Gary Smith hadn’t been asleep long when his mother came to tell him his father had been in a car wreck. Gary, who was nearly 15, shook himself awake as spring rain poured onto Nashville’s dark streets.
“I got up, but I wasn’t concerned at that point,” he says, “because Daddy had been in several accidents.”
Gary’s cavalier attitude had a lot to do with both the nature of fatherhood and the fact that his dad was a police officer. “I thought he was made of steel,” he says. “I knew nothing would ever happen to him.”
Lt. John Wesley Smith III was a second-generation Nashville cop. In 1948, his father—Gary’s grandfather—was one of the first black officers to join the force. There were seven of them, and they shared one patrol car, were restricted to black neighborhoods and had to call for a white officer if faced with arresting a white citizen. Lt. Smith had idolized his father, the way young Gary now idolized him.
“I would shine his shoes and wash his police car for him,” Smith says, “and he would let me back the car down the driveway to get the mail and let me hit the blue lights.”
Smith’s mother and older brother drove off into the night with the officer who’d brought the news, leaving Gary and his sister at home. An hour later, they came back, and Gary watched as they slowly climbed out of the car, their heads down. Another older brother, John Wesley Smith IV, had recently gotten his own apartment, and he watched as the same police car pulled up.
“When I saw my mama get out,” he says, “I knew my dad was dead. Nobody had to tell me.”
Lt. Smith had been racing to the site of a shooting when his car went out of control on a slick street. It happened on May 14, 1980, and there has not been a day since when his children haven’t remembered.
“I work in the area where he had his accident,” Gary says, “and every time I pass West Hamilton and Clarksville Highway, I think about it.”
The work Gary does is police work. He has been a Metro officer since 1996, following a stint with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, where John IV is a deputy. They know firsthand what it is to be on the front lines of law enforcement, and what it is to be a family member left behind after the death of an officer.
Gary went through a long period of depression. He watched his grandfather mourn and drink until his death at 80 in 1999. John says simply, “I never got over my father’s death. To this day, when I think about him I get emotional.”
Gary and John Smith are two of the thousands of people nationwide who live with the aftermath of one of the harsh realities of law enforcement work. In an average year, about 150 officers are killed on duty. In Nashville, 38 have been killed on the job through the years, with the latest being Officer Christy Jo Dedman, hit by a tractor-trailer as she helped a motorist whose car had broken down on I-40 in Hermitage on July 19, 2004.
This coming Tuesday, her parents, Jesse and Vera Dedman, will join thousands of others in Washington, D.C., for the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service, to be held on the grounds of the Capitol Building. It is part of National Police Week, which includes a candlelight vigil, a mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and a wreath-laying at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Organizations including the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and its auxiliary as well as Concerns of Police Survivors Inc. will commemorate law enforcement officers killed on duty and minister to the needs of their loved ones. In Nashville, the Smiths will join others at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at 330 Fifth Ave. N. downtown at noon Wednesday, May 16 for FOP-sponsored services honoring all of Nashville’s slain officers. In both places, as well as many others, those left behind, some with fresh wounds, some with nearly a lifetime’s worth, will come together in a process as much about healing as it is about remembrance, as much about sharing strength as sharing tears.
The first Nashville cop killed on duty was a 48-year-old Confederate veteran named Robert Frazier. He was patrolling the streets of North Nashville on April 30, 1875, when neighbors called him to the scene of a violent domestic dispute. Frazier walked into the house and confronted the husband, Joe Reed, who shot him dead and ran. Other officers and citizens caught Reed and took him downtown through a furious crowd that regathered that night at the city jail. A group of young men overpowered guards and hauled Reed, who was 21 and black, from the facility, fired two bullets into his head and threw him over a bridge railing into the Cumberland River.
The next day, the City Council met and voted to condemn the lynching and to provide Frazier’s widow, who had five children, including a widowed daughter with two more, with $50 a month—a very nice sum in 1875—until she married or died. There was no word on what happened to Reed’s widow.
