Fallen police, firefighters to be honored

For 2nd consecutive year, no police in Maryland were felled by gunfire

May 07, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Today at 1 p.m., a procession including bagpipers, drummers, horses, motorcycles and the governor will remember Maryland's fallen police and firefighters, a mournful pageant at the green expanse of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

Just three public safety workers in the state — one firefighter and two police officers — died in the line of duty during the past year, and two of them will be memorialized at the cemetery in Timonium. The family of the third requested that his public remembrance be held next year.

It's the smallest number to have died in a year to be honored in the 34 years the cemetery's caretakers have buried for free members of law enforcement and others working as firefighters and paramedics killed in the line of duty.

And it's the second consecutive year in which not a single police officer was felled by bullets. The past 10 "in-the-line-of-duty" deaths have involved car or helicopter accidents, vehicular assaults or illnesses such as heart attacks suffered on the job.

One has to go back to Dec. 19, 2007, to find a Maryland officer who was fatally shot. That was Officer Christopher Nicholson of Western Maryland's Smithsburg Police Department. The last Baltimore City officer shot and killed was Officer Troy Lamont Chesley Sr. in a robbery outside his girlfriend's house in Northwest Baltimore on Jan. 9, 2007.

The statistics reflect a growing trend here and across the nation — more police officers die behind the wheel of a car than in front of a gun.

Since 2000 in Maryland, 15 police officers have been shot and killed, while 23 have died in crashes involving cars — during pursuits, speeding to calls, hit while writing tickets on the side of a road or intentionally struck by fleeing suspects.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 2009 was the 12th consecutive year in which more officers across the country died in traffic accidents than from any other cause. That's even with the overall number of police deaths falling to the lowest mark since 1959, along with a corresponding drop in road fatalities.

A death by car is no less tragic than a death by a bullet. But the number of traffic-related deaths has attracted concern from law enforcement groups studying whether new or additional safety measures could prevent some of the fatalities.

Kevin Morison, the spokesman for the national memorial fund, said a study that has just started shows that in all police traffic-related deaths across the nation in 2009, officers in one-third of the crashes were not wearing seat belts. That was the first year for which data has been collected, so comparison to previous years is not yet possible.

The spokesman said that 12 years ago, a study showed that only 50 percent of officers wore protective vests. That number is up to nearly 70 percent now, he said, and the number of gunshot fatalities is near a 40-year low. Morison said he hopes for a similar "culture change" in seat belt use.

This year's ceremony at Dulaney Valley will honor Fire Chief Charles "Buck" Clough Jr. of the Sudlersville Volunteer Fire Company and Cpl. Thomas P. Jensen of the Prince George's County Police Department.

Clough died April 15, 2009, while responding to a fire. He swerved to avoid hitting another car, went off the road and slammed his truck into a tree. He was 41, with a wife and two sons, and worked as traffic engineer for the State Highway Administration for 20 years and volunteered as a firefighter for 26 years.

Jensen died March 9, 2009, 10 days after his patrol car slid on a patch of ice and crashed while he was en route to a burglary. He was a 27-year-old newlywed.

Honored next year will be Montgomery County Police Officer Hector Ayala, who was killed April 4. He lost control of his cruiser and hit a tree while speeding to help another officer break up a fight. His surviving wife, pregnant with triplets, asked that the public ceremony be put off until after she delivers.

While this year might have the fewest public safety officers honored in death, there is one mark the Dulaney Valley caretakers long for but have never seen since they began this ritual in 1976 to honor three Baltimore County firefighters who died in a five-alarm fire at Shiller's Furniture store on Holabird Avenue.

The number has never been zero.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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