Thursday, April 25, 2013

MIT Officer Sean Collier

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) Police Department Lieutenant Shawn de Jong sent the following out via campus email this morning and has given me permission to post. Yesterday with thousands of Police Officers from around the country, she joined the MIT community in honoring fallen MIT Officer Sean Collier who authorities say was gunned down by the Boston marathon bombing suspects

Officer de Jong has given me permission to share her experience -  an extremely moving tribute to a fellow Officer.



At 7:00 Wednesday morning (yesterday), I left campus to attend the memorial service for slain MIT officer Sean Collier as the representative for the STCC Police Department and STCC community at large.  Because the service was restricted to law enforcement, some MIT community members, and Officer Collier’s family, I wanted to share this humbling experience with you.

Although I opted to leave the marked cruisers on campus for our officers, I was in full uniform and in a state vehicle as I headed down the Pike. I knew I would come across a caravan of marked cruisers en route somewhere on the Mass Pike and would be allowed to join in. We were all given a strict deadline of 9:30 by which we had to make it to the South Boston staging area for law enforcement.

As I passed I-290, a caravan of approximately 150 marked cruisers drove down the on ramp with blue lights on. I turned on the emergency flashers in the vehicle I was driving. A Massachusetts State Trooper acknowledged me and let me join in just in front of his cruiser. Together we all made our way eastbound into the city and to the staging area in South Boston for parking. Other travelers on the Pike pulled over on the left and the right shoulders to allow us to pass. As we navigated through intersections in South Boston, I recognized the shoulder patches of police officers from across the state directing traffic to get us through the city without delay, filling in for the Boston Police officers so they could attend the service.

We parked in a secure location that had been searched for explosive devices before we arrived. We exited our cruisers and other vehicles and greeted one another, strangers mostly to each other but who all understand what it is to do what we do every day and most poignantly, why we were all converging on this day.  With that and because of that, we are family and our greetings are warm.

We were all in uniform, many shades of blue, pressed sharp lines in shirts and trousers and polished boots. We climbed into buses that were searched for explosive devices before we boarded. We rode on these buses, shoulder pressed against shoulder, knee against knee, in heavy wool and polyester uniforms stretched over our ballistics vests. I looked around at these officers seated around me. I recognized the collar and epaulet brass signifying chiefs, captains and lieutenants. I saw the shoulder stripes of sergeants and the slick sleeves of the unranked officers. While I was addressed as Lieutenant (I wear my permanent rank on my epaulets) by those around me and I heard others addressed accordingly out of respect, what we wore on our collars or sleeves on this bus ride from South Boston to Cambridge might as well have been the same from officer to officer. I read the shoulder patches of departments from across the state, from Western Massachusetts to the Cape, states, cities, towns, and college and university police departments, departments from New Jersey, Rhode Island, Chicago, Los Angeles, the FBI, Canada, and on and on. Despite our differences in rank and despite our patches, it was clear to me that in our awkward effort to keep things light, laughing here and there to ease the tension while confined during the brief bus ride, we had a common purpose and a deep need to memorialize a young man who was one of all of us. In moments like this, rank falls away and patches blur.  Somehow just being together helped, alone in a bus where we didn’t have to explain anything—especially cryptic language from the law enforcement lexicon--as we might to a civilian.

On Tuesday I had called the Cambridge Police Command Center deployed for this memorial service to inquire about officer safety, transportation, and all things procedural. Law enforcement turns out for these services en mass; although officers themselves would be armed, we were all concerned about an attempt at large-scale violence against us. I was told prohibited access to the area by the public would be strictly enforced and all efforts would be made to ensure a secure site.

As promised, we arrived to find a heavily guarded multi-block section of Cambridge with which I was familiar and of which I have many wonderful memories from my years spent in Boston. The Mass Ave bridge had been closed, no vehicles were allowed in the large, secured section of Cambridge, a no-fly zone had been established overhead, heavily armed tactical forces were in place along both sides of the streets, armored vehicles stood idling and ready. EOD K-9s (bomb dogs) and bomb trucks, search and rescue dogs, and muzzled police K-9s lined the sidewalks.  SWAT teams stood with high-powered firearms and officers in combat gear and with their backs to us faced the alleys and high rises we passed. As we walked from the bus unloading area, down Vassar street, we passed a Disaster Relief vehicle and the American Red Cross station, presumably staged and prepared in the event something similar to the Marathon bombing occurred. The streets were filled from curb to curb with a throng of officers marching in cadence, approximated, I heard, at 7000 in number.

I have attended four funerals of officers killed in the line of duty over the course of my career. Each was tragic and senseless. One never expects it to get easier and it never does. But what I have discovered is that your relationship to it changes as you are tested over time and responsibilities shift.  Vice President Biden made some palpable remarks that I will hold onto for the rest of my career. Although I initially thought at the start of his speech that it was going to be yet another obligatory political address, I eventually heard the sincerity in his words as he spoke about Officer Collier. Biden and the other speakers reminded us over and over how kind Officer Collier was, how loving and caring and giving. Collier’s brother told us funny things about Sean that only a brother can tell. From all of these stories it was apparent that Sean Collier was everything you hope for in a police officer.  And even more than his love for others, he was loved by the MIT community. This was not rhetoric. This was a truth reflected in the shared thoughts and sentiments of the MIT students, faculty and staff submitted online this past week and read by Biden today. It was present in the silence of the crowd as the uniformed stood at attention and in salute of his coffin carried onto the field.  It was present in the muted clapping of 7000 pairs of officers’ hands, the sound hauntingly muffled by our white cotton gloves.  It was present in the tears of the MIT Symphony Orchestra’s first violinist, which she tried to quickly and discretely wipe away. The Prelude and Postlude from the orchestra, the Chaplain’s prayers, the songs from James Taylor, the beautiful Boston Police bagpipes and drum corps, and the final bugle of Taps all rang out across Brigg’s Field in reverence of a fallen officer and friend.

