The Paradox of Holding National Police Week in a Pandemic

Has the COVID-19 virus shut things down for survivors or opened them up?

Posted May 11, 2020

National Police Week begins on May 11. Started in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, every year thousands of people gather in Washington, D.C. and across the United States to honor and grieve those we have lost. This year, grieving will be made harder as many of the traditional rituals of mourning have been canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, Police Week is a time to remember not only the officers whose deaths have touched my life, but the families they left behind. 

The death of Oakland Police Officer James Williams in 1999 hit close to home. He was in a class I taught at the Oakland Police Academy, part of a series about psychological survival skills for officers. Although it was a big class, the minute I saw his face on the TV news, I recognized him. He had the same dark hair and youthful good looks of other officers whose line-of-duty deaths became part of my life; Palo Alto Reserve Officer Ted Brassinga, Oakland Officer William “Bill” Grijalva, and East Palo Alto Officer Michael Joel Davis.

Officer Williams was shot a few blocks from the house I used to own in Oakland. It’s a good neighborhood, the same area Officer Bill Grijalva patrolled before he was killed in another part of the city. There was a brass plaque erected in Bill’s memory in front of Ann’s Cafe on Fruitvale avenue and a photo of him over the grill. Fran, the cafe owner, was my neighbor, a longtime friend of Bill’s and the patron saint of cops who came from everywhere for a breakfast too big to eat. Fran’s irreverent monologues were part Mae West and Mother Teresa. Everyone came under her wing—especially cops. I never did find out if Williams, only 11 weeks out of the academy, ever had breakfast at Ann’s Cafe. Fran would have loved him. 

Williams left a wife, Sabrina, and three young children. I wonder if Sabrina came to the family orientation class I taught at OPD. At family orientations, I try to put the issue of danger into perspective. I tell families it’s more dangerous to drive a taxi or work in construction or farming. I remind them that most officers will never fire their weapons in the line of duty. Even so, the numbers are sobering. Preliminary fatality figures for the first five months of 2020 are 18 firearms-related, 12 traffic-related, 41 COVID-19-related, and 60 by suicide. It’s that last figure that’s difficult to absorb and the fact that by the end of the year, if things go as they have in the past, police officers will be twice as likely to kill themselves than be killed in the line of duty. 

I don’t know Sabrina Williams or her children or anyone else in the Williams family. I hope they have fared well and been treated with respect and fairness by the various people and organizations that have touched their lives. Fran has retired. Ann’s cafe is closed, replaced by a Peet’s coffee shop, all shiny and corporate. A fictional version of Fran has re-emerged, almost as herself, in my Dr. Dot Meyerhoff mystery series. I am occasionally in touch with Bill’s, Ted’s and Joel’s families. I think about them a lot, especially during police week and I think about other families I know who are still struggling to put their lives together. 

Memorial week 2020 will be so different. No pageantry, ceremonies, parades, bagpipes, motorcycle cavalcades, and massive candlelight vigils. The men and women we’ve lost deserved to be remembered. They took risks so that the rest of us could be secure. But they were more than just cops, they were parents, children, friends, aspiring artists, amateur cooks, coaches, ministers, and the love of someone’s life. In the quiet imposed on us by this pandemic, maybe we can more clearly see them for who they were.