Project Blue Light: Remember How They Lived, Not How They Died

by Robert Cubby
Jersey City, New Jersey

Police suicide is the number one killer of police officers. A police officer is more likely to be killed by his own hand than the hand of a criminal. These are sad, but well published statistics.

As we approach Police Week, we are reminded once again of President Kennedy’s proclamation recognizing Police Memorial Day. And again, I see that those citing the proclamation apparently never read it. Here is the section of the proclamation that concerns me:

Proclamation 3537

NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOHN F. KENNEDY, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate May 15, 1963, and May 15 of each succeeding year, as Peace Officers Memorial Day, in honor of those peace officers who, through their courageous deeds, have lost their lives or have become disabled in the performance of duty.

I also designate the week of May 12 through May 18, 1963, and the calendar week during which May 15 occurs of each succeeding year, as Police Week, in recognition of the service given by the men and women who, night and day, protect us through enforcement of our laws.
– from the US Government Printing Office

project blueNEW450“…have become disabled in the performance of duty.” Funny how that phrase simply disappears on Police Week and those disabled with PTSD are abandoned and forgotten. Was this President Kennedy’s intent? I think if he were still alive, he would tell us that PTSD, a cause of disability for police, should have been recognized on this week and always. One has to ask how we, as a profession and a country, lost our way from the intent of this law. I, for one, will not let the purpose of President Kennedy’s proclamation fall to the conveniences of those who choose to ignore his noble intent.

Given this fact, it would be easy to assume that police departments and law enforcement would be well equipped to honor their fallen. We see funerals well attended by scores of well-dressed officers of all ranks. We hear the pipers and drummers playing their mournful and respectful tunes. There is the 21-gun salute, the folding of the flag ceremony and the flag being presented to the mourning family member, the playing of taps and the memorial plaque hung in a conspicuous place in police headquarters or the town hall. This is what we expect for our heroes who died in the line of duty to receive and rightfully so.

What’s shocking is that the whole picture isn’t being played out here. We have fallen police officers that are not being honored or recognized even though they led a heroic and stellar life and exhibited what truly defines a hero. Why? Because they died not by the hand of a criminal, but by their own hand.

The circumstances that led to that fateful day when he or she decided to end their pain should have been grounds for recognition and memorial. But, because they died by their own hand, many law enforcement agencies refuse to honor or recognize that officer. They abandon the family and discard the officer like something broken and worthless. In spite of requests by loved ones, they patently refuse to recognize that officer’s life and career.

There are no honor guards, no 21-gun salutes, no flag folding and no plaque. It was as if the officer just disappeared. What makes matters worse is that this translates to the national level. The Police Memorial does not count suicides when they tally the line of duty deaths at the end of the year. Their guidelines state that the officer had to die in the line of duty. If their death by suicide was considered as a line of duty and they were honored for their heroic and stellar career than it doesn’t matter how they died. Their death should be counted. The number of officers killed by suicide outnumbers line of duty deaths, yet those names that should be on the wall aren’t there.

Faced with wanting some recognition for his brother who died by suicide and the husband who was taken way too early because of suicide, Vincent Gibson and Wendy Nelson McIlwraith started the Project Blue Light campaign. They asked households and individuals to turn on blue lights to remember those taken by suicide. That was a huge success.

In the next few months, Vince and Wendy are planning to take their plea directly to Washington D.C. They are organizing a bicycle trip from Philadelphia to Washington. At the end of the trip, the cyclists will arrive at the Police Memorial. Knowing full well that their loved ones names are not listed on that wall, a wreath will be placed touching the wall with the names of those officers who died from suicide. The names on the list will be by request of the loved ones as we respect their privacy and their pain.

The goal is to honor those police officers that are not named on the Police Memorial. The bicyclists who carry the names from Philadelphia to Washington are family members and friends of police officers who also suffer the pain and loss through suicide. By their efforts, they want to say our loved ones will not be kept from that wall. They deserve that. After all, engraved on the memorial is “remember how they lived not how they died.” We will. We promise that.

Learn more about Project Blue Light here.