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Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates Delivers Keynote Address at 35th Annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service
Washington, DC
United States
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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Chuck [Canterbury], for that kind introduction.  More importantly, thank you for your many years of service as a police officer and for your for passionate advocacy on behalf of our country’s law enforcement officers.  I also want to thank Jim Pasco, Linda Hennie and everyone who organized today’s memorial service and the entire week of events here in Washington, events that shine a much-needed and much-deserved light on what it means to be a law enforcement officer and on what you do for the people of our country. 

I am humbled to be here today to honor all of you who work every day to keep us safe and to pay homage to our law enforcement colleagues who selflessly gave their lives for that safety.  I’ve been a prosecutor 27 years and so I’ve had the privilege to work alongside law enforcement officers – state, local and federal – for my entire professional career.  We prosecutors like to think of ourselves as part of the law enforcement family, but that fact of the matter is that while we all are working toward the same objectives – peace and justice – you are the ones who risk your lives for it.  Every day, when you get up and go to work, you don’t know what danger awaits you.  When you make a traffic stop, or execute a search warrant, or answer a domestic call, you don’t know if it will be what has become routine for all of you, or whether you will meet the fate of the 136 heroes whom we honor here today.  But you do it anyway.  You do it for us.  And we don’t say thank you often enough.

We gather here, as we do every year, at the steps of the Capitol, beneath this extraordinary symbol of our nation’s founding ideals.  But not far from here, of course, is another great symbol of our ideals.  Five blocks from here are two long, curved marble walls, each one carved with the names of officers who died in the line of duty.  These are the names of heroes, more than 20,000 of them, reaching back to the earliest days of our republic.  These are the names of our colleagues and our friends, our fathers and our daughters, our neighbors and our fellow citizens.  They are forever united by a common sacrifice and their names are forever etched in our common history.  

I visited that wall earlier this week, to think about the officers that we are honoring today and to search for words that could somehow do justice to their selfless sacrifice.  There I saw taped to the marble walls photos of loved ones lost, handwritten stories, poems from children, prayers and tributes, wreaths from police departments and single red roses tagged with the names of officers who didn’t come home. 

As I visited that sacred place and saw the raw outpouring of love, pain and reverence, it became evident to me that I don’t have the words that can adequately capture the height of their valor or the depth of your loss.  With every name on that wall comes a story – a story of service, of bravery and ultimately of heartbreaking loss.  So the only way I know to even begin to honor their heroism is to share with you what is just a few of those stories.

On a chilly day last spring, Trooper Trevor Casper was getting ready to start his very first solo shift as a member of the Wisconsin State Patrol.  He was only three months out of the academy.  That morning, as he talked with his colleagues, he was giddy, smiling ear to ear, eager to begin his new life in law enforcement.  He must have felt a rush of adrenaline when he received the first dispatch, notifying him of a suspect fleeing a bank robbery.  And off he went, racing towards the scene.  He eventually came across the suspect’s vehicle and in the shootout that followed Trooper Casper was hit three times.  Before he fell to the ground, he managed to fire his weapon, killing the suspect before he could harm others.  Despite the efforts of his colleagues and the paramedics, Trooper Casper died on the way to the hospital.  He was 21 years old.

This time last year, Detective Kerrie Orozco had her own reasons to be excited.  Several months earlier, Detective Orozco had given birth prematurely and she decided to delay taking her maternity leave until after her baby girl was out of the hospital.  The day finally arrived for when Detective Orozco could take little baby Olivia home from the neonatal unit.  Before taking Olivia home for the first time, Detective Orozco decided to pull one last shift with the Omaha Police Department.  With a colleague, she went to serve a felony arrest warrant on a shooting suspect.  The suspect opened fire, using a handgun with a 50-round magazine purchased at a pawn shop.  One of those bullets struck Detective Orozco just below her shoulders and just above the top of her bulletproof vest.  She died before baby Olivia could make it home.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Josie Wells came from a family of law enforcement officers that included his dad and three brothers.  Every day for four years, he proudly wore the badge of the U.S. Marshals Service, safeguarding our communities by pursuing fugitives from justice.  To his friends in Mississippi, his easy smile and sense of adventure lived up to his name, which his father had chosen based on “the outlaw Josey Wales.”  To his college sweetheart Channing, he was a devoted husband, especially as they prepared to welcome their first child into the world.  Deputy Marshal Wells was destined to do great things in his life – a life that was cut short outside a motel in Louisiana as he and his colleagues attempted to serve an arrest warrant on a double-murder suspect.  He died the day before Channing learned that their child would be a boy – Josie Wells Jr., born healthy five months later and named after his fallen father.

Every one of the 136 men and women we honor today not only has their own story, but their own families and friends who grieve their loss every day.  In sharing the stories of these brave men and women, we honor not simply the heroism of their final sacrifice, but also the heroism of the lives they lived.  We honor their decency, their integrity and their commitment to create a better world for those who came next.  It is up to us – to all of us they left behind – to carry on the ideals they championed.

That won’t always be easy.  We live in challenging times.  Law enforcement officers confront risks and difficulties that the average citizen does not.  The long days, the late nights, the trips away from home.  The anxiety every time a suspect reaches inside his jacket, unsure what he’ll pull out.  The desire to comfort the loved ones who take such pride in your work but who worry for your safety.   And, perhaps toughest of all, you are expected to confront these challenges with patience and uncommon grace. 

You have a hard job.  But that’s exactly why we so badly need you.  We need people with resilience and the determination to carry on the highest traditions of this profession.

I won’t presume to know why each of you decided to become law enforcement officers.  But I’m willing to bet that no one chose this profession because they thought that the work would be easy.  You’re drawn to the great challenges of improving our country and our neighborhoods.  You’re drawn to the demands of public service, eager to save lives and heal communities, even in the face of criticism and cynicism.  You’re drawn to this work, as President Kennedy once said, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

And in turn, you have the right to expect us to ensure that you have the training, resources and support you need to thrive.  To stand with you.  To do everything in our power to ensure that our law enforcement officers receive the respect and recognition they deserve.

To the family, friends and loved ones of the fallen, our hearts go out to you.  Together we will make sure that their memory lives on – not simply etched in stone, but as a living memorial to their service and sacrifice.

Thank you all for your service to our country and thank you for allowing me to share this day with you.  

Updated May 15, 2016