In Advance of Honor

Researchers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
follow a stringent and emotional process to v
et names of the fallen.

 

Peeling back layers, overturning proverbial stones, unearthing nuggets of information that are sometimes nearly impossible to find. The process that leads to fallen officers being honored by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is not simply an investigative skill that can be learned. It’s a gift.

Fortunately, the Memorial Research department is enriched by two such gifted individuals, Carolie Heyliger and Vanissa Varnado. Heyliger, who researches historic cases, joined the department 21 years ago; Varnado, a former probation officer who researches recent cases, has worked in the specialized area since 2016. These two extraordinary individuals take on hundreds of cases each year, and follow them through an arduous process, gathering pertinent information on fallen officers from a variety of sources. As a result of their hard work, about 300 names are approved and added to the wall each year.

“Once a case is identified, we wait an appropriate time, send a condolence letter, then the task force identifies the best point of contact,” said Varnado.

Heyliger sometimes has historians help her run down information, but one unexpected source that helps greatly with historical cases is online genealogy services. These sites have been very helpful in finding survivors.

“Often, the fallen officer’s department can’t find family for historic cases, so sadly, there’s no one to notify,” explained Heyliger. “It’s important to find people to notify that their family member is being honored ahead of time, because once a name is read at the annual Candlelight Vigil ceremony, they’re never read again. The family has missed their chance to share in the experience.”

With online genealogy services, the department gets a response about half the time. “Sometimes the response is enthusiastic, but sometimes too much time has passed, and they don’t really have a connection,” continued Heyliger. “What’s exciting are the times when a family first hears about the opportunity, and they are thrilled that great-grandpa’s name is on the wall and they end up attending the Candlelight Vigil.”

The Painstaking Process

There are many ways the organization learns of a possible line-of-duty death, from news stories to social media, and sometimes directly from someone close to the fallen. Quite frequently, one historical case is discovered while researching another.

Once an officer is identified as a possible honoree, a case file is opened and the extensive vetting process begins. The staff medical examiner takes all the medical files, sometimes hundreds of pages, and determines whether that evidence supports a line-of-duty death. If an officer dies of natural causes, such as a heart attack or stroke, additional medical documentation must be obtained to substantiate if the natural occurrence was preceded by a line-of-duty incident. COVID-19 has made the process even more difficult.

“With COVID-19, an officer can be taken out so quickly. Literally, in six weeks, they’re gone,” explained Varnado. “But we have to be diligent in our research. When did the officer become ill? Was there an outbreak at the department or facility, or among the staff? We need contact-tracing information, like the history of direct exposure. It can be difficult, but we are determined, and we get the information in the end.”

Emotionally Taxing, Yet Thoroughly Rewarding

Those left behind suffer the most, and it’s Heyliger and Varnado who are tasked with taking surviving family members through the process to honor their loved ones. Varnado feels that her past career as a probation officer has helped her deal with such difficult situations.

“Being on the research team requires skills in psychology, therapy, investigation, reporting,” said Varnado. “I have a background in sociology and criminal justice, and I think people find me easy to talk to. I try to always have a calming demeanor, to be a good listener.”

Heyliger often experiences similar difficult situations. “With historical cases, when I have to contact family, it’s like walking on eggshells,” explained Heyliger. “You don’t know if they had a relationship – good or bad – with their grandfather. You’re not sure what to expect. Some family members see this as an honor; for others, it’s still very raw, even though it may have happened years ago. There’s really no amount of time to get over the loss,” continued Heyliger. “They need to talk. They need someone to listen.”

According to Varnado, “Any call with a primary survivor is difficult and can trigger an emotional response. They often share stories of their loved ones, giving me a glimpse into their lives and the difficulty of the loss.”

Once a case file is complete, the research department sends it to the Memorial Names Committee, a group of National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund board members who have voting authority to approve or deny a case. “We sometimes get questionable cases, where we present the information, but don’t know how the Names Committee is going to vote. So, we are rooting for someone to be honored,” Varnado explained.

The process, though emotionally taxing, has its rewards. “Getting an officer’s name on the wall is very satisfying,” said Heyliger.

“I think, personally, it’s great that what we do helps bring the family a sense that their loved one’s career meant something,” Varnado concluded. “They can always come back, view the name, tell the next generation about it, and the honor continues.”

The satisfaction of knowing they have helped immortalize someone’s beloved family member is the greatest gift these accomplished researchers can offer.

“It may sound trite,” said Heyliger. “But it truly is a gift that keeps on giving … for generations to come.”

The Takeaway: Traffic Fatalities

Avoiding Traffic Fatalities—Training, Preparation, and Technology

Avoiding Traffic Fatalities—Training, Preparation, and Technology

Avoiding Traffic Fatalities—Training, Preparation, and Technology  was the last of three programs in the Destination Zero Fatality Report and Program Series, a series of programs to supplement the release of the 2020 Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report.

Download the full report here

During the program we heard from Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Katie Alexander, Law Enforcement Liaison with the Texas Municipal Police Association, who discussed the importance of proper training on Smart Risk v. Risk, preparation, the manipulation of an officer’s physical environment, and creating accountability through technology and peer support.

View the full program here

Determined Action Items:

  • Measure the level of priority so you are not driving unnecessarily fast to a call that is not an emergency.
  • Practice exiting the vehicle with the seatbelt on, so you improve muscle memory and reduce the time it takes.
  • Educate the community on how to move out of the way safely and when to pull to the side.
  • Traffic safety training should begin in the academy and continue throughout an officer’s career.
  • Continue to provide reminders of best practices through posters, communications, or during roll call.

