ELKHART — “All gave some. Some gave all,” said Korean War veteran Howard William Osterkamp.
Those words and the actions behind them were the focus of the memorial service on Peace Officers Memorial Day in Elkhart, as active and retired police officers were joined by firefighters, politicians and other members at the community on Wednesday at the police and firefighter memorial by the RiverWalk.
Guest speaker James Rieckhoff, a former Elkhart Superior Court judge and current president of Elkhart’s Police Merit Commission, said services like this should be put to good use.
“This memorial service gives us an occasion to look in remembrance of what was, an occasion to look around to see what is, and an occasion to look forward in preparation of what’s to come,” he said.
Rieckhoff said police work is different today in many ways than when he first became a judge and started working with officers. New technology, demographic changes and sometimes tragic events have led police to revise their methods and sometimes their roles in the community.
“That role now encompasses being a peacekeeper, a crime fighter, a social worker, a teacher, a surrogate parent, a negotiator,” Rieckhoff said. “And society still expects officers to perform all those roles perfectly.”
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese had high praise for the local police officers.
“It is my pleasure and honor, on a regular basis, to work with and to learn from the finest law enforcement agency in the United States, the Elkhart Police Department,” Neese said.
Also speaking was Chief of Police Chris Snyder, who thanked his officers’ family members for allowing them to serve the community.
And “to the retired officers, thank you for training us and showing us the way. Enjoy your retirement, because you’ve earned it,” Snyder said. “To the current officers, thank you for going out there every day and every night and dedicating yourself to keeping the community safe.”
Assistant Chief Todd Thayer spoke about the five EPD officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Officer Willard Burton was shot and killed on Oct. 27, 1888, while fighting with a suspect he was attempting to arrest.
Patrolman Oren Shelmadine was struck and killed by a train on Feb. 9, 1920, when he was on patrol.
Patrolman Henry Wentz was shot and killed as he arrived at a reported shooting on Dec. 13, 1924. The suspect was shot and killed by Wentz’ partner.
Patrolman Douglas Adams lost his life when he crashed his patrol car on March 20, 2001, in downtown Elkhart. He was responding to a fellow officers call for help.
Corporal Michael Swygart died in his police car on Dec. 29, 2009, as a result of a medical complication while on duty.
These officers, and the retired officers who have died in the last year, were honored for their sacrifice Wednesday with salutes, Taps, the singing of the national anthem, color and honor guards and prayer.
Thayer also read a letter from a retired officer to an officer preparing for the life after the job is done.
“We wonder if he knows what he is leaving behind, because we already know. We know, for example, that after a lifetime of camaraderie that few people will experience, it will remain as a longing for those past times. We know, in the law enforcement life, there is fellowship which lasts long after the uniforms are hung up in the back of the closet,” Thayer read.
Five current officers received medals for their service on Wednesday.
Lt. Eric Sommer and Capt. Bryan Moore received the Distinguished Service Medal, which is given for performing exceptional service in a duty of great responsibility or of critical importance to law enforcement.
Sommer’s “outstanding planning and performance” during the political rally held by President Donald Trump on May 10, 2018, earned him the medal.
Moore received his medal for his “exceptional work throughout the development, implementation and oversight” of the department’s newly revised policy management system, a three-year undertaking.
Detective Brandan Roundtree and Lt. Wayne Bias received the Human Relations Medal, awarded to officers who show great compassion and go above and beyond the call of duty in their response to fellow human beings.
Roundtree was given the medal for “outstanding work with the youth in our community” as an officer, mentor, coach and friend.
Bias received the medal for “exceptional community outreach,” being at the forefront in recognizing the importance of creating good relations with the community.
Detective Michal Miller received the Meritorious Service Medal, which is given for performing exceptional service in a specific duty or assignment over a lengthy period of time.
During her 15 years as a detective, most of the cases she has investigated are crimes of abuse against children and women. “Detective Miller’s perseverance and dedication to duty in the fight against sexual predators in our community are most heartily commended and worthy of distinction.”
There was also time to speak about a pressing matter.
“That’s the loss of police officers and first responders to suicide,” said Thayer.
He said it’s always been an issue, but that it’s been hidden for years.
“In 2018, the number of officers that lost their lives due to suicide was double the amount of officers that were killed in the line of duty,” he said.
Being exposed to the daily tragedies of life and regular interaction with people who are hostile or in crisis are some of the demanding aspects of the job, and more must be done to help first responders cope.
“Police officers face a national undercurrent of heightened public scrutiny of the profession that overshadows the legitimacy of their individual efforts,” Thayer said, encouraging the public to remember that the mistakes of individual officers do not reflect on every officer.
Thayer said the EPD has a suicide prevention program, but that they are part of under 10 percent of U.S. police departments that do.
“This must change,” he said.
“We must not ignore signs that one of us is struggling. We must stand up and and recognize and put aside this machismo or this tough image that we portray every day,” Thayer said. “We must be strong enough to admit that we are hurting, strong enough to ask for help.”
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