By Ti Goetz
The last photograph ever taken of Officer Andrew Garton was snapped only minutes before his death. It shows Andrew riding his motor, pointing off into the distance as he did a job he clearly relished, working with the fellow officers he considered his brothers. A few short minutes later, Andrew lay dying in the street, the victim of a tragic collision with another motor officer. Ironically, they were working a funeral escort for another fallen brother officer from a neighboring department. Andrew was the 74th officer to die in the line of duty in 2011.
In that one brief, jarringly violent moment in time, the man, the motor, the friend, the father, the son, the husband, the Andrew Garton that our department knew, was gone. And while Andrew was released from all the cares and concerns of this world, for those left behind, the heartache, pain, and suffering were only just beginning.
From the fellow officers on scene with him, who feverishly performed CPR, to his Motor Sergeant, who frantically broadcast: "Officer Down!,” to the TEMS doctor that jumped in the ambulance and futilely tried to save Andrew’s life, the list of those who would carry this sorrow and heartache, throughout the rest of their lives, began to grow. From that terrible crash scene, the pain and suffering steadily radiated outward, spreading like ripples on a pond.
Unless your department has been unfortunate enough to suffer such a loss, you cannot begin to fathom the shock that runs through a department when one of their own falls in the line of duty, especially at a small department like ours, where we had never lost an officer on duty, not in the entire 89 year history of our department. As police officers, we are not unaware that death might be a possibility. We all consider it in an abstract way as we fill out our wills, insurance papers and next of kin forms. Its looming potential is talked about, and used as a training tool, on an almost daily basis throughout the law enforcement community. We understand that it happens….. in some other place, at some other department, to some other person, not to someone we know and work with…….until it does. Then reality comes crashing down like it did for us on May 26, 2011.
I don’t think anyone on our department will ever forget where they were when they got the news that day. I had just come back from training and decided to call a friend at work. As the connection was made, I immediately heard the wail of sirens, and the squawking of excited radio traffic in the background. In a rushed voice, he quickly told me that “Andrew was down” and it “didn’t look good,” before hanging up. A short time later, I learned the details and that Andrew had died at a nearby trauma center. That word spread like wildfire, as officers texted and called fellow friends and employees and told them what had occurred. As the word spread, the number of people who went to the hospital rapidly grew. It was as if that location became the initial focal point for the shocked masses to gather and talk, cry, seek solace or information, show their support, or just be there with their friends and colleagues, during a time many found difficult to comprehend. How could this have happened? Why did this happen? Who was at fault? What about his family? What do we do now? The questions were endless, the answers……..limited.
From the beginning, the outpouring of support and assistance from our brother officers, neighboring departments and the community at large was simply overwhelming. Assistance was unconditional and without regard for cost, manpower, time, or trouble.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department helicopter picked up the wife and the two young sons of officer Garton, and flew them directly to the hospital. Officers and fire fighters from nearby jurisdictions showed up en-masse to the hospital to grieve, share our loss and demonstrate their support and solidarity. In an incredible show of selfless support, our neighboring cities arranged to take over the business of policing our city for the next 48 hours.
Despite the confusion, uncertainty, and lack of experience in such matters, after those first few terrible hours had passed, the dawning of our new reality began to set in and the machine that is law enforcement began to grind slowly into action. Our department, which didn't even have a "death book" to guide us, had one lent to us by a neighboring department. The command staff started working out and designing a strategy to deal with the myriad of issues now presented to them. Assignments and duties were drawn up and handed out, grief counselors, clergy, and psychologists were summoned for those who needed or wanted them, 24/7 vigils over Andrews’ body and at the family home began to be organized, death benefits began to be examined and funeral arrangements considered. The logistics of managing the death of an on duty officer had begun.
