May 27, 2023

Honoring officers who died in the line of duty


PERF members,

Two weeks ago, at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund’s 35th Annual Candlelight Vigil, I had the honor of reading the names of eight officers who died in the line of duty. Every year I’ve been at PERF, I’ve read names at the Candlelight Vigil. As I look out at the audience, I see the families huddled together and know that each group has someone missing. This year, 556 names were added to the Memorial – 224 who died in 2022 and 332 who died in previous years. I wish I could share the stories of all 556, but given space constraints, I’ll stick to the stories of the eight Alabama officers whose names I read.

Vestavia Hills Officer Darryl Wayne Fortner died in April 2022 at age 53 due to COVID complications. A husband, father, and grandfather, Officer Fortner joined the Vestavia Hills Police Department after serving with the Birmingham Police Department for 20 years. His obituary says “he was a blessing and used his wit and humor to bring joy to those around him and he will be missed by many.”

Kevin Len Pounders, a lieutenant with the Hanceville Police Department, died in January 2022 at age 48 after a four-month battle with COVID. After serving with the United States Marine Corps, Lt. Pounders had a 24-year career with local law enforcement agencies. According to his obituary, Lt. Pounders “had a larger than life personality, but always treated everyone he met with respect and kindness.”

Steven Ray Finley, an investigator with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, also died in January 2022 due to COVID complications. Investigator Finley, a father of six, grandfather of 16, and great-grandfather of one, was 59 years old. He had served with the sheriff’s office for 29 years and “loved being outdoors, whether it was hunting, fishing, building on some new project, or just being in his garage working on something that may not even be broken.”

Selma Officer Marquis Dewon Moorer was shot and killed in July 2021 at age 25. Officer Moorer was on duty and had stopped by his apartment at about 4:00 a.m. for a meal break when he was ambushed by two gunmen. Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson said, “He was an outstanding officer. He took his job very seriously.”

St. Florian Sgt. Walter Lewis Johnson died in December 2020 at age 58 due to COVID. Sgt. Johnson retired from the Alabama Highway Patrol before joining the three-officer St. Florian Police Department. “He was a great man,” St. Florian Mayor Matthew Connolly said. “He was well respected in the community, he was well loved in the community, and he treated everybody out here with respect.”

John T. Oaks, an assistant chief with the Phenix City Police Department, died in 1941 when he was struck by a vehicle. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Assistant Chief Oaks was investigating a single-vehicle crash when an approaching vehicle hit him. Assistant Chief Oaks was 70 years old.

Sheffield Officer John Graham was killed in 1918 at age 40. The Officer Down Memorial Page states that Officer Graham was investigating shots fired near his boarding house when he was shot and killed.

Jeremiah Lynch, an officer with the Mobile Police Department, died in 1872 at age 45. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Officer Lynch was stabbed as he and his partner attempted to arrest a group of disorderly men.

As you may have noticed, most of the recent fatalities involved COVID, a threat that has receded but not gone away. According to a National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund report, officer COVID deaths decreased from 405 in 2021 to 70 in 2022 but still accounted for nearly one-third of the 2022 fatalities. Of the 226 fatalities that year, 64 were firearms-related, 56 were traffic-related, 70 were COVID-related, and 36 were due to other causes, including job-related illnesses, medical events, and aircraft crashes.

As the graph below shows, the average number of officer deaths each year has risen sharply in this decade due to an increase in deaths not related to firearms or traffic, such as deaths due to COVID. In 2020 and 2021, more officers died from COVID than all other causes combined.

Source: NLEOMF

Before this recent increase, the profession had made important progress since the 1970s in reducing the number of law enforcement fatalities. I hope we can resume that progress as the COVID threat continues to lessen.

Remembering an excellent police chief, and an even better man

Five years ago, PERF helped the city of Charleston, South Carolina pick its next police chief, and we were fortunate to find a standout candidate in Luther Reynolds.  I had known Luther as a capable assistant chief with the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department and had him serve as a class coordinator at our SMIP program in Boston. In Charleston I saw him blossom into a beloved police chief. When PERF interviewed his references during the Charleston search process, then-Montgomery County police chief Tom Manger told us that if Luther was selected, the Charleston mayor would call me a year later and tell me Luther was the best hire he’d ever made. A national leader in the profession, Luther was elected to PERF’s board of directors in 2021.

In late 2021, Luther was diagnosed with a rare type of bone cancer, and he had his leg amputated early last year. Through it all, he provided the Charleston Police Department with steady leadership.

Sadly, Luther passed away earlier this week at the age of 56. My heart goes out to his wife Caroline, who regularly joined him at PERF events over the past year, and their two children, Luke and Grace.

This week chiefs across the country told me they were touched by Luther’s humility and exceptional character. He made an impression on every person he met. I grew to know him as a great chief and a man with an enormous heart. And as he battled cancer, he was admirably open with his employees and his community about his successes and challenges. He was a model of how to live, right through his last days.

I’ll close by quoting from Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s statement on Luther’s death:

“Charleston has lost not just a great police chief, but one of the finest human beings that many of us will ever know. Luther Reynolds was a modern man of ancient virtues: faith, honor, courage, duty. But most of all, and at his very core, Luther was a man of love. He loved his family, his friends, his life. He loved this city and the brave men and women who keep it safe. He loved God, and in faithful service, he loved his neighbor.”

Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.