Destination Zero Top 5 Tips

  1. Wear your seat belt.
  2. Position your vehicle to help protect you.
  3. Use the passenger side approach.
  4. Wear your reflective vest whenever you are outside of your vehicle.
  5. Use the other resources around you by requesting support from the fire department and tow/wrecker vehicles to create the space you need and block oncoming traffic.

Final Thoughts:

Remember, accountability does not have to have a negative connotation. Law enforcement leadership has a responsibility to monitor when excessive speeds are being used on a regular basis and to counsel officers when speed does not match the level of priority.

“You can’t save a life if you never make it to the call.”
— Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Destination Zero is Sponsored by 

The Takeaway: Firearm Fatalities

Protecting Ourselves Against Firearm Fatalities

Protecting Ourselves Against Firearm Fatalities—Funding, Media, and Policy

Protecting Ourselves Against Firearm Fatalities—Funding, Media, and Policy  was the second of three programs in the Destination Zero Fatality Report and Program Series, a series of programs to supplement the release of the 2020 Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report.

Download the full report here

During the program we heard from Superintendent David Brown, Chicago Police Department, and Dr. Alex Eastman, Senior Medical Officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as they shared strategies and guidance on how funding, the media, and procedures and policy reduces firearms-related fatalities.

View the full program here

Determined Action Items:

  • De-escalation not only helps resolve more situations peacefully, but it also slows things down so officers have more time to make better decisions and wait for back up.
  • Time and distance also help leadership make better decisions.
  • Reflection leads to improved tactics and training.
  • Include city officials and the legal team in after-actions to create a more accurate critique that will lead to the prevention of repetitive circumstances.

Destination Zero Top 5 Tips:

  1. Wear your vest.
  2. Wait for cover before responding to calls for service.
  3. Remain situationally aware at all times.
  4. Use de-escalation to slow down potential use of force engagement.
  5. Continually train on defensive tactics and life-saving skills.

Final Thoughts:

Officers need to be well enough to execute through the challenges we face today and transform policing yet again.

“You never want to put yourself in a quick draw scenario where the fastest draw wins.”
-Superintendent David O. Brown

Destination Zero is Sponsored by 

The Takeaway: Covid-19 Fatalities

Navigating The COVID-19 Health Crisis—Information, Leadership, And Support

Navigating the COVID-19 Health Crisis was the first of three programs in the Destination Zero Fatality Report and Program Series, a series of programs to supplement the release of the 2020 Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report.

Download the full report here

During the program we heard from Dr. Alex Eastman, Senior Medical Officer with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Deputy Commissioner John Miller, Intelligence and Counterterrorism with the New York Police Department, as they discussed the need for early and accurate information, visible leadership and clear communication, and departmental support during COVID-19 and other public health crises.

View the full program here

Determined Action Items:

  • Designate someone in your agency to be responsible for purchasing and managing the supply of tests, personal protective equipment (PPE), and cleaning supplies.
  • Reduce the spread by limiting physical or social contact at the workplace.
  • Identify which staff can work from home to reduce the number of people who must work in the office.
  • To lessen the risk of exposure and spread, enter fewer residences, and ask medical questions in advance.
  • If medical information needs to be communicated over a radio, then a series of codes should be created to keep it private.

 

Destination Zero Top 5 Tips:

  1. Wear your mask and gloves.
  2. Sanitize your vehicle at the beginning and end of each shift.
  3. Sanitize your leather gear at the end of each shift.
  4. Change out of your uniform before entering your home.
  5. Avoid non-essential contact with the public.

Final Thoughts

Develop and practice emergency protocols on a regular basis for a potential future pandemic crisis. Package these procedures so they are clear and understood by all personnel. Within this process, always keep enough supplies stocked and stored in proper conditions.

Destination Zero is Sponsored by 

2021 Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum Commemorative Coins

In January of 2021, the United States Mint will accept advance orders for the exclusive National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum Commemorative Coins.

Each year, Congress authorizes a maximum of two commemorative coin programs to celebrate and honor American people, places, events, and institutions. This is an honor of which we are very proud.

“We are overjoyed that our nation’s lawmakers have recognized the importance of this Museum and the vital role of law enforcement in our society,” said National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund CEO Marcia Ferranto. “The significance of this coin and what it will mean both for the Museum and its supporters is immeasurable.”

THE DESIGN PROCESS

The President signed the National Law Enforcement Museum Commemorative Coin (H.R. 1865) into law on December 20, 2019. Once H.R. 1865 became law, the coin design process began. Designers from the U.S. Mint solicited contributions from the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum (NLEM&M) for key themes, images, inspiration, and focal points. Approximately 70 designs were shared with NLEM&M to review for accuracy and appropriateness.

The resultant designs were then reviewed by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), which serves as an informed, experienced, and impartial resource to advise the Secretary of the Treasury on designs of all US coins and medals. The CCAC, in representation of the interests of all American citizens and collectors, made the final decision on the coin designs that the Secretary approved on November 12, 2020.

The coins will be produced in three denominations: gold coins, silver dollars, and half-dollar clad coins. They will be available throughout 2021 for purchase through the US Mint, as well as in the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum Gift Shop. However, a finite quantity of coins will be minted, so collectors and supporters are encouraged to preorder. Proceeds from the sale of the commemorative coin will help endow programs and exhibits at the Museum.