Of the 37 officers killed in Nashville since then, 23 were shot to death, two were stabbed and 12 died in automobile assaults or accidents. The last Metro officer killed before Dedman, Officer Candace Ripp, was also killed by an automobile while out of her patrol car. Nationwide, automobile-related deaths generally outnumber those from gunshots. Those left behind, both on and off the force, often face monumental struggles and readjustments, but there are a host of private, public and personal resources that can be brought to bear on recovery.
“I’ve told new recruits,” says former FOP chaplain Michael Eby, “that once you become a member of the department, either as an officer or as a spouse or child or parent of an officer, you’ve just joined a really big family. Anything happens, that family steps in as a normal family would.”
The most formal help is available through Police Advocacy Support Services (PASS), a program of the department’s Behavioral Health Services Division (BHS) serving law enforcement personnel and their families in Metro, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, and in Gallatin, Brentwood and Columbia. BHS offers licensed mental health counselors, trained peer supporters and chaplains, who are available to help with any personal or professional problems. In crisis situations, the organization provides counseling and a host of practical functions ranging from transportation of family members to food runs.
“Our job,” says BHS manager Dr. Lorraine Greene, “is to support the family and the officers in any way they need support. If family members are going to stay at the hospital in a trauma waiting room area, you’ll see one of us staying there, sleeping in a chair nearby during the evening, making sure they have whatever they need, making them as comfortable as we can.”
PASS has been a work in progress since its inception in 1986 with one psychiatric nurse and a chaplain. Currently there are three counselors and a supervisor in addition to Greene, as well as more than 40 trained peer supporters. Just as important in a crisis is the day-to-day support of fellow officers, their families and civilian department employees. In a job with the same kind of politics as in any other organization—the same battles for assignments and promotions, with undertones involving race and gender—the one thing that can pull black and white, male and female together, is tragedy.
“There’s a difference in the loss of an officer,” says Greene, “because everybody, civilian and sworn, feels that sense of loss, so that at that point no one cares about your rank, status or position. There’s a sense of, ‘We’re all in this.’ I’ve always seen police personnel as being very responsive and responsible, willing to do whatever they can. Everybody is trying to figure out, ‘What can I do?’ ”
Police officers and their families, she says, “form lasting friendships. They’re special people, and that does make a difference too, because some of the parents and brothers and sisters of police personnel are just amazing—their fortitude, their stamina, and you can tell that spiritually they feel very connected. I guess for police officers and public safety personnel, it takes a certain kind of person to be willing to do that kind of job, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
In December 1978, on her second day as a civilian dispatcher, Glenda Taylor had the realities of police life hammered home. She spent time on the phone that day with Officer Edward Tarkington, who walked her through her first time filling out a BOLO, a “be on the lookout” form, after a call about a stolen car. Two hours later, Tarkington answered a call about a break-in. As he talked with a witness, a man named Robert Wilson Jr. walked up and began arguing with him. Tarkington placed him under arrest, the two scuffled and Wilson pulled a .45. They exchanged fire at close range and Wilson, who was hit twice, got off four shots, one of which hit Tarkington a fraction of an inch above his bullet-proof vest, piercing an artery in his neck. At 22 years old, with 14 months of police work behind him, he died at Baptist Hospital.
“I had taken the job because it sounded so exciting,” Taylor says, “but I had never thought about that aspect of it. I mean, I still would have been devastated for an officer being killed, but it made it so personal that I’d just talked to him and he’d been so nice and so helpful.”
Not long afterward, she began dating and eventually married Officer Leon Taylor, who was shot and wounded by an escaped felon 18 months after Tarkington’s death. In the years since, she has had periods—particularly when the man who shot her husband was released from prison—when she has worried, although she does her best not to.
“The day-to-day pressure,” Taylor says, “doesn’t affect me as much, I think because it’s been so long. Still, when I hear that a police officer’s been shot, there’s that rush of adrenaline until I find out that it’s not him. Not that I want it to be somebody else, but when I hear it’s not him I feel that big relief. But I don’t worry about it on a daily basis like I used to, even though I think it’s more dangerous today because you’ve got more people with guns that aren’t afraid to shoot. It’s in the back of my mind that it could happen, but you worry less and maybe I’ve taught myself to do that. It makes for less stress, and I don’t need more stress.”
Tarkington’s brother Norris was working dispatch with Taylor the night her husband was shot. Just 18 months younger than his brother, Norris Tarkington had applied to train as a medic, but when the opportunity to become a policeman came up, he jumped at it.
