The hardest trial in life, full of crushing grief, can sometimes be transformed from a crisis into a galvanizing moment. It happens when a trusted leader stands above the chaos — a rock from whom everyone else draws inspiration.
Such was the case for Lakewood in 2009. Autumn turned bleak on that Sunday morning after Thanksgiving when four police officers were murdered at a coffee shop, ambushed by a madman as they were about to start their shift.
Today the city can look back and see how blessed it was to have Police Chief Bret Farrar as its rock. Though he hadn’t been chief very long, taking the reins of the four-year-old police force in 2008, Farrar was a veteran local cop with a heart as big as American Lake.
He was the right person during an extraordinarily wrong tragedy, and he aced the test of bringing Lakewood together.
Farrar died Tuesday at age 59, taken down by recurring cancer just a few years into a hard-earned retirement in Arizona.
The city’s respected founding police chief, Larry Saunders, also died too young, felled by a medical issue at age 67 while jogging in Fort Steilacoom Park in early 2016. But the death of Farrar, who was Saunders’ assistant chief and successor, packs an extra hard punch.
Though he grieved and weeped with the best of them, Farrar seemed tireless and indomitable during Lakewood’s darkest hours. He brought the whole department along the first time he spoke to cameras after the historic massacre of his officers. He was the first person to place an order at the coffee shop when it reopened two weeks later.
He helped lead an annual food drive in memory of the fallen four: Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Tina Griswold, Gregory Richards and Ronald Owens. And after they died, he would dispense his famously vigorous bear hugs to anybody who needed one.
You didn’t have to live in Lakewood to notice these things. Brian O’Neill, a former Tacoma cop who occasionally contributes to our op-ed pages, observed months later how Farrar never faltered; the chief left no doubt his officers would continue to protect and serve, despite their loss. “It was a singular study in leadership,” O’Neill wrote.
Farrar’s authenticity and high character didn’t suddenly alight on him the day he put on a chief’s uniform. Those qualities came to the fore during his early career as a Pierce County Sheriff’s deputy.
He wore his heart on his sleeve, whether buying groceries for a needy family he found during a child welfare check or by expending several days of sick time to donate bone marrow to strangers — not once, but twice.
After becoming police chief in 2008, as if he wasn’t busy enough, Farrar found time to get his online minister credentials. Of course he did. How else could he officiate at the 50th anniversary wedding vow renewal ceremony of a burglary victim he’d befriended years earlier?
He was known to say “yes” to even decidedly unglamorous invitations — say, sitting for hours in a newspaper conference room, helping judge a pile of resumes of prospective TNT all-star high school graduates.
Aside from those extracurriculars, Farrar was no slouch when it came to the nitty-gritty of urban police work. His philosophy about the use of force is as edifying today as it was when he was interviewed in 2014, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
“One of the most important things you can learn as a police officer is when not to exercise your authority,” Farrar told a TNT reporter. “A lot of times people just want to be heard. If you just listen and let the person talk, nine times out of 10 that will get you the de-escalation that you need.”
We will stop just short of calling Farrar a hero. If he were alive and serving as Lakewood chief today, he’d demur any such label. He’d point to Renninger, Griswold, Richards and Owens.
He’d say the real profiles in courage are cops who respond to the call at 3 a.m., knowing it could be their last.
But who’s going to give the bear hugs now that he’s gone?