May 14, 2022

“It is not how these officers died that made them heroes….”


PERF members,

Last night I again had the honor of reading names at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s 34th Annual Candlelight Vigil. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and it’s the most important and nerve-wracking night of my year.

I look out at the sea of candles held by the spouses, children, parents, families, coworkers, and friends of those who died in the line of duty. It’s emotionally draining for me, so I can’t imagine how difficult the evening must be for those who are mourning and missing a loved one. Each family huddles together, missing one person from their family cluster.

This year I had the opportunity to read the names of the ten officers from Arkansas who died in the line of duty. Of the eight who died in 2021, six passed away due to COVID-19. One died in a single-vehicle crash, and one was struck by a car. I also read the names of two officers who were shot and killed in previous years – one in 2020 and one back in 1929.

These deaths mirror many of the nationwide trends in officer fatalities. Of the record 458 line-of-duty fatalities in 2021, 301 were due to COVID-19, 62 were firearms-related, 58 were traffic-related, and 37 were due to other causes. These numbers should be a wake-up call to everyone in policing.

Fifty years ago, most officers killed in the line of duty were shot to death. But as safety vests became ubiquitous and training and equipment improved, firearms deaths began to decline overall (although last year saw an alarming increase). More recently, traffic-related incidents were the most common cause of line-of-duty deaths. Again, the profession responded with stronger policies on officers wearing seat belts, the enactment and enforcement of “move over” laws, and other safety improvements.

Now, we face the challenge of far too many officers dying from medical conditions – not just COVID-19 but also heart attacks and other serious ailments. Just as the policing profession took steps to protect officers from gunshots and car crashes, we need to do everything possible to protect them from disease and other health-related illnesses, so that we don’t have so many names to read at future Candlelight Vigils.

I’d like to use this week’s column to tell you a little about each of the officers from Arkansas whose names I read last night – how they died, and, more importantly, how they lived.

Lt. Hasain El-Amin, of the Arkansas State Hospital Department of Public Safety, contracted COVID-19 while on duty at the hospital. He had served in law enforcement for over 15 years when he died at age 41. According to his daughter, Amber, “you could be having the worst day ever and then he’ll come around you and you can try to stay mad but you’ll laugh.”

Officer Christopher Cummins, of the Bella Vista Police Department, was engaged and a father of three when he passed away at age 38 after contracting COVID-19 on the job. His obituary describes him as “a friend to everyone he met” and says “his passion was to serve and protect his community, and he did that every day of his life.”

Benton County Deputy Sheriff Joshua Pierson died at age 39 from complications due to COVID-19. He was survived by his fiancée and two children. Deputy Pierson served as a paralegal with the U.S. Army, then worked as a sheriff’s deputy for ten years. His obituary calls him “such a goofball, with a heart of gold.”

Deputy James Robert Gardner, of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, was a married father of four and grandfather of three who contracted COVID-19 while on the job and passed away at age 51. He had worked for 19 years at a lumber mill before answering the call to public service and working as a deputy sheriff for nine years before his untimely death.

Lt. Danny James Guynes, of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, was a married 57-year-old with a daughter and grandson who also contracted COVID-19 while working. According to his obituary, he “enjoyed times spent with his family” and “loved to fish and hunt.”

Patrolman Lesley Shane Green, of the Sheridan Police Department, had spent most of his life in law enforcement when he passed away at the age of 50. He started as a dispatcher at age 18 and later served as a deputy and a patrolman. He contracted COVID-19 while working as a jail administrator. His obituary says that “if he was backing up a fellow officer or protecting a citizen, he would be the first one in and the last one out.” He was survived by his wife and three sons.

Four officers died from other causes. Independence County Deputy Sheriff Frank Ramirez Jr. was killed in a single-vehicle crash while responding to a structure fire. Deputy Ramirez was 29 years old and was survived by his wife of five years and two children. According to his obituary, he “took pride in serving and protecting his community” and “loved spending time with his family and friends.”

Pea Ridge Police Officer Kevin Apple was struck and killed by a driver whose vehicle he was approaching at a gas station. The driver was suspected of felony fleeing and felony theft. The driver and a passenger were caught and charged with capital murder and accomplice to capital murder, respectively. Officer Apple was 53 years old and had served as a police officer for 23 years. His obituary notes that he “was known for his goofy laugh, practical jokes, and infectious smile.” In December, a portion of Highway 72 was renamed the Officer Kevin Apple Memorial Highway.

Auxiliary Officer Scott Hutton, of the Alexander Police Department, was shot and killed by a fellow officer on June 3, 2020. Officer Hutton went to the house of his fellow officer to pick up a squad car. That officer’s weapon fired as he was opening his door, killing Officer Hutton. The other officer was charged with felony manslaughter but convicted of a lesser misdemeanor. Officer Hutton was 36 years old, served two tours with the U.S. Army National Guard, and had been married for five years.

The final name was that of Yell County Deputy Sheriff Malachi Thacker, who was shot and killed more than 92 years ago, on December 27, 1929, by the father of a man with mental illness who Deputy Thacker was attempting to arrest. Deputy Thacker was a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service who had been appointed as a special deputy sheriff that afternoon. He was 36 years old and had a wife and four children.

Everyone who attends the Candlelight Vigil is trying to make sense of the senseless. These meaningful, well-lived lives were cut short by gunfire, car crashes, vehicular assault, and disease. This weekend, we should all keep in mind these ten individuals, as well as the hundreds of others just added to the Memorial and the more than 22,000 heroes who have died in the line of duty throughout our nation’s history.

And keep in mind what Vivian Eney Cross, the wife of fallen U.S. Capitol Police Officer Christopher Eney, said so poignantly more than three decades ago: “It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived.”