Law enforcement stands as one unit

SMOKEY POINT — Dylan Tracer circled his father’s patrol car, dusting off dirt until it gleamed in the early morning sun.

The 11-year-old son of Brian Tracer, chief civil deputy for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, wanted to make sure there wasn’t a speck of dirt.

He had asked his dad if he could attend Thursday’s memorial service for Washington State Patrol trooper Sean O’Connell and he was determined to make sure he did his part, no matter how small, in paying solemn tribute.

“I wanted to show my respect,” he said with an earnest nod.

Dylan put on his gray suit and tie and latched his golden-hued sheriff’s office belt buckle well before dawn. He and his father caught the Kingston ferry and headed north to the Smokey Point rest stop along I-5 where they joined roughly 350 other law enforcement vehicles that would make up the motorcade to the memorial at Comcast Arena in downtown Everett.

The procession down I-5 was as long as it was diverse. Officers from as far away as Arizona, Indiana, Texas and New York hopped into patrol cars driven by Washington troopers. More than 75 motorcycle officers drove two aside onto the freeway. The lineup was a mix of police, sheriff’s deputies, medics, firefighters, DEA and border control agents and a wide array of other agencies. At the front of the queue were members of O’Connell’s detachment and his fellow troopers from District 7.

The motorcade passed beneath freeway overpasses where firefighters stood as silent sentries. Soldiers saluted. Toddlers perched upon their parents’ shoulders. Outside the arena, an enormous American flag flapped 90 feet high in a gentle breeze, suspended between the ladders of two Everett firetrucks.

The decision for Dylan to attend the fallen officer’s memorial service boiled down to providing perspective, his father said.

“There is no way you can get the gravity of the situation if you don’t go,” Brian Tracer said. “This is a reminder of what we do, why we do what we do and the risks that are there.”

Parked alongside Tracer were officers Josh Grasseth and Steffen Estep from the tiny Elwha Tribal Police Department. They awoke at 3:15 a.m. to attend on what would have been their day off.

“We may work for a different agency or come from a different state, but we all come together for something like this,” Grasseth said. “We are all part of the law enforcement family.”

O’Connell, a motorcycle officer, died May 31 in Skagit County in an on-duty collision with a box truck. He was working traffic control related to the Skagit River Bridge collapse. A state patrol spokesman described the trooper’s death as “a terrible accident.”

Many who gathered for the service were not part of the law enforcement community. They were, however, deeply touched by the trooper’s death.

“Everybody in the towing industry is talking about this,” said Gary House, a driver for Lynnwood-based Meridian Towing. “He’s going to be missed.”

For House, 48, the loss became painfully real as he watched O’Connell’s old patrol car roll down Hewitt Avenue as part of the procession. The car’s emergency lights were covered and its door insignia blacked out.

“I didn’t start getting all emotional until I saw his car,” House said.

The tow-truck drivers encountered O’Connell at all hours of the night, when dispatched to wrecks. He would put himself at risk to protect them from traffic zipping by. He would even help them clean up.

“I’m so used to seeing him out there on the highway,” said Guy DeRosa, 44, Meridian Towing’s owner. “He would help us. He would even go out and grab a broom.”

The drivers said O’Connell treated them with utmost respect. He also made them laugh.

“He had the best sense of humor of any trooper I have known,” DeRosa said.

Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson, who served as a state trooper for 26 years, was reminded at the memorial of how the law enforcement community rallies to support one another. Johnson knows first-hand.

In 2010, Johnson was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range during a traffic stop on the Long Beach Peninsula.

Much of the night is a blur, but Johnson remembers that when he arrived at a Portland hospital, he opened his eyes to see Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste standing over him. For months, officers took turns driving him to doctors’ appointments and made sure he had food to eat.

“We are all really kind of family and look out after each other,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important that support was for me.” Attending Thursday’s service was the last assignment for master trooper Timothy Wood of the Indiana State Police. He steps into retirement Friday after 34 years on the road. Like O’Connell, he was a motorcycle officer.

“Being here is what we all want to do,” he said. “We want to honor one of our comrades. He’s the one who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Constable Jonathan Gillis of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stood out in his scarlet tunic, dark cross-strap and knee-high brown boots.

“It breaks my heart,” the Canadian motorcycle officer said. “I can relate to the danger. There was not a doubt in my mind that whether I was scheduled to work or not I would be here to give my support. We are all proud to be motorcycle officers and this is the risk you take.”

Sgt. Jason Hopf of the New York State Police was one of three officers to fly in from O’Connell’s home state. O’Connell’s father had inquired if anyone from the New York State Police would be attending his son’s funeral. The agency had planned to be represented but the question underscored the importance of their presence, he said.

“Obviously it has a lot of meaning to them,” he said. “The fact that he was from New York definitely had extra meaning for us to come.”

Charity Edwards brought her 14-year-old son, Noah, and her 5-year-old daughter, Ellie, to Hewitt Avenue. The 37-year-old Everett mother doesn’t work in law enforcement, but Noah’s father does.

“I want them to see how much respect America has for what his dad does,” Edwards said.

Christi Elton brought her son, Ryder, 8, to the service.

Ryder played on the same Pee Wee football team as O’Connell’s son last year. She often would walk around the track with O’Connell during practices

“He was humble,” she said. “He was happy. He never had a bad thing to say about anybody.”

The mother and son from Lake Stevens saw many other parents and children at the service.

“We took the day to really honor how precious life is,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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