WOONSOCKET — The father of slain Providence Patrolman Steven Shaw knows it’s hard for some people to understand why, after 19 years, he still shows up for events like the Woonsocket Police Department’s COPS Walk.
“They don’t understand,” he says. “You never get over it. They say things like ‘your son’s in a better place.’ That’s a lot of baloney. If it’s so much better why don’t you go there instead?’
Shaw, and his daughter-in-law, Maria Shaw — Steven’s widow — joined local police Wednesday for the first few steps of a 450-mile journey dedicated to officers killed in the line of duty. Part fundraiser, part memorial, the annual trek was christened COPS Walk after its only beneficiary, the national nonprofit Concerns of Police Survivors, which maintains a support network for thousands like Robert and Maria, who’ve lost police relatives.
The Shaws were among nearly a hundred family members, friends and dignitaries who gathered at police headquarters for a farewell ceremony on behalf of 13 local police officers who are making the trip, which ends in Washington, D.C. They’ll arrive in time to take part in a candlelight vigil in honor of police killed in the line of duty, the opening rite of National Police Week events in the nation’s capitol.
“It’s something to give back to the families that support us,” says Detective Brad Scully, one of the participating officers. “This is what the officers would for my family, so I do it for their families.”
Sgt. Ed Cunanan, a chief organizer of COPS Walk, told spectators the event raised $15,000 for the Camdenton, Mo.-based COPS agency last year. That was not just a record for COPS Walk, he said, it was more than any other single law enforcement agency in the nation.
This year, which marks the 12th annual COPS Walk, the WPD crew has already broken the record, bringing in $18,000 before taking a single step.
COPS Walk has steadily grown over the years from its humble roots as a simple pledge drive, says Cunanan. The work began months ago and included a “comedy night” at a local club; a tag day; and a fundraising “spin” class at The Gym LLC.
No one raised more cash than Detective Sgt. Phil Kamer, who posted a fundraising page on Facebook that generated “thousands,” said Cunanan.
“The work before we take our first step is almost as hard now,” says Cunanan. “We’re sitting on $18,000 ready to give. We normally get a lot of donations on the way, so that number can only go up.”
During the next several days, COPS Walk participants will walk about 60 miles each in rotating shifts, reaching their destination sometime Saturday. When they’re not on their feet, the officers will rest in a rented mobile home that’s always a few steps ahead of them. A marked police cruiser follows the caravan, for safety reasons.
A number of dignitaries attended the sendoff, including Mayor Leo Fontaine, Police Chief Tom Carey, Councilman Robert Moreau and Chris Fierro, an aide to Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI).
“I’ve been doing this about 30 years,” said Carey. “I’ve never seen anything like COPS Walk from any other agency.”
In addition to Cunanan and Scully, the officers participating in the walk are Sgt. Marc Cabral, Sgt. George McMann, Officers Sean Carpenter, Patrick McGourty, Matt Mendes, Mike Flood and James Dybala, Detective Peter Menard, Detective Kevin L’Heureux, Lt. Norman Galipeau and Lt. Todd Boisvert.
Maria and Bob Shaw say they appreciate all the police department’s efforts to raise money for the agency. They’ve both benefited immensely, they say, from family counseling, retreats and other programs offered by COPS.
“We love you,” they called out midway through the ceremony.
Bob Shaw, who’s taking the train to Washington this weekend, says he’s never missed a National Police Week celebration since his son was killed while searching a house in the West End of Providence in 1994. He was just 27 years old and married about 18 months.
The names of all U.S. police officers killed in the line of duty during the past year are added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial during the event. This year the names of 166 officers killed in 2011 will be added, according to COPS. Increasingly, police say the trend is that law enforcement deaths are on the rise, and more likely to be the result of violent assaults and gunfire.
As mayor and public safety director, Fontaine says he listens to the police scanner at home regularly, sometimes with his children. It’s always a nailbiter when the dispatcher broadcasts reports of “shots fired,” he says.
“Even my kids, they stop and listen,” he says. “There’s dead silence. I’m just waiting to hear everything’s okay.”
Like Shaw, Carey isn’t walking, but he, too, will travel to Washington for National Police Week this weekend. He’s on his way there to honor fallen friends from the St. Petersburg, Fla., police department, where he spent 26 years before arriving in Woonsocket. Three officers from the force were killed in less than a month’s time in 2011, and Carey knew them all.
K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz and Sgt. Tom Baitinger were both shot to death while attempting serve a search warrant in late January. The shock had barely subsided when Officer Dave Crawford was fatally shot after detaining a teenager suspected of tampering with an auto.
It’s been nearly 75 years since Woonsocket last experienced a line-of-duty police death, but the recent loss of Providence Patrolman Max Dorley, killed in a cruiser crash while en route to an emergency, is a reminder that the risk is never far away, says Carey.
“We know it’s a dangerous job, and that’s why we’re here today,” he says.