Author’s note: National Police Week.  It was an overwhelming experience… but also a deeply emotional one.  I’ve changed the names of some of the people in this article to protect their privacy. Once you read it, you’ll understand.  If you’d like to send a note to Concerns of Police Survivors, you can do so in the form at the end.

When my boys found out that I was going to be heading to National Police Week in Washington D.C., it was the same message from just about every cop.

“You’re gonna be at Tent City, right?”

After all, it’s the Police Week that everyone knows.  You do the candlelight vigil.  You drink in the bars.  Maybe you do the memorial service, maybe not.  But of COURSE you do Tent City.  It’s where all of the cool kids hang out.  Where your boys are.  Where the drinks are.  Where the vendors are.

But there’s a National Police Week that’s going on simultaneously that very few people are aware of.  It’s actually the very essence of what the week is all about.  And it changed the lives of my team and I when we attended it this year.

Let’s back things up a little to the roots of National Police Week.  I’ll break it down simply.  Some 50 plus years ago, President Kennedy declared a week to honor peace keepers across America.

Clearly, he didn’t consult with a woman.  Had he done so, he never would have had the week kick off right around Mother’s Day.  But that’s beside the point.

The week has turned into an incredible opportunity to remember the fallen, pay tribute to the living and to honor the survivors.

Enter: Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.).  It’s a non-profit organization that takes care of all of the survivors of line of duty deaths.  It’s one of the key groups that organizes National Police Week.

Now let me dive into the Police Week that very few people know about.

Our plane landed at Reagan at about 7 a.m.  Our “Uber” driver?  The husband of the Executive Director of C.O.P.S. 

Joe retired from law enforcement a few years back. 

“You guys excited to be here?” he asked.

Truth be told, we were nervous.  The last couple of times we filmed with C.O.P.S. it was an emotional rollercoaster. We listened to some of the most difficult stories we’d ever heard.  We cried with Survivors.  We prayed with them.  We shared their pain.

We had no idea what was to come.

The Hotel at National Police Week

We stayed at the Hilton Alexandria, which was known as the “host hotel”.  That basically means it’s where most of the Survivors stay and where many of the activities take place.

We checked in and were welcomed by the family at C.O.P.S.  And let me be clear – they are family.  They aren’t “staff”.  They aren’t a “team”.  They are a family of men and women who have, quite literally, shed blood, sweat and tears with each other and with Survivors across the country.

Featured left to right: Dianne, the Executive Director of Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) and Todd Piro from Fox and Friends.

 

Dianne Bernhard is the Executive Director.  She’s a retired police officer who decided to walk away from a goal of becoming a police chief to instead give back. 

Her “why”?  She lost her co-worker and friend, Molly, in the line of duty years before.

“A couple things you need to know,” she said.  “First of all – eat when you can.  Sleep when you can.  And know this week is going to be difficult.”

Cool.  We’re good with that.  We were there to tell the stories of Survivors.

“Second – Survivors will be wearing one of two different colored badges. Blue or yellow.  If it’s blue, they are a returning Survivor.  If it’s yellow, it’s their first time here.  They lost their hero within the last year.”

That’s when it hit me. There were blue and yellow cards EVERYWHERE.  Young people. Old people.  Women.  Men. Children.  Babies.  White people. Black people.  Asian people.  Hispanic people.

Because in this family, there’s only one color – Blue.  Nothing else matters.  What you look like.  How old you are.  Where you come from.   The Blue family transcends it all and is simply a unifying force in the battle of good vs. evil.

But there were SO MANY of them.

Those with the yellow tags, in many cases, looked lost. Broken.

How could they not be? Their lives were fundamentally changed the day they lost their officer.  They went from a family to a battle.  A future to a struggle.

These were people who were now facing shattered lives. And that’s where Concerns of Police Survivors steps in – to rebuild those shattered lives.

The First Couple of Days at National Police Week

The arrivals begin.

Some people come in by plane.  They are greeted by a wall of officers to welcome them.  A motorcade to shut down traffic and bring them to the hotel.

Concerns of Police Survivors

Courtesy: Concerns of Police Survivors

 

Others come in by bicycle. Some bike hundreds of miles to get to D.C.  Others bike thousands of miles.  They are rides of camaraderie. Take, for example, Law Enforcement United.  They are incredible individuals from across the country who ride forth in a tremendous show of unity AND fundraising to support the Survivors.