“This was shortly after his death,” he says, “and of course my mother didn’t want me to become a police officer considering everything that had happened. I’ve had a lot of support from both my sisters as well as my older brother, who has since passed away. I went ahead and went through with the training and I came to love the job. It’s rewarding—not so much that it pays well, because it really doesn’t, but you get a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. I just enjoy going out and helping people and bringing some sort of closure to cases and bringing them some joy.”
His mother still struggles with her fear of what could happen to him, something he works to alleviate. “Anytime something happens and she hears it on the news, she calls,” he says. “Or I try to make it a point to call her and let her know I’m OK, that it’s not me.”
He has his own feelings to deal with as well. “A lot of it you try and put behind you,” he says. “You let your faith kick in and you realize it’s not your place to have vengeance. You let society or the courts take their position and do what they have to do, but there was a lot of anger. Why did he have to die so soon? He was just out there doing his job.”
Trina Scott knows exactly what the families of slain officers go through—her husband was killed on duty—and she wants new officers well aware of that reality. As she speaks to classes at police training academies in Middle and East Tennessee in her role as president of the region’s chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors Inc. (COPS), her first battle is against complacency.
“My husband kept saying, ‘If something happens to me—’ but I didn’t want to hear,” she says. “He knew his life was on the line, but I wouldn’t look at it. I want to make sure the officers I talk to see the aftermath, and I say to them, ‘Make sure you talk to your spouses and have them listen.’ ”
She knows the value of shock therapy, and so she blindsides them, opening without fanfare or introduction.
“I point to somebody and say, ‘Tell me, are you married? Do you have children? Are your parents living? Why do you want to be a police officer?’ I sort of feel them out and then I just start my story. I talk in the beginning about my husband and how we met and I do the whole fairy tale thing.”
Then she shows them, in all its gruesome detail, the site of the crash that killed her husband. The effect is generally profound. Recruits see plenty of photos and videos of crashes and gunshot victims, of people dead and dying, but Scott makes it real. “You could be my wife standing there, or my mother,” they’ve told her.
Scott calls June 7, 2002, “the day my world changed.” Her husband, David Scott, was a Clarksville Police Department field training officer taking a rookie through his paces when he was killed during a high-speed chase involving a robbery suspect. Scott was left with four daughters, aged 4, 6, 10 and 16. At her husband’s visitation, two board members of the Middle and East Tennessee chapter of COPS introduced themselves and handed her a book. “When you’re ready, we’re here,” one said. When they followed up by phone a few months later, Scott was ready to talk. She eventually joined the organization and is now Middle and East Tennessee president.
“COPS is kind of my crutch,” she says. “I feel as though if I stop doing this and giving back, at that point it’ll hit me, the reality that my husband is not here. It helps me to help them.” She is available 24/7 for survivors, whom she says face problems outsiders just can’t understand.
“So many people will judge us for what we do. ‘How dare she laugh and enjoy herself—her husband was just killed,’ they might say, or, ‘She’s crying again—shouldn’t she be over it by now?’ When we’re together, we can laugh, we can cry, we can do whatever, and we’re not judged. Everybody can say, ‘I know what you’re feeling,’ or ‘I’ve been there. This is what I do that helps me.’ It’s amazing.”
Along those lines, COPS, which is open to family, friends and co-workers and which has 15,000 members nationwide and 200-plus adult members regionally, hosts a number of programs and retreats, including camps for youngsters, one of which was vital to one of Scott’s daughters. “My 16-year-old needed something for her,” she says. “She went two months after his death and when she came back she said if she hadn’t gone she doesn’t know if she could have survived it.”
Another of the messages Scott works to get across is monetary. Cops are no better than the rest of us at financial planning, and death sometimes finds the family left with no income and a stack of bills.
“I try to tell my rookies to have their paperwork in order,” Scott says, “because I have survivors where so many tragic things happen after the death.”
Just as the availability of formal counseling has grown through the years, so has financial assistance for the families of slain officers. FOP membership brings with it an insurance policy with a $10,000 face value—higher for those who die on duty—and COPS, the Teamsters, the Nashville