Tears, smiles, strength at Dome

Tuesday's massive memorial service for four Lakewood police officers was highly ritualized ceremony. It was part religious service, part celebration and part sheer spectacle.

It also was an exhortation to fellow officers to keep up the fight for law and order.

“We owe the children of these officers – all nine of them – a future that is safe and secure,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, who spoke at the Tacoma Dome ceremony. “It is our duty, inherited from those who fell to protect us.

“We will continue the cause of justice,” Gregoire said, “and if in another time and another place we meet those who leave us today, we’ll be proud to tell them we kept our promise.”

Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar put it more directly.

“We’re going to strap our gear on and we’re going to go back out there,” he told the amassed officers. “We have no fear.”

From the high seats in the Dome, the mass gathering of officers looked like a patchwork quilt spread out below, with rectangles of various shades of blue, green, gray and brown uniforms delineating units from around the United States and Canada.

The Canadian contingent, about 1,000 strong and wearing the classic dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, turned a large swath of the north side of the Dome scarlet.

Across the floor, soldiers from Fort Lewis in camouflage fatigues painted a streak of desert brown.

Despite meticulous planning, the ceremony had one significant hitch.

Services were scheduled to start at 1 p.m., but when that time rolled around, hundreds of vehicles in the funeral procession had not even left the gathering area at McChord Air Force Base.

The caskets and families had arrived, but at least half of the 19,000 seats in the Dome were still empty.

“Ladies and gentleman,” an announcer said. “Due to the outpouring of response to the procession, this memorial ceremony will be delayed 45 minutes to one hour.”

It was after 2 p.m. when the ceremony started, and the last members of the procession were still trickling in a half an hour later as the color guard carried flags to the stage.

“Things in reality sometimes don’t work out the same way they do on paper,” said Jody Woodcock, a program manager for the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management and a member of the planning team.

Late last week, planners were estimating that “well over a thousand” police cruisers and other emergency vehicles would participate in the procession. As it turned out, Woodcock said, the number of vehicles was closer to 3,000.

On the floor of the Dome, the four caskets – each draped with an American flag – were placed in a semicircle at the foot of a stage and a wall of flower bouquets and wreaths.

Emblems of the officers’ personal passions, outside of their law enforcement careers, were placed nearby: motorcycles for officers Tina Griswold and Ronald Owens, a souped up Dodge Charger for Sgt. Mark Renninger. A well-worn drum set was set up near the casket of officer Greg Richards, an avid musician.

Fellow workers, friends and family members presented emotional remembrances of each of the four officers, often struggling to maintain composure.

Renninger was remembered as a master tactician and teacher, a man born to his SWAT team job.

“His calling was SWAT,” said Mike Villa, assistant chief of the Tukwila Police Department, where Renninger worked before joining the Lakewood department. “I would have walked through any door with Mark.”

Pamella Battersby, a friend of Griswold, said her friend was so tough that fellow officers joked that “the fastest way to break up a bar fight was to throw Tina into the middle of it.”

Griswold was an National Rifle Association member who enjoyed martial arts and shooting, Battersby said, “but she also enjoyed being a woman.”

“We don’t know why this terrible thing has happened,” Battersby said, “but it’s something that brought us all together.”

Owens’ sister, Ronda LeFrancois, praised her brother’s reliability and sense of duty.

“He was the baby of the family, but he was also the rock,” she said.

LeFrancois drew laughs from the crowd when she remembered Owens as a boy, “break-dancing in the kitchen and singing to Barry Manilow.”

“I would give anything to go back to those days,” she said.

Richards’ three children approached the microphone together and each delivered testimonials with remarkable poise, inspiring the entire assembly to stand and applaud when they were finished.

“He taught us the importance of having good friends and being one,” said his daughter, Jamie-Mae, 15.

Eldest son Austin, 17, said his father was so good-hearted, “He didn’t even hate the people he had to arrest.”

And youngest son Gavin, 10, won the officers over when he told them, “We love you all because you all loved him.”

The funeral ceremony was highly orchestrated and ritualized, with traditional elements dating back centuries.

A riderless horse accompanied the lead vehicles in the procession; bagpipes played a mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” and a 21-bell salute rang out as officers ceremoniously knelt in the officers’ honor.

But it was a more recent tradition at the close of the ceremony that caused more tears to flow than anything else: the last radio call.

A dispatcher’s voice, authentic right down to the static, called out for each of the officers in turn, asking for their location.

Getting only silence in response, the dispatcher said, “Out of service. Gone but not forgotten.”

Rob Carson :253-597-8693