Since the founding days of our republic, Americans have been a “holiday-keeping” people. We have long established and honored days of celebration, days for feasting, and days for remembering. Although I often lament the crass commercialism which seems to have misplaced the original meaning behind these traditional demarcations on our calendars, I appreciate the national sense of respect for the unique history which makes us who we are which is still implicit in the practice.
Of the two dozen or so of those special days, only four are of sufficient solemnity to officially require the flying of the national flag at half staff. The most neglected of these occurs on May the 15th when we observe (or ought to observe) Peace Officers’ Memorial Day.
On April 29, 1853 Salt Lake County Deputy Rodney Badger drowned in the Weber river while attempting to rescue an immigrant family stranded in a wagon in mid-stream. He had already successfully rescued four of the children and their mother. While swimming to shore with the last two children, he was swept under the water. His body and those of the children were recovered more than a year later a mile and a half downstream.
Deputy Badger was the first of 118 Utah Peace Officers who would give their lives in the line of duty, the most recent being Utah County Detective Kevin Orr, who died in the crash of a helicopter searching for a missing woman, Millard County Deputy Josie Fox, shot during a vehicle stop, and Sevier County Deputy, Sergeant Franco Aguilar, who was pushed off an icy bridge while aiding an accident victim.
When Provo City Police Officer William Strong was shot to death by a transient in 1899, he had been serving his community for 30 years, while Juab County Deputy Floyd L. Rose was killed by a jail escapee in 1922 only hours after being sworn in. Ogden Patrolman Albert G. Smalley was only 19 when he suffered accident injuries which would take his life months later. At the other end of the age spectrum, Carbon County Sheriff S. Marion Bliss was 70 when shot to death by “friendly fire” in a shoot-out with a murder suspect who also died.
Every time a police officer dies in the line of duty, the chain of those who are affected by the death is a long one. 91% are married with an average 3.6 children, and a medial age of 40. 57% of Utah’s fallen were murdered, the remaining 43% died in accidents, many of which involved inattentive, distracted or impaired drivers who crashed into them.
Until the line-of-duty death of Navajo Dept. of Public Safety Officer Esther Todecheene in 1998 while attempting to come to the aid of another officer, Utah’s fallen police officers had all been male. Officer Todecheene however, was the fourth Native-American to pay the price.
Since the beginning of record keeping, 19,160 American law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, an average of seven per month (32 so far in the current year.)
When you see one of those tall white crosses with the famous beehive symbol here and there beside Utah highways, take a moment to consider the dangers faced daily and routinely by members of the Utah Highway Patrol. Since the death of the first of their number in May, 1931 a total of 14 Troopers have died in the line of duty, a third of those by gunfire.
Every time a police officer answers a house call, knocks on a door or stops to cite an offender or assist a motorist, he places his or her life on the line in ways which might never have seemed likely at the beginning of shift. And those who wait at home for the safe return of that loved one will appreciate every thoughtfulness those of us who travel Utah roads extend to those who serve to keep us safe.
Each May 15th as I lower my flag to half staff, I pause to consider the sacrifice of Deputy Badger all those years ago, and the long line of those who have followed in his footsteps, and I hope that all patriotic and observant Utahans will take a moment to do the same on Peace Officers Memorial Day.