for their ultimate sacrifices in the past year.
Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore accepted a proclamation on behalf of police survivors, as the ceremony also recognized former Bel Air Bailiff George Noonan, a town police officer in the early 20th century who was killed in the line of duty in 1920 and whose sacrifice was all but forgotten until a few years ago, when a local historian worked with the Bel Air department to bring it to the public's attention.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett was scheduled to speak but could not attend in the wake of the shopping center shootings in his county earlier in the day that had Montgomery County Police searching the suspect and local schools locked down.
Relatives and friends wiped away tears or cried openly as the families were presented with recognitions and helped lay a wreath at the Fallen Heroes memorial just outside the tent.
Their tears and sorrowful greetings with the dignitaries, including Gov. Larry Hogan, Kamenetz, Glassman and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, showed the impact of their personal losses.
"I am a survivor," Rachel Barr, daughter-in-law of 2014 fallen hero Fire Capt. David Barr Jr., of the Community Fire Company of Perryville, said.
Having spent 18 years with the Perryville company and Port Deposit's Water Witch Fire Company, Barr said she appeared to be ready for any call until Oct. 25, 2013, when David Barr was struck by a vehicle while directing traffic on Route 40. He died the following month from his injuries.
"That was the last day I loved my job, myself or my purpose in life," Barr said. "Everything changed on that day."
Glassman thanked Hogan for standing "with us each and every day through our tragedy" and pointed out the county's motto is, "At the risque of our lives and fortunes."
"Today we truly honor those that lived and sacrificed their lives and their fortunes, not only for the people of Harford County but the state of Maryland, and although we had not experienced such a tragedy in Harford County since the late 1800s, the people of Harford County stood and joined hands, and I can tell you I have never been more proud to be a Harford Countian in all my life," Glassman said.
"My people have worked hard every day to support their families both financially and spiritually. We did not allow this dark moment in time to dim the spirit of all that is good about Harford County and the wonderful people that comprise its communities, its fire departments, our law enforcement, our public servants," he said.
"Through the darkness came light. Through the fear came love. And through the pain came triumph," Glassman continued. "I thank all the families gathered here today for the sacrifice of your loved ones and, yes, even though the heavens weep again today, we believe that their service has been redeemed by our God and, yes, they are still on patrol watching over this great county and the great state of Maryland."
The governor's voice quavered as he told the audience: "From an eternally grateful state, we say thank you."
He said the first responders are called heroes "not only because of their final ultimate sacrifice but, just as importantly, because of the incredible lives that they lived and for choosing professions that sometimes garner too little appreciation but demand so much."
"Our state has lost too many brave men and women sworn to serve and protect," Hogan said. "Their legacy will forever live on through the countless lives they touched through their incredible lives, and their legacy will live on through the men and women of our proud law enforcement, firefighter and first responder families, by their steadfast commitment to their professions and their commitment to letting their lives and their actions carry on the goodness, the dedication and the selfless service that mark the lives of our fallen heroes."
Fred Rasmussen, a long-time writer for The Sun, used his keynote address to wonder: "What is a hero? Certainly none of these men woke up in the morning and said, 'When I come home tonight, I am coming home a hero.'"
He quoted prominent 1800s attorney and orator Robert Ingersoll's definition of heroism as "when the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honor scorns to compromise with death." He also said Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion, called real heroism "remarkably sober, very undramatic."
In delivering the invocation, Mountain Christian's McDade thanked God for "those who were so filled with your mercy that they were willing to make that choice that we might be safe" and asked God to "help all of us inspired by the memory of their sacrifice to go forth from this place as more merciful people as well."
He prayed that those who lost loved ones can find solace in "the promise that one day there will be no more tears, no more death, no more fallen heroes."
Until that day comes, McDade said, "we recommit ourselves to justice."