I did not know Sean Collier. I know some of his colleagues at the MIT Police Department just as I know many of the other officers who arrived on Brigg’s Field for this service.  We smiled when we first arrived on the field, and did the hug/cop handshake thing simultaneously. We talked shop, caught up on gossip, talked retirement, and talked about who has already retired. I have worked closely with many of them, serving search warrants together, investigating the same criminals in Boston and beyond, and working horrible and long overtime details together at football games. I know their nicknames, their kids’ names, their serious-get-down-to-business side and their let’s-go-have-a-beer side. I also know their kindness, their toughness, their resilience through tragedy, and their stoicism. And because I know that about all of them, I knew Sean Collier. He was one of us and we are him. And everyone was there to pay tribute to his life and memory and to hope for better things.

The wool was heavy and the ballistics vests unyielding under the sun. Drained physically and emotionally, sweaty and thirsty, we left Brigg’s Field at the closing of the service and reversed our earlier trek, heading down Vassar on foot back to the bus loading area. The heavily armed presence was still there. This time, citizens (whom I suspect were MIT students, faculty and staff) held back by barricades and many layers deep, watched us. Some held signs that said “Collier Strong.” Some took video with Smartphones. Some looked sad, some cried, some smiled, and some waved. It felt as if we were all there together pulling through something hard that challenged and changed our lives more than almost anything else. But we were pushing forward, citizens and uniforms alike, on either side of the barricades, with a renewed--and hopefully not fleeting--sense of trust and kinship. Crossing the barricaded Mass Ave and Vassar St. intersection, for a brief and rare moment it was nearly silent except for the drone of a fleet of waiting nearby buses, swept again by EOD K-9s before we boarded. The paradox of kinship and risk was inescapable and troubling. I want to believe we all held closer to one than worried about the other in that moment.

It was a fast bus ride back to South Boston thanks to all of the visiting officers again in every intersection between Cambridge and South Boston. We piled out of the buses, grabbed a bottle of water, a snack, and bid each other farewell. At 3:00, I climbed into my vehicle and made my way to the Pike, this time on my own. Random police cruisers and SUVs passed me on occasion, certain to have come from the service and now headed westbound like me. I read the names of the towns on the sides of the vehicles and wondered what the officers were thinking and what memories they were left with from today.

I returned to campus depleted after a long day and walked into our police station. I was met by one of my officers who was working a 16 hour shift. He looked tired, having had only a few hours of sleep since he last got off duty. He asked about the service. I could see in his face and hear in his voice that he wasn’t just asking because I had walked in the door and he was standing there. He sincerely wanted to know what it was like. He had attended the service for Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose last summer. This isn’t new to him. But for some reason all of us in police work need to know the details of each slain officer’s service because they are a touchstone for something we don’t really talk about. So I told him what I told you here. Then I pinned the folded program I brought back from the service to the board in our roll call area. It has Officer Collier’s photo on the front—the same one we are all so familiar with now. Another officer came in and asked about the service—with the same undercurrent of need. I repeated the details of the day and pointed him to the program. He took it down and began to read it. I left them to their thoughts and work.

I went to the locker room and removed my uniform shirt and ballistics vest. My black uniform T-shirt was soaked from the heat. I gathered my things, checked in with the officers and left for the day to go home. Later, as I sat in my backyard and thought about the day, I tried to identify the looming tension I felt. There is of course a sense of loss in our law enforcement community that we all feel. There is an uneasiness in knowing our vulnerabilities and the risks in our work. When you are a young officer, your concern is keeping yourself and your partner safe. When you are a sergeant, your concern in keeping yourself and the officers serving under you on the shift safe. When you are a Lieutenant, your concern is keeping yourself and the sergeants and officers serving under you on shift safe. When you are Chief, your concern is keeping them all safe. And here is where my relationship to the tragic death of an officer has changed over time. I am comforted by the eagerness with which my officers need to understand their own vulnerabilities in knowing Officer Collier’s. This eagerness is a complicated and unfortunate necessity in law enforcement.  But it tells me they are paying attention and that alone may help to keep them safe.

I am glad I went today and I hope there are no others to attend, though I know there will be in time. I know my officers felt this loss in varying degrees and we will deal with it amongst ourselves. Last week was horrendous for all, but I know Thursday night was particularly difficult for our police community. What we learn from tragedies such as this is personal. Memorials like the one for Sean Collier today provide opportunities for larger lessons and for genuine hope for something better. I think we all trust that there is much out there that is better. If, as was demonstrated at Mass Ave and Vassar St. today, we can hold onto some measure of kinship in the end, we will have realized something better. Knowing what I now know about Officer Collier, he understood this and lived his life and did his good work at MIT with that in mind. I was pleased to represent STCC today, but I am indeed more honored and humbled to bring Officer Collier to you. And in continuing our work at STCC with that same simple goal of trust and benevolence, we honor him and his life.

Shawn de Jong
Springfield Technical Community College
Police Department


Thank you Lieutenant de Jong.

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