Symbolism, tradition run deep

Tuesday's memorial service was steeped in tradition and ritual.

“When police departments first started, a lot of Civil War vets brought that culture with them,” said Tacoma police Lt. David O’Dea, a member of his agency’s honor guard for more than a decade.

Tuesday’s activities were “all geared toward what the family wants to have done,” O’Dea said. “It’s about them, their family and the officers from that agency.”

Here are O’Dea’s explanations for some of the rituals when an officer killed in the line of duty is honored.

Casket watch: As soon as possible, officers begin guarding the officer’s body. This begins at the scene of the crime and continues until the officer is buried. Those guarding the slain officer always are fellow police officers.

“The least we can do for them is to ensure their safety,” O’Dea said. “They ensured our safety.”

The body is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Processions accompany the body when the officer is moved from the crime scene to the medical examiner and again when moved to the funeral home.

Procession of emergency vehicles: This is a celebration of life in the form of a parade honoring the lost life. Processions used to involve only police vehicles. In recent years, they’ve been expanded to emergency vehicles.

“It’s not just the police department involved,” O’Dea said. “We are one team.”

Cordon of honor: An honor guard lines the walkways that family members pass through. Members of the honor guard represent their agencies.

“We are there representing the chief of police and the men and women of that agency,” O’Dea said.

The cordon of honor “lets the friends and family members of the slain officers know all of law enforcement” stands with them, O’Dea said.

Folding of the flag: On the American flag, the blue represents courage, the red represents the blood that’s been shed and the white represents honor.

A flag drapes the casket of the fallen officer with the blue field and stars placed over the officer’s left shoulder.

“The officer sacrificed the most for honor,” O’Dea said.

The flag is folded near the end of the service. The goal is to fold it 13 times. When the flag is folded, the red and white stripes are on the inside with the blue field on the outside.

The blue on the outside symbolizes “that officer sacrificed in the name of honor,” O’Dea said.

A 21-gun or 21-bell salute: This is another tradition taken straight from the military. In the military, the number of times a gun is fired signifies the slain soldier’s rank.

“For the police department, we have never differentiated,” O’Dea said. “They all get 21.”

The riderless horse: This symbolizes “a soldier has fallen in the line of duty,” O’Dea said.

End of Watch: During the ceremony, a last radio call is played with the officer’s badge number called out.

The call,” O’Dea said, is to “reaffirm with the agency and the family that they may be done but we shall not forget what they have done.”

Stacey Mulick: 253-597-8268