WOONSOCKET — Robert Shaw's son had been a Providence policeman for five years when the 27-year-old was shot and killed by a burglar hiding in the closet of a South Side tenement in 1994.
But Shaw says the most important memorial tribute to Patrolman Steven M. Shaw isn't held in Providence — it's here, outside the headquarters of the Woonsocket Police Department, where a dedicated band of local police officers stages the Copswalk service once a year.
Shaw and his daughter-in-law, Maria — Steven's widow — have become a staple of the Copswalk tribute since its inception in 2000. The event, which coincides with National Police Week, is a fundraiser for the Missouri-based non-profit Concerns of Police Survivors, which provides counseling, retreats and other support for families who lose a police officer in the line of duty.
“It's great what the Woonsocket police are doing,” Shaw said. “It's like they're a part of my family. We've got the biggest family in the whole world – police officers.”
Amid the comforting drone of a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace,” the Shaws were among some 60 people who turned out for the ceremony in front of the Clinton Street police station yesterday, a crowd largely consisting of family members, friends of police and city officials. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, Police Chief Thomas Carey and Sgt. Edward Cunanan were among the speakers for the rite, which marks the kickoff of Copwalk's signature event – a five-day relay walk to Washington, D.C.
Thirteen members of the police department, many of them veterans of the Copswalk trek, are taking part. They include Cunanan, Sgt. George McMann, Officers Kevin L'Heureux, Sean Carpenter, Jamie Martin, Pat McGourty, Jason Robinson, Matt Mendes, Sgt. Bill Coupe, Lt. Norman Galipeau, Lt. Todd Boisvert, Det. Peter Menard and Lt. Brad Scully.
The Shaws weren't the only out-of-town survivors who came to the ceremony to pay tribute to loved ones lost in the line of duty.
Fran Snyder's husband, William Snyder, was a policeman on the Groton City, Conn., police department when he was struck and killed by an elderly driver in 1994. He was just 44 years old, Snyder recalled.
The tragic episode brought her into the same orbit of memorial observances as the Shaws, because her husband was killed just two weeks after Steven Shaw. Like the Shaws, she has been a part of the annual Copswalk tribute from the beginning, and both families have been participating in National Police Week events even longer.
“This is my 17th year going down to D.C. because my husband was killed just two weeks after Steven,” said Snyder. “They include me in everything.”
Cunanan, a key organizer of Copswalk, said the event has grown more successful and popular over time. This year Copswalk generated a record $14,000, the result of an eclectic assortment of fundraisers in recent weeks – everything from a comedy show to a road race. Individuals and businesses have also been very generous and new donors are stepping up all the time, said Cunanan.
The money is important, he said, but not as much as raising awareness of the many men and women who die every year in the name of law and order. Likening them to soldiers on the front lines of battle, Cunanan said, “There are warriors on the home front who are sacrificing it all.”
Across the nation, there are many organizations raising money for COPS in various ways, but the department's Copswalk is “a truly unique event,” Cunanan said, adding, “You're not going to find anything like this anywhere else in the country.”
There have been 66 deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty so far this year in the United States, including 31 by gunfire, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page website.
“This has been a violent year for police officers,” said Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey. “Three I worked with in St. Petersburg were killed in the line of duty earlier this year.”
Carey worked for the St. Petersburg, Fla., police department for 26 years before becoming the local chief. On Jan. 24 St. Petersburg Canine Officer Jeff Yaslowicz and Sgt. Tom Baitinger were both shot to death as they attempted to serve an arrest warrant on a suspect who had barricaded himself in an attic. Less than a month later, Sgt. David Crawford was shot four times in the chest during a motor vehicle stop.
“Two of the bullets went right through his notebook before they struck him,” Carey recalled.
The chief traveled to Florida twice this winter to attend the funerals of the three officers, all of whom Carey knew quite well. There was a noticeable hitch in his voice at the podium yesterday has he expressed concerns about their survivors.
“This ceremony and this walk is for them,” he said.
A souvenir T-shirt created as a fundraising tool for Copswalk 2011 is dedicated to the three officers, and features an image of St. Michael the Archangel – a sort of field commander in the Army of God, as the Bible would have it. Mayor Fontaine says it's a fitting reminder of the dangers police face.
“People don't want to talk about the evils out there in the modern world,” he said. “I've had a small taste of what it means when I hear those sirens out there at night...I have to tell you it makes we worry quite desperately.”
Trailed by a marked cruiser, the participating police officers will walk or jog through six states in five days, logging over 30 foot-miles each during the course of the journey. When they're not walking, participants will be resting in a rented motor coach or a van normally used by the department's honor guard – two other vehicles in the Copswalk caravan.
The police will reach the capital in time to mark several National Police Week events on tap for Saturday before riding home the following day.
“I admire the Woonsocket police department for doing what they're doing,” said Kilmartin, a former Pawtucket policeman. “Having been a police officer, I know all too well the dangers police officers face.”