Forty-eight law enforcement officials have died while serving Alaska communities since 1908. Their deaths are called the end of watch.
“They get to work to keep our communities safe and secure, and every day they understand that they may not come home at the end of the day,” said Sarah Hieb, the president of the Capital City Chapter of the Alaska Peace Officers Association.
More than 50 community members joined Hieb and Juneau’s law enforcement officers at a memorial ceremony Friday at the Centennial Hall to remember lives lost in the service of others. The event is part of National Police Officer Memorial Week.
According to the national Officer Down Memorial organization, 128 officers died in the line of duty in 2015. So far this year, 35 officers have been killed in the line of duty.
“We cannot measure the officers’ deaths in any concrete way other than the passing of time, those important dates missed by the officers: their kids’ birthdays, their kids’ weddings or their anniversaries,” Hieb said.
But it isn’t just family members who feel the loss of an officer in a community, Mayor Ken Koelsch said during his remarks Friday. A former officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Koelsch asked audience members to stand if they were former officers, then if they were related to an officer and last if they were ever helped by or knew an officer. In the end, everyone was standing.
“We are all family, and we need to support each other,” Koelsch said.
Thinking back on his days as teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School, Koelsch recalled a student of his named Bruce Heck who was just a “tall, dark-haired, gangly” kid who wore a smile every day in class. That student would go on to become an Alaska State Trooper. He lost his life on Glenn Highway on Jan. 10, 1997, while fighting with a man.
“No man is an island, any man’s death diminishes me,” Koelsch said, recalling the words of 16th century poet John Donne.
Yees Ku Oo dancers were also present during Friday’s memorial service, but they took a step back from their traditional performance and instead stood together singing songs of faith. A presence like that from the Native community was a first, according to Department of Corrections Lt. Kenneth Hoff.
Hoff is also a member of the Alaska Native dance group and said he hopes to see their inclusion in the ceremony become a tradition as all community members come together to say thank you for that ultimate sacrifice too many officers make.
A wreath carried by JPD Lt. Kris Sell and visiting Dillingham Alaska State Trooper Justin Hilario during the memorial was later taken to the Evergreen Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony.