They stood in rows at least 100 strong, in uniforms blue and brown, each attentive to one somber message after another.
The men and women who police Washington County and neighboring counties, and work in their jails and prisons, gathered last week at Stillwater’s Historic Courthouse to mourn fellow officers who fell in the line of duty.
“We must all remember that not one day is guaranteed to those of us who have chosen this path,” said the guest speaker for the 22nd law enforcement memorial ceremony, Chief John Harrington of Metro Transit police.
May the latest death recorded, Harrington said, forever be the last.
Yet the peace officers assembled last week know it won’t end now or ever. Some bowed their heads as names and locations were read of the 128 peace officers killed nationwide last year. Already this year, 35 have died in violent confrontations or accidents while on duty.
“It’s not how these officers died that made them heroes, it’s how they lived,” Harrington said. “It’s clear these officers were so much more than the laws they enforced.”
That’s what was remembered most: Fallen officers aren’t statistics but real people with families, real people who lost a battle with crime.
“We all put on our socks and shoes and uniforms the same way. We walk out the door and hope we see our loved ones at the end of the day,” said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton. “That mundane traffic stop, that door you knock on, you never know.”
Eight officers who lived in Washington County have died in the line of duty, but the “end of watch” for seven of them came in Ramsey County or jurisdictions elsewhere.
Only Nels Berglin, a Forest Lake police officer, died in Washington County. He was shot in 1932 during a gas station robbery in Forest Lake, after only 12 days on the job.
Hutton said that law enforcement is dangerous work but officers choose to serve because they want to make a difference in people’s lives.
News photographs of peace officers doing good deeds can be misleading, he said, because they suggest such actions are unusual. Every day, officers spend their own money to help people in unfortunate circumstances, such as buying them meals or handing them gas money, he said.
Hutton said the proliferation of mental illnesses — now afflicting one in four — further endangers law enforcement officers because of unpredictable behavior. Attacks can happen anywhere and without warning, he said, such as with a corrections officer assaulted at the county jail a week ago, or an Oakdale police officer who was shot in the arm a few months ago, he said.
According to a new survey, Washington County residents believe their law enforcement officers are holding the line against crime.
The survey shows that 95 percent of respondents said the county is “very safe” or “somewhat safe” from violent crime such as homicide, rape, assault and robbery.
Those peace officers who assembled in Stillwater know that each interaction on the streets and behind bars brings risk. They need only hear the names of the fallen and the mournful wail of bagpipes for a reminder of how quickly the worst can happen.
“May time never erase the life that was lost,” Harrington said.