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Big funeral processions are a police tradition

The Baltimore Sun

There are certain issues that are so sensitive that nobody talks about them until one bold person steps forward and breaks the ice.

This one I would have preferred to dodge except that a couple of readers weighed in after being caught up in the backups caused by the motorcades for the services of the state troopers killed in the last month's crash of a Medevac helicopter near Andrews Air Force Base.

Timothy Kjer of Hunt Valley writes:

I do not understand why every fallen police officer needs to have a funeral that disrupts this entire region's traffic flow for 5 hours of the work week. There seems to be something bizarre that these heroes are given far more recognition for their service than our dead soldiers or political leaders. It seems as though the State Police have some stranglehold on deciding what goes. These mammoth funerals never take place on weekends or during off hours, so I must wonder if every officer attending is getting paid on their shift.

[The Oct. 3] afternoon drive disrupted the entire Baltimore County region, including school dismissals, people trying to get children from day care providers, people trying to leave work, people trying to get to evening work. Ten-minute drives turned into 60-90 minutes or longer.

It would have been easy to dismiss one e-mail as the gripes of one person with an ax to grind. But the same week brought a similar note from a reader who wished to remain anonymous.

I'm e-mailing to complain about occasions that highways, e.g., Interstate 83, are shut down for funerals, usually of police officers. With all due respect to these public servants, our society is simply too congested to allow this very heavy-handed method of showing respect. My babysitter just called me to explain that she was stuck in horrendous traffic, and I understand from co-workers it's due to a funeral shutting down parts of 695! If you do treat this subject in your column, please don't use my name - it's as if one doesn't "support the troops" to find fault with this policy.

A few Google searches show that it's an issue that comes up all over the country when an officer loses his or her life in the line of duty. Most of the discussion seems to be conducted at a level somewhere between rabid and Vesuvian.

Let's see if we can coax people on both sides of the law enforcement-civilian gap to get a grip.

First, these readers have a point. Nobody likes to be stuck in traffic for an hour of more for any reason. The public expects government agencies to be on the side of alleviating rather than causing congestion.

But stuff happens. We find ourselves crawling through traffic as a result of festivals and marathons and Ravens games and water main breaks. There are plenty of less worthy reasons to endure a backup than to honor a fallen hero.

Greg Shipley has been through a lot of these funerals in the 32 years he's been with the state police -- as a uniformed officer and now as civilian spokesman. He said, with unusual emotion for the professional he is, that he ends up fielding such questions every time there's a police funeral.

When would the public like the funerals to be held? he asked. "Around midnight?"

Shipley noted that the state used electronic message boards to give motorists plenty of notice that traffic disruptions were expected. Anyone driving on Interstate 95 or other major roads would have had a hard time missing them.

For whatever reason, long motorcades of police cars, fire engines and other emergency medical services vehicles with their lights flashing have become a powerful expression of the solidarity and sorrow of the community of first-responders. Like gun salutes in the military, it's tradition.

"There are strong feelings in the law enforcement, the fire and the EMS community as well," Shipley said. "This is the right thing to do for people who are willing to risk their lives and ultimately are called upon to pay that price."

John Cooley, a retired Los Angeles police sergeant who spent nine years as that department's funeral coordinator, said agencies have to work around the arrangements made by the victim's survivors. "The family's wishes are always paramount about where they want the funeral services to be held," he said.

Cooley said that when a police officer fell in the line of duty in Los Angeles, officers would come from as far as San Francisco, Sacramento and Las Vegas. The long processions of first-responders from far-flung jurisdictions is an important part of the healing process for families and colleagues of the dead, he said. And, he noted, "it's not like it's something that happens very frequently."

A civilian could modestly suggest that it would be more appropriate to measure the turnout for a funeral in terms of the people who attend rather than the miles of vehicles in the motorcade. Four officers in one car would seem to honor the dead as well as four in four cars.

But that's a call for public safety people to make. They are the stewards of their own culture. If a longer line of cars provides a comfort to a widowed spouse and grieving colleagues, let's have the good grace to be patient with the resulting delays. Let's trust police and firefighters to have the class to take no more time than they need and to give our streets back as quickly as they can.

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