In the past year, law enforcement officers too often have been considered contributors to society's ills, rather than part of the solution, which they are.

In Grand Rapids Friday, in northern Minnesota, the opposite of cops-are-the-problem was on display. The sad occasion was the funeral of Department of Natural Resources conservation officer (CO) Sarah Grell, 39, who left a husband, Gene, and three children ages 13, 4 and 2.

Grell died in a vehicle accident Monday morning en route to a call.

It's doubtful Grell ever considered being anything other than a conservation officer. Her dad, Craig, was a CO, as was a grandfather and an uncle.

After graduating from Grand Rapids High School in 2000, Grell earned a criminal justice degree at St. Cloud State University before entering the DNR conservation officer academy.

Of the 2,000 people who showed up to honor Grell on Friday in Grand Rapids, some surely did so because she specialized in protecting critters, lands and waters that can't protect themselves: deer against poachers, wetlands against polluters, fragile plants against ATV-riding scofflaws.

Others honored Grell because even among special people, she was special.

Her smile could light up a room, and her easy-going way could put the most nervous hunters and anglers at ease when she checked their fishing licenses or counted their ducks.

Even fish- and game-law violators liked Grell, said retired DNR enforcement chief Ken Soring.

"If they would have known how pleasant she could be, even while citing them, some poachers might have violated the law years earlier just to meet her," Soring said.

Yet Grell was resolute in puzzling the facts of a case until they pointed to a suspect or suspects.

"Even if she had just a little bit of information, she would take it as far as it would go and never give up," said DNR enforcement division northeast Minnesota regional manager Shelly Patten. "She was tenacious that way."

That Grell could talk the talk about hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, and also walk the walk — whether the topic was ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, walleyes, ATVs or snowmobiling out West — boosted her credibility.

Retired CO Sam Carlson was one of Grell's go-to outdoor buddies, nearly since the day they met, about 15 years ago.

"Sarah died Monday morning, the day before we were supposed to leave for Wisconsin to hunt turkeys," Carlson said. "I have friends in southern Wisconsin where I've hunted turkeys for some time, and when Sarah and I met, it was one of the things we started doing together.

"I'll never forget that first time. She showed up with maps and charts and a file about turkey behavior. She was so prepared. It was unbelievable."

Female DNR conservation officers were less common when Carlson and Grell met than they are now.

"We both were very much into hunting, fishing and four-wheeling, and we were both very capable of doing those things on our own," Carlson said. "We worked in a very male-dominated field, so we didn't mind doing those things away from men for a while. We just never got around to inviting guys to go with us."

Grell survived two bouts of cancer, the most recent about eight years ago, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In the years since, her faith grew, and anyone who knew her even for a short while knew she was deeply spiritual.

"Sarah was a lot of things," said good friend, CO Dustie Speldrich. "She was a great wife and mom. She was articulate and had an incredible memory. She could recite law better than some of our senior officers. Also, while she was serious when she had to be, she was also very funny and engaging.

"I have great memories of her. One time we dressed up in '80s clothing and went to a Hairball concert, which is a Minnesota band that does '80s covers. Another time she and I and three other woman COs were sent on a work detail into the BWCA. On our first night in camp, Sarah went fishing and caught our dinner."

COs who work in Grell's northern Minnesota district are close-knit, often socializing at kids' birthday parties and other gatherings.

"To the rest of us, Sarah wasn't just a co-worker," Speldrich said. "She was a confidant to a lot of us — someone we could talk to when we were having trouble or needed advice."

Not every CO, or every cop, had the benefit at a young age of watching a parent, grandfather or uncle walk out the door in a uniform, a sidearm strapped to his or her hip.

Those who did had the job validated for them not only as an occupation, but as a calling.

The pay may be middling and the public's scrutiny at times intense.

But the job needs getting done. And not everyone can do it. Or will.

On Friday in Grand Rapids, at services both indoors and out, row upon row of conservation officers, State Patrol officers and others in law enforcement honored Sarah Grell, who was not only one of their best, but one of our best.

Next time you see a law enforcement officer, say something nice.

And hope when their shift ends, they go home to their family.

Editor's note: A gofundme account has been set up for Sarah Grell's family.