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Thank you, Craig [Floyd], for your kind words, and more importantly for your decades of leadership. Tonight is testament to the indispensable role the Memorial Fund plays in honoring the service and sacrifice of our nation’s men and women in uniform – not only at this annual vigil but every day of the year.
I am honored to be with you this evening, and I am grateful for the opportunity to pay my respects to so many fallen heroes and colleagues. For more than three decades, I have worked in law enforcement. And for more than three decades, I have seen, day after day, the selflessness, the fearlessness, and the valor that characterized every officer we commemorate today. These are rare and honorable traits that all of you – their closest family members and friends – knew well and, no doubt, miss dearly.
It was 218 years ago this month, in 1792, that an American law enforcement officer – Deputy Sherriff Isaac Smith of Westchester, N.Y.,– was first killed in the line of duty. Since that day, approximately 20,000 law enforcement officers have also made the ultimate sacrifice. Tonight, we add 325 to this memorial. Two hundred and nine were men and women unknown to this wall until the Memorial Fund resurrected the details of their sacrifices. And 116 were killed in the line of duty this past year.
I raise these numbers – 20,000, 325, 209, 116 – not as measures of loss, but as reminders of how dangerously easy it can be to reduce fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, children and colleagues and friends, to statistics. That’s why we must cling to our memories – of their bravery, their generosity, their laughter, their passion and their stories. And that’s why we now celebrate their lives by adding their names to this place of honor.
Although no memorial, no ceremony, and no salute can ease your pain and special burden, there is something you must know. The gratitude that I, along with the many law enforcement professionals here tonight, feel for your loved ones is shared by the entire law enforcement community and an entire nation. We are all safer for their sacrifice. And we will always be inspired by their example of service.
Unspeakable tragedy may be what brings us here. But our unending appreciation – for the unsung work of law enforcement – is what binds us, and binds all Americans, together. These officers secured our neighborhoods and our nation. And they did so willingly, embracing their essential roles from day one. They were part of something greater than any one man or woman. They were part of one of America’s earliest, finest and most noble traditions. They define what is best about our country.
So, while we may grieve, we must not despair. The choice of these heroic men and women to live for their country was made with the understanding that they could die for it, too. Their choice reminds us of just how brave – and how remarkable – they were.
It also reminds us of our duty today – and every day. We understand the risks of law enforcement work, but we must also understand the challenges. We must join our nation’s law enforcement community in standing up against crimes large and small. We must help each other in times of need. And above all, we must protect those who have made service to others their life’s work. At the Justice Department, there quite simply is no more basic, or more important, priority than keeping law enforcement officers safe.
This year, in particular, we are reminded of the gravity of this mission. As you know well, a few days after Thanksgiving last year, four police officers sat together at a coffee shop in Lakewood, Wash., preparing for a work day they would not live to see. Shortly before 8:30 that morning, these officers were ambushed by a gunman and – all four – were killed in cold blood. It is believed they were targeted, shot at, and murdered simply because of the uniforms they wore and the public service they provided.
These victims, of course, were members of Lakewood’s 100-member police department. But they were also part of something larger. They were part of a community that stretches from Tallahassee to Anchorage, from Sacramento to Augusta. They were part of a community that spans every level of our government – federal, state, local and tribal. They were part of a community that has been protecting the people of the United States since, and long before, Deputy Sherriff Isaac Smith was slain in the late 18th Century. They were part of America’s law enforcement community. And, like all of you, they were part of America’s larger law enforcement family.
Not unlike tonight, more than 20,000 people came from as far away as New York, Boston, and Chicago, driving hundreds of miles and more, to be part of the fallen officers’ service and processional. At one point, the Police Officer’s Prayer was read – a prayer of courage, strength, dedication and compassion.
These are the same qualities I see and admire in law enforcement officers all across our country. And they are the same qualities that we remember in those we now honor.
Today, I wish that I could give you – the families, friends and colleagues of these fallen heroes – the peace you seek. I cannot. But I can make you a promise. The work that they loved, and the service that was the center of their lives, will continue. Their sacrifice and your loss will be honored by a nation that has been, and will continue to be, strengthened by their example.
And while we can never repay the debt of gratitude we owe these courageous public servants, we will never forget their stories. Our candles tonight may burn only briefly, but we will forever carry forward the spirits of those they represent – in our work, in our hearts and in our ongoing commitment to justice.