In Their Time of Greatest Need

Written by Scott Barthelmass

When a police officer dies in the line of duty, shouldn’t the individuals and the badge they wear receive the proper respect? If the officers and their grieving families were to be forgotten, that would only make the hurt more painful. Unfortunately, many police agencies do not have the resources to undertake large-scale official funerals.

Since the state of Missouri was established in 1821, it has suffered more than 620 line-of-duty deaths, many of them in recent years. When two policemen were murdered in the suburban St. Louis community of Kirkwood on February 7, 2008, a group of officers came together to begin creating the Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team.

Over the last year, these officers have devoted hundreds of hours to research and to planning this new organization. They have assembled a Missouri-specific law enforcement funeral guide, have put in place a structure to establish funeral response teams, and have developed training criteria for volunteers who will assist police departments and officers’ families through the aftermath of a line-of-duty death.

The Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team responds only when the agency that sustained the loss requests help. The team serves in a behind-the-scenes capacity, offering suggestions based on the needs of the department and the fallen officer’s family. This includes providing personal support as well as help with logistics and planning for a funeral. The team utilizes the incident command system and prepares incident action plans. A key strength of the team is its professionalism, tied in with a genuine dedication to properly honoring a fallen officer.

The Assistance Team also can assist the fallen officer’s family in obtaining the benefits they are due. This effort is led by members of the Missouri Chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), who have been trained in completing the Public Safety Officer Benefits application process. The Team will also help plan and carry out services for active-duty officers who pass away while off duty, and for retired officers.

Initial steps have been undertaken to establish a response team in the Kansas City area, with personnel from the Gladstone Department of Public Safety leading such efforts. We hope to have this response team ready by mid-2009. Our long-term goal is to have four or five response teams with equipment trailers across the state.

Our team received its first request for assistance from the University City Police Department following the murder of Sgt. Michael King on October 31. The Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team, along with an existing Fire Service team in Missouri, helped plan and carry out the funeral services. The Missouri Fire Service Funeral Assistance Team was established in 2005, and, unfortunately, has been involved in planning funerals for numerous line-of-duty deaths across the state.

At Sergeant King’s funeral, the police and fire teams worked side by side, with law enforcement officers taking the lead and fire service personnel serving as mentors. This was a valuable learning experience and was helpful in ensuring that all the necessary arrangements were made and needs met. Personnel from the Brentwood, Clayton, Crestwood, Eureka, Maplewood and Overland Police Departments represented the Missouri Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team.

“Planning funerals of this magnitude is an incredible task,” wrote Susan King, widow of Sergeant King. “After being part of one, I am still overwhelmed by the sheer size and logistics involved. And yet I am amazed at how flawlessly everything worked together and was absolutely perfect…a fitting tribute to my husband. Needless to say, I was very distraught at the time and they took care of everything down to the last detail.

“The members of the team that I worked with were kind and compassionate; they brought me comfort during that difficult time. I cannot thank them enough for all the time and effort they put into honoring my husband.

“Kelly McGee, a member of the University City Police Department and a liaison to the fallen officer’s family, recently wrote, “I cannot thank you enough for helping us through this tragedy. We are dealing with a nightmare; however, you guys really came through for us and we truly appreciate you.

“It helped me to stay busy during this time and to be a part of honoring my friend, but it had its moments of being overwhelming. When those moments hit me, you and the other team members really helped pull everything together.

“In February 2009, the funeral team assisted the Vinita Park Police Department with funeral arrangements after Chief Michael Webb lost his battle with cancer. Just weeks later, the Jennings Police Department lost Det. Sgt. David Joyce, who suffered a fatal heart attack. That agency handled the funeral arrangements after obtaining planning documents from our team.

Cpl. Scott Barthelmass is with the Overland, Missouri Police Department.