A light rain fell as the horse-drawn caisson carrying the body of Joseph Gomm arrived at his grave in Roseville, where lines of law enforcement and corrections officers waited at solemn attention to lay their brother to rest. Only the wail of bagpipes broke the silence.
Thousands of law enforcement officers from across the state and country gathered Thursday to honor Gomm, a 45-year-old corrections officer from Blaine who was attacked and killed last week in the Stillwater prison, with an inmate accused of the crime. The 16-year veteran is the first Minnesota Corrections Department officer to be killed in the line of duty.
Some who knew Gomm said he would have been embarrassed by all the fuss. He was a humble guy, they said, a bear of a man with a big heart.
“Joe had this way when I would ask him for help or ask him to do something … he would [say], ‘Whatever,’ ” his friend and colleague Shawn Yurick told friends, family and fellow officers jammed into North Heights Lutheran Church in Arden Hills for the funeral. The crowd laughed.
Yurick continued: Gomm’s “Whatever” really meant “Whatever you need, Shawn.”
While Gomm’s family thought that he might not have wanted such a large event, Yurick disagreed, saying that his friend probably would have said, “Whatever — whatever it would take for you to heal.”
For those in dress blue and brown, the funeral of a fallen officer felt very personal.
“We’re family,” said St. Paul police officer Mike Johnson. “When one of us goes down, it touches us all very deeply.”
Officers came from around the state. Others drove across the country — from New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Idaho and Montana — to offer a final salute to Gomm.
For many who stood at attention as Gomm’s flag-draped casket was placed into the hearse, the somber tribute served as a harsh reality check, said Jeff Beahen, Rogers police chief and president of the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association.
When those officers go to work, they expect to come home that night, he said. But the reality is that nearly every 42 hours, a U.S. law enforcement officer loses his or her life in the line of duty, Beahen said.
“We all know it could be any one of us,” said Jim Daly, a retired Ramsey County sheriff’s lieutenant who served as a Salvation Army volunteer offering coffee and snacks to officers gathered in the church parking lot. “We don’t dwell on it. We go to work, but it’s always in the back of your mind.”
For the families and individuals lining the processional route, it was a moment to pay tribute to an officer in their community and to provide emotional support to a grieving family.
“I think everyone feels this loss,” Beahen said. “It’s not just the law enforcement community that grieves. … There’s a lot of strife in America right now and distrust of police. But it buoys our spirits that at least in the worst of times, communities still come together and support us knowing that someone has made that ultimate sacrifice.”
Hundreds of people lined the 9-mile procession route from the church to Roselawn Cemetery.
“We don’t have any particular connection to him,” said Richard Clem, who lives near the cemetery and watched the procession with his children, Knute and Mareta. “We just wanted to pay our respects to someone who died in the line of duty.”
Taps and tears
“Joe was a man of incredible authenticity, profound integrity and immense compassion,” Stillwater prison chaplain Martin Shanahan told the mourners. He told of how Gomm rescued a young owl trapped in a prison building, taking it outside and setting it free.
He said that he and Gomm frequently had conversations outside of the chapel doors or at the prison gate. Gomm often punctuated those conversations with gestures and “four-letter words,” Shanahan said. He was a man who spoke the truth in startling ways, he said.
Snapshots projected onto a church screen gave a glimpse into Gomm’s life — from childhood memories made around a Christmas tree and a kitchen table, to a man standing proudly wearing a DOC sweatshirt.
At the cemetery, conversation quieted as bagpipes played and the horse-drawn caisson drew near. Gomm’s colleagues stood close together, their stoic faces sometimes losing their composure as the bugle played taps, the bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” and the “End of Watch” call crackled over the speakers. The recorded call noted Gomm’s DOC service from 2002 to 2018 and offered messages of love, respect and a promise that he will never be forgotten.
“Godspeed, Joe. We’ll take it from here.”
A bell tolled, law enforcement helicopters flew overhead in a salute, and then the officers were dismissed.
For many, it was time to go back to work.
“Corrections officers have to go back to guarding prisoners. Troopers have to go back to writing [up] accidents and stopping drunken drivers. Cops have to go back to answering calls, and fire and EMS have to go to work,” said Beahen, the Rogers police chief. “We all have jobs to do.”