A line of duty death is one of those rare moments in time that really tests your department as a whole, especially the command staff. With so many people hurting, yet much to be done in an extremely short amount of time, there was little to no time for the supervisor ranks to absorb the loss or even grieve themselves. They had to struggle to deal with not only the psychological impact, but also the overwhelming logistical tasks associated with an officer dying in the line of duty. To simply arrange a line of duty funeral, attended by thousands, in one short week, is by itself an immensely daunting assignment. Everyone had to step up, hold it together, pitch in, support the overall effort, and do what needed to be done. It seems somewhat strange, but in order to properly honor our loss, many had to put their personal feelings aside, as best they could, and focus on the mechanics of getting the job done.
To think that one small department can manage such an event, all on their own, is quite simply unrealistic. In one of the greatest contributions our department could have hoped for, Commander Bob Green from the Los Angeles Police Department showed up at the hospital during those first terrible hours and, on behalf of LAPD Chief of Police Charlie Beck, offered his departments assistance. He brought with him Sgt. Dan Putz and Officer Roz Curry, both highly experienced members of the LAPD Employee Assistance Unit, a unit that specializes in dealing with employee deaths. Both Dan and Roz would spend most of the next 8 days walking our department through the entire death process. Having the unenviable, yet critical, jobs of dealing with the deaths of police officers and police employees, they were extremely knowledgeable and well versed in the many difficult steps involved in the process. From working with the family, dealing with the press, filling out financials, coordinating support, to arranging a line of duty death funeral with all the accompanying ceremonies and honors, they worked hand and hand with our department to ensure we did it right, did it in a timely fashion, and did it with due respect for Andrew Garton and the wishes and desires of his family. Our department was immensely grateful for their assistance.
Despite the circumstances, we have never been prouder of our department and the men and women, both uniformed and civilian, who make it up. Every single one of them rose to the occasion with grace, pride, self-sacrifice, commitment and a togetherness that it seems you rarely see in police organizations anymore. Politics, egos, personal agendas and personal cost were cast aside and left where they should have always been, on the sidelines. From the top to the bottom, our department showed its true colors: from the Chief and command staff, whose obvious caring, commitment and leadership showed through when it was dearly needed, to the line supervisors whose continuous planning, coordination, and flexibility gave the entire event the dignity and respect it deserved, to the rank and file officers, as well as civilian employees, who gave their all, including putting on their class A’s and manning both vigils, around the clock, on their own time, from soon after Andrew fell until his burial. Out of the worst, came our best.
Law enforcement is a brotherhood, always has been, always will be. You may forget it at times or lose faith in that concept, but it is true. You will never see it more clearly displayed than in times of dire peril or moments of unexpected tragedy. A police officer’s funeral is one of those tragedies. Despite the overwhelming emotions of that day, hearts could not help but swell with pride at the response of our brothers and sisters in arms. Our sister cities of the South Bay took over law enforcement duties for a second 48 hours, to allow every single member of our department, both sworn and civilian, to attend the funeral. The LAPD, California Highway Patrol, South Bay law enforcement, Long Beach PD, Cypress PD, Los Angeles County Fire Department, Cypress Fire Department, as well as countless other agencies did more, gave more, than space here allows us to recount. Together, we sent Andrew off in a manner befitting a fallen brother.
As we finally stood and gazed upon that sea of blue, we could not help but be proud: proud of a profession that still has men and women who are willing to put their lives upon the line, still willing to risk all they have, or will ever have, to ensure their fellow man can sleep safely at night, proud of our long history of honor, duty, courage and sacrifice, proud of Andrew.
As the final sad notes of Taps echoed across those hollow grounds, each of us, in his or her own way, silently bid our own final farewell to Officer Andrew Garton. Yes, the ripples of pain had spread far and wide, but as they struck the far banks of acceptance, they gently reflected back with a much needed reminder of what could, and should, be: that we all possessed the ability to be better than we are, kinder then we are, more involved and concerned with each other than we are. Enjoy your job and all the challenges that come with it, revel in your friendships, but above all, cherish your family and loved ones. Life is just too short to do otherwise.
Ti Goetz is a Lieutenant with the Hawthorne Police Department. He has worked patrol, gangs, detective bureau, internal affairs, SWAT, and is now a patrol watch commander and the SWAT commander. He can be reached by email here.