Law Enforcement United Unity Tour

Through blood, sweat, laughs, tears, cold and rain, these men and women honored their heroes and supported survivors by riding their bikes over 250 miles into D.C. today. After presenting flags to families, they presented a check for $740,000 to C.O.P.S.! The lives you all are changing is incredible and congrats on your 10th anniversary ride!

 

When they arrive at the hotel, they are shepherded through by members of the C.O.P.S. family.  They are welcomed with open arms by returning Survivors.  They are encouraged to take part in countless support programs. 

This year, nearly 6,000 Survivors came together.

And the journey begins.

The First Elevator Ride at National Police Week

We were staying on the 29th floor.  We had a suite where we had a private space for Survivors who were willing to be interviewed and open to sharing their stories and talking about their officer.

I had no idea what was coming.

Let me tell you something. When you’re going down that elevator for the first time from the 29th floor, several people wearing yellow cards get on at the 28th floor, and you’re stopping at every floor on the way down… you very quickly realize you’d better stop being afraid to talk to people.

National Police Week

Yellow cards indicate new survivors.

 

That first ride down was painful.  I was scared. I was silent.  I pretended to talk on my phone.

Which worked great, until the phone rang while I had it up to my ear and everyone looked at me.

Awkward.

In the lobby was Sara. She runs the public relations for C.O.P.S..  She’s one of the most inspirational, compassionate and sassy women I’ve ever worked with.

“What do I do?” I asked her.  “How do I talk to people?  What do I say?”

I may or may not have conveniently left out the part about being caught faking a phone call.

“Just talk to people,” she said.  “Be YOU.  Ask them about their hero.  Find out how they’re doing.  Treat them like PEOPLE.  Just love on them.”

The advice came simply, but was profound.

Sara Slone

Left, Kyle Reyes – Right, Sara Slone at the Blue Honor Gala

 

How many times do we stop talking to people?  Stop LOOKING at them?  Ignore them because we don’t know what to do or what to say or how to process THEIR grief.

Just love on them.

The First Family I Interviewed at National Police Week

I’ve interviewed thousands of people over the years.  Probably tens of thousands.

And yet every one of these interviews punches me in the gut.

My first interview of the week was with a family who lost their officer in late 2018.  It was a couple in their 50’s whose son was killed. I spoke with them. Their daughter. And HER daughter.

I listened to the 5-year-old girl tell me she wishes she could tell her uncle one more time how much she loves him and misses him.  That he was her favorite friend to play with.

I listened to the fallen officer’s father and mother tell me how the only thing that got them through was faith and God. 

I listened to them tell me a story about how an unrelated family emergency brought them across the country three days before the shooting because the only hospital that could care for that officer’s father just so happened to be right near him. 

I witnessed as those parents told me through tears that it was God’s way of letting them see and spend time with their son one more time before he passed.

I heard their story of how C.O.P.S. saved their lives.

Over the next four days, despite a sea of thousands of survivors and tens of thousands of other people, I kept crossing paths with that father.  In the elevator.  At a memorial service.  And now I didn’t need to pretend I was on the phone.

Because each time, we embraced.  We prayed together.  We cried together.  And I watched him transition… from a broken man kept alive by a mustard seed of faith… to a man who, over just a few days, was brought back by an organization that rebuilds shattered lives.

The Candlelight Vigil at National Police Week

My team joined the Survivors in a journey to a breathtaking memorial service in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

We all boarded buses. Flanking each and every bus were police vehicles.  And leading the procession was a motorcade of literally hundreds of police officers.

 

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil - Courtesy Kevin Ruark

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil – Courtesy Kevin Ruark

The main highway was entirely shut down while thousands of Survivors were lead by lights and sirens to the service.

On the side of the highway, people stood outside of their vehicles filming, saluting and waving. One of the nation’s busiest roadways entirely shut down… to pay tribute to the fallen officers and their Survivors. It was powerful, to say the least.

When we arrived at the candlelight service, thousands of police officers from all over the country created a hall of men and women for the survivors to be escorted down.  Pipes and drums led a tribute to the fallen but also a celebration of life.

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil entrance

 

I won’t go into the details about the politicians who spoke so eloquently, because you probably saw those clips played in the media.  What I WILL tell you is that sitting there during roll call and holding hands with Survivors… sharing tears with their loved ones… listening to the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice… it changes you.

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil

 

The President of C.O.P.S. started the lighting of the candles from the stage.  Within moments, the flames had spread onto the tips of candles held by thousands of people. 

It was a fitting tribute not just to the fallen and their Survivors… but it was a tribute that was the very essence of what C.O.P.S. is all about.  It starts with one little flicker of hope.  And the family spreads that hope to bring overwhelming light into the darkness.

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil

National Police Week Candlelight Vigil

 

The Programs at National Police Week

The next day was the Survivors conference.  At that conference, returning Survivors shepherded new Survivors through the journey.  Loved ones learned about the tremendous number of programs offered to them.  There are everything from siblings programs to kids camp… from spouses retreats to parents retreats. 

For more than three decades, C.O.P.S. has provided comprehensive Hands-On Programs that cater to more than 50,000 Survivors and their families in 55 chapters nationwide.  Whether it is offering grief counseling to participants or providing peer support and additional resources, C.O.P.S.’s objective is to support each Survivor in their journey to recovery. 

(Logo from www.concernsofpolicesurvivors.org)

(Logo from www.concernsofpolicesurvivors.org)

 

C.O.P.S. knows that in the wake of a line-of-duty death, many lives are affected.  Whether you are the spouse or child of an officer, a parent or sibling, an aunt, uncle, or significant other, even a co-worker or close friend, there is an inherent need for a safe space to grieve and to process the feelings and memories surrounding that loved one. 

The programs are designed to allow participants to do just that. 

With eleven Hands-On Programs designated for each group, C.O.P.S. provides retreats specifically formatted to support the Survivors as they learn to cope.

At the host hotel over the course of National Police Week were all kinds of additional support programs. They were led by countless volunteers who took time away from their jobs and their families to come help guide these surviving families through their new journey.

Fox and Friends and COPS

Todd Piro from Fox and Friends interviews the Executive Director of C.O.P.S.

 

Throughout the day of the Survivors conference, we were blessed to be joined by reporter Todd Piro and his crew from Fox and Friends.  That night, Todd spoke at the Blue Honor Gala.

“The word powerful does not go far enough to describe this experience. It was an incredible honor to represent our Fox and Friends team and meet some incredible people in the process,” Piro said in the story that aired, which started with that gala.

In the story, Todd recognized Corporal Ronil Singh of the Newman (CA) Police Department, who was killed in December of 2018 when he was shot during a traffic stop of a suspected drunk driver, who was not in the country legally.

Cpl. Ronil Singh was killed by an undocumented immigrant in December. (Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department)

 

Anamika Chand-Singh, the officer’s widow, said:

“Our day starts in tears and we go to bed in tears again. My child was 5 months old when this event happened. It could have easily been prevented. It is still unbelievable, and we still feel like he is going to come home.” When asked about what it means to survivors such as Singh’s family, for organizations like C.O.P.S. to try to make things easier, she said “As a survivor, to see the amount of people coming out here showing their support and honoring officers is just amazing. Whatever I have needed, they have been there to support.”

Piro also spoke with Alyssa Cordova, the widow of Officer Jesus Cordova of the Nogales (AZ) Police Department.

Cordova died on April 27, 2018, when he was shot by a suspected car-jacker. The father of four was 44.

Jesus Cordova

(Graphics courtesy Rose Borisow GrafX)

 

Alyssa said:

“I asked him, ‘are you ever afraid of what you do? He said, ‘you know what, I’m not afraid of dying, I am afraid of what will happen to you and the kids if I die.’ And here we are, surviving, because that’s what we are: survivors.”

Piro concluded the piece by talking to Lanie Weigand, the 14-year-old daughter of Sgt. Michael Weigand Jr., of the Latimore Township (PA) Police Department.

 

Sgt. Weigand was killed while riding his motorcycle as part of an escort. A driver lost control of his pickup truck and struck Weigand head-on. His End of Watch was Sunday, September 14, 2008. Lanie was 3 at the time of her father’s death.

Piro asked her:

“You were only 3 years old when your dad died, you have been coming to C.O.P.S. for a while now. What is that role like, helping people who have just endured that horrible loss in the last year?”

