National Law Enforcement Week allows Centre County police officers to support each other by honoring those who have died in the line of duty, but it also reopens wounds that have not, and may not, heal.
Dozens of police officers from each Centre County law enforcement agency, the county commissioners, members of the county’s criminal justice system and community members were among those who gathered Wednesday at the county courthouse to honor police officers who died in the line of duty last year.
According to statistics reported to the FBI, 106 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2018. An average of 102 police officers have died each year over the past decade, according to the FBI’s statistics.
The annual Centre County Law Enforcement Memorial is an event that police “hold near and dear to our hearts,” Patton Township police Chief Tyler Jolley said after the ceremony.
The ceremony also gives Jolley an opportunity to honor his former college roommate, who was fatally shot while responding to a domestic violence call about 10 years ago in Pittsburgh, he said.
“You never forget it,” Jolley said after the ceremony. “When I worked the road, I thought about him every day when I put my uniform on, so you just don’t forget it.”
The 35-minute commemoration, led by keynote speaker District Judge Kelley Gillette-Walker, featured a roll call of the name of every officer killed in the line of duty last year, a 21-gun salute and taps played by a member of the Altoona Police Department.
“It’s hand and glove with what’s going on in Centre County and highlights the real risk that law enforcement has to deal with and what we ask them to do every day,” District Attorney Bernie Cantorna said after the ceremony. “They’re the first we call and they’re the first on scene.”
He also reflected on Osaze Osagie’s death, and community members’ concerns regarding race, mental health and the role of police.
Last week, Cantorna released his 228-page report into Osagie’s death, which found the deadly use of force by State College police against Osagie — a 29-year-old African American diagnosed with autism and with a history of anxiety and schizophrenia — was justified, and that race was not a factor.
“At our local level, we have officers who only want to make our community safer. They’re here to protect and they’re going to do everything they can — and I’ll do everything that I can — to keep, and earn, the trust of the public,” Cantorna said after the ceremony.
It’s not “us and them,” Cantorna said, it’s “we.”
“We have to work together to make this the best place we can make it,” he said after the ceremony. “People of color in our community, and in the United States, have a different experience. Unfortunately, dialogue in our country only makes it worse. I want to do everything that I can do, at least locally, so that we’re working together and we’re bridging gaps, not dividing us and not dividing our country.”
In various forums, including State College Borough Council’s special meeting on Monday, some community members have been highly critical of local police officers.
The community reaction, including a rumored potential protest of the ceremony, did not change the significance of the ceremony, Bellefonte police Chief Shawn Weaver said.
Instead, gathering a “brother and sisterhood” of police officers in one location showed strength and unspoken support, he said.
“We all know that any given day we can not come home to our loved ones — that’s a given. That does not prevent us from doing what we love to do, and we love to serve and help people,” Weaver said after the ceremony. “And if that means sacrificing our lives, then that’s what we do.”