A sea of blue filled the Tacoma Dome on Friday as thousands of law enforcement officers gathered to bid farewell to their fallen brother, Tacoma police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez.
On Nov. 30, Gutierrez and his partner of seven years, Officer Erika Haberzettl, were dispatched to a domestic violence dispute in the 400 block of East 52nd Street. Unlike countless calls Gutierrez and his partner had successfully defused, this one ended in tragedy.
In an instant this proud father, grandfather, fiancé and friend was gunned down at the age of 45.
Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote that a long life is one that is well-lived. If we borrow Seneca’s metric, then Officer Gutierrez lived a long one.
Emotional eulogies described him as a dedicated cop, a man who loved his three daughters, his soon-to-be-wife, and a host of family and friends. He was the public servant who went to neighborhood meetings and cleanups. He was the go-to guy who knew how to calm people down.
Gutierrez’s daughter, Gabriella Cothran, tearfully told the crowd, “My father died doing what he loved, and the hard part is we know he’d do it all again if he had a chance to.”
Mayor Marilyn Strickland stood onstage above Gutierrez’s flag-draped coffin and told the almost 5,000 gathered that she’s grateful for a community that stands behind its police force. That affirmation was underscored by the presence of Gov. Jay Inslee, State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell.
But it was the two candlelight vigils, the hundreds of people who left flowers and handwritten cards at Tacoma police headquarters, and the scores who lined the streets to watch the procession in a cold December rain that tell the real story.
The outpouring of concern over Gutierrez’s death is evidence of a grateful community, one that appreciates not just one brave man and his ultimate sacrifice, but all the officers around the U.S. who answer calls and walk (or run) through doors toward an uncertain fate.
Ramsdell said he was humbled by the kind acts and gestures of support. He knows the courage it takes to put on a uniform and how, too often, that uniform becomes a potential target for criminals.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Gutierrez was one of 64 U.S. officers shot and killed this year in the line of duty. This number is well ahead of last year’s total of 41.
He was the 11th Tacoma police officer to lose his life on the job. His death reminds us of the stark consequences when law enforcement professionals have “a bad day at work.”
It was impossible not to be moved as Gutierrez’s badge number was read for a final time, the signal ending his tour of duty.
As bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” the officers saluting his casket knew that under different circumstances, it could have been one of them.
Many wore black mourning bands across their badges with a thin blue line running through the middle. This line is an international symbol representing officers who put themselves in harm’s way to protect their communities.
It certainly represented Gutierrez, a 17-year veteran of the force who, on one of his last shifts, gave $20 to a homeless man.
How do you honor an officer who protected the public and expected so little in return?
The highest tribute we can pay Gutierrez is to show his colleagues and their families they are valued by the community they serve and to continue working toward creating a society in which this kind of violence doesn’t occur.
Despite our best efforts, the reality is there will be another distress call, another burst of responses over the police scanner, another incident of an officer down. If the senseless death of Jake Gutierrez proves anything, however, it’s that the blue line may be thin, but it’s unbreakable.