Her response:

“A word of advice to them, just keep pushing through, because you know, it’s not going to get easier, but we are all here together, and we are all here to help each other. Our fathers, our mothers, our sons, our daughters, they are taken away from us and we can’t do anything about it. All of us together, I feel like it makes us stronger because of the sacrifice that they made and the ones that they left behind.”

At the Blue Honor Gala that night, I interviewed some of the cast members from Blue Bloods.  I spent time with Dave Bray USA and Mark Wills, two incredible musicians. 

(Above – Dave Bray / C.O.P.S. tribute video for National Police Week.)

 

I celebrated life with Survivors and those who support them.

Mark Wills band

Mark Wills band

 

And I was reminded time and time again that sometimes the best way of remembering our loved ones isn’t by mourning them… it’s by celebrating their life. 

The Memorial Service at National Police Week

The 38th Annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service was another humbling experience.  The keynote speaker was once again President Trump – a man who very clearly loves law enforcement.

If you’d like to read more about that speech, I wrote a separate article on it.

As we were entering and leaving the memorial service, thousands of officers lined the path for the Survivors.  And all I could think about was one thing.

National Police Week Memorial Service

Thousands of officers line the entrance at the National Police Week Memorial Service

 

When our fallen heroes enter heaven, I have to imagine this is what their welcome looks like.

I could go on and on for hours about all of the emotions.  The stories. The moments shared.

But I think this one little video clip about sums it up.

These are the moments that change us.

In the foreground are those who lost brothers and sisters. Their pain is evident but their strength is

overwhelming.

Deeper into the shot are Survivors, including a child. Their loss is unfathomable. Their sacrifice is unacceptable.

In the background are the colors that unite us. The flag the fallen officers died for. The country that gives us all the blessings and opportunities we have.

The sound… is a tribute. A goodbye. A reminder. Our pain. Our strength. Our message that as long as a single officer is killed in the line of duty… our mission continues.

A young Survivor pays tribute to the fallen

A young Survivor pays tribute to the fallen

 

A young Survivor pays tribute to the fallen

A young Survivor pays tribute to the fallen

 

The Memorial Wall at National Police Week

From there, we went to the Law Enforcement Memorial Wall.  I never could have imagined how hard it would hit me.

National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall

National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall. Courtesy: Gay Ann Birkholz

 

Hundreds of officers, Survivors, family and friends were there for the arrival of the wreath that was dedicated to the fallen at the memorial service.

I expected the wall to be just a long slab of concrete with the names of the fallen inscribed on it.  But that couldn’t have been further from reality of what it really is.

Sure, it’s inscribed stone.  But it’s covered in pictures, letters, trinkets, shots for the fallen, mugs, you  name it.

That wall isn’t death – it’s life.  It’s a living and breathing reminder that our loved ones will never be forgotten.

National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall

National Law Enforcement Memorial Wall

 

Walking along the wall which is far too long… you’re able to truly take in the loss our country and loved ones have experienced. But in that walk, you feel the souls of every single one of those officers.

You feel the anguish of their loved ones. You feel the moments and the celebrations that were stolen from them.  You feel the pain and the emptiness.

But you also feel the life.  You feel the protection.  You feel the love.  And you are able to begin to grasp what the Blue family is all about.

The Final Experience at National Police Week

I could literally write an entire book about my experiences.  I could go on and on for hours about the closing ceremonies.  About watching Survivors – the same Survivors who looked crushed and destroyed just days earlier – holding hands and singing together and glowing on the last day.

But here’s what really got me.

On that last day, C.O.P.S. put on a huge event for kids.  A barbeque, DJ, bounce house, cotton candy machines, you name it.  It’s the kind of party every kid always dreamed of.

They get to stuff their own bears in police uniforms.  Dance. Get tattoos.

Concerns of Police Survivors Family Event At National Police Week

For a short period of time, they get to forget about the pain.  The loss. And so do their parents.

Tomorrow, that pain might return.  But this time it might be a little less raw.  It might be a little more tolerable for the children. For the parents.  For the spouses.

It will never go away.  That wound will never fully heal.

But those shattered lives over time will be rebuilt.  That pain will turn into motivation to help shepherd others along the same path.

You are not alone.  You will never be alone again.  Because thanks to the unbelievable family at Concerns of Police Survivors… and thanks to the overwhelming love and support of the Blue family… there will always be hope.

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