As I age and memories fade, there are a few things which still stand out. I had only been at the California Highway Patrol Academy a month when Sgt. Gary Wagers died in the line of duty. The impact hit all of us cadets like a slap in the face. It was decided by the Academy commander that since the memorial service for Sgt. Wagers was to be held in Sacramento, all of the cadets would attend.
I did not come from a law enforcement family — my parents were farmers and I had no idea what to expect. Frankly, I was overwhelmed. The death caused some of my classmates to question their decision to join the CHP, but for me, it only strengthened my resolve.
Our job is not always appreciated and sometimes, it can feel lonely. Even friends and family don’t always fully understand the pressures of being a law enforcement officer. To be constantly watched and judged can be stressful. But the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity I saw at Sgt. Wagers’ memorial service has never left me.
Last year, the Fresno Area CHP office suffered a terrible tragedy: the loss of two officers in a single incident. It still affects officers, friends and co-workers, not to mention the families, a year later. At the time, much like the service for Sgt. Wagers, the Fresno community rose up and celebrated the life and dedication of our two officers, Juan Gonzalez and Brian Law, at the Save Mart Center.
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Last week, a yearlong effort to honor Gonzalez and Law came to fruition when part of Highway 99 was dedicated to them. A group effort helped make it happen.
The CHP, together with the California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the surviving family members, work together to get a memorial posted. The process begins by filling out a “Memorial Resolution Request Form.” It names the individuals to be memorialized and gives background information. For example, it identifies the families, schooling, whether or not the individual(s) served in the military and, if so, how long. The form then covers their CHP careers — when they graduated from the academy, what areas of the state they worked in and what collateral duties they might have performed. Also included are items of interest and activities outside of work as well as things the officer was admired for: hard worker, dedicated to their families, and so on. Lastly are the details related to the line-of-duty death and the location of the future memorial.
All of these things together form a short biography of the individuals to be memorialized. Guest speakers can utilize this biography to assist them in their speech writing.
Once the form is completed, it is forwarded to the CAHP, which seeks a member of the Legislature to sponsor a resolution. Highway memorials are created by acts of state government and therefore have to be introduced and approved by the Legislature.
In the case of Gonzalez and Law, Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 158 was authored by California Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, with the assistance of Assembly Member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno.
After approval, all that remains is planning for the ceremony itself, inviting friends and family of the deceased, representatives of other law enforcement agencies, community leaders and guest speakers.
In the short time I have been in the CHP, there have been 30 line-of-duty deaths. I did not personally know every officer who passed away, but I had met several.
Those of us in emergency service choose dangerous jobs. We all know the risks. Yet despite the fact we chose law enforcement as a profession, it strikes a deep chord when an officer dies in the line of duty. Although I believe the term “hero” is overused in our society, it is nice to drive our highways and read a memorial sign. It reminds us of how great humans can be when we lay down our lives in the defense of others. The next time you pass a memorial sign, take the time to find out more about that person and let them be, if not a hero, an inspiration for you, like Officers Brian Law and Juan Gonzalez now are for me.
I dedicate this column to the 225 CHP officers killed in the line of duty and their families. Thank you for your service.