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By Jim Ignasher
Pikeville, Kentucky, with a population just under 7,000, is a small rural community in the eastern part of the state. On March 13, 2018, Pikeville police officer Scotty Hamilton and a state trooper were investigating a suspicious automobile parked on a quiet road. After questioning the men inside the car, Hamilton went to check on a nearby home while the trooper stayed with the vehicle’s occupants. Shortly afterward a series of shots rang out, and backup officers found Patrolman Hamilton dead with a gunshot wound to his head.
Officer Hamilton was a 12-year veteran of the department, and was deeply mourned by the community he served. Some may be surprised to learn that he was the 30th American law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty since January 1st of this year. Next May, his name, along with others, will be added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
May is the month we traditionally honor our fallen military veterans, but it’s also the month America recognizes its law enforcement officers. This seems appropriate, as many officers are also military veterans.
The idea of a specific month for honoring police officers dates to 1962 when President Kennedy proclaimed May 15th as “Peace Officers Memorial Day”, a day to honor fallen law enforcement officers. The week of May 15th has since come to be known as National Police Week.
Police work has always been difficult and dangerous. We tend to think that officers working in major metropolitan areas face greater risk, and perhaps they do, but history has shown that officers have also died while policing small rural jurisdictions.
In 1972 a movement was begun to erect a national memorial to honor all law enforcement officers who have given their lives in the performance of their duty. The early 1970s was a tumultuous time in the history of American law enforcement as leftist radical groups began to carry out pre-meditated assignations of police officers by luring them into ambushes. However, it took twelve more years before legislation authorizing the memorial was enacted, and then the memorial wasn’t completed until 1991.
The memorial is primarily composed of granite, carved into which are the names of more than 21,000 federal, state, tribal, railroad, college and university, and local law enforcement officers who’ve died in the line of duty since our nation’s founding.
Not all officers have died by gunfire. So far this year, (2018), New York State Trooper Michael J. Anson, and FBI Special Agent Melissa S. Morrow, have succumbed to long-term 9-11 related illnesses. (The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is still claiming lives.)
On January 5, 2018, Lieutenant Christopher Robateau of the Jersey City Police was killed when he was struck by a passing car at an accident scene.
On February 26, Sergeant Mark J. Baserman of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections died after being attacked by an inmate.
On March 2, Hickman, Kentucky, police officer, Rodney Scott Smith, drowned when his patrol car was caught in a flash flood.
Edgecomb County, North Carolina, Deputy Sheriff David Lee’Sean Manning was killed in a vehicle pursuit on March 11.
The following day Reserve Officer Christopher Michael Lawton of the Zachary, Louisiana, police, was deliberately run over by a car driven by a man wanted on felony warrant.
On March 21, Officer Andres Laza-Caraballo, of the Juncos Municipal Police, Puerto Rico, was killed when, while off duty, he intervened to stop a felony assault in progress.
Before the creation of the national memorial, it’s doubtful that anyone realized just how many officers in America had made the ultimate sacrifice, for record keeping on such incidents was virtually non-existent. Even as information was being gathered, many police departments didn’t know about their own fallen officers; partly because the institutional memory of most police organizations only went back as far as what its senior officers could remember, and partly because some incidents occurred decades before those senior officers were born. Even today, historians are discovering old newspaper articles relating to line-of-duty-deaths that some police departments are unaware of. The names of these officers are also added to the memorial
Some recent discoveries include Gila County Arizona Deputy Sheriff John Franks, who was shot on April 9, 1918 while attempting to arrest a man for felonious assault.
On July 11, 1920, Patrolman Russell S. Wooten of Hazard, Kentucky, suffered a fatal head injury while attempting an arrest.
On April 22, 1944, Chief of Police Virgil Smith, of the Beattyville, Kentucky, Police, was killed by a prisoner he was guarding.
And on October 20, 1949, Navaho Tribal Police officer Hoska Thompson succumbed to exposure while serving civil papers in the area of Sawmill, Arizona.
There will no doubt be more such discoveries as time goes on.
To date, there are fifty Rhode Island law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty. Two with a Smithfield connection include Smithfield Police Sergeant Norman G. Vezina, who drowned on December 10, 1968, while attempting to rescue a small child who’d fallen through the ice on the Lower Sprague Reservoir, and Providence Sergeant Steven M. Shaw of Greenville, who was shot while searching for a robbery suspect in a house on Benedict Street.
In case one is interested, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial has a website, www.nleomf.org/memorial/. There is also a website called “Officer Down Memorial Page”, www.odmp.org, which keeps a daily running count of all fallen officers from across the nation.
This year, as in previous years, thousands will gather for the candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the names of the recently fallen will be read. As of this writing, thirty-six American law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty so far this year. By the time this goes to press that number will have risen, and if recent yearly statistics are any indication, the total for 2018 will climb to over one-hundred!
*This article was submitted prior to Yarmouth Police Officer Sean Gannon was killed in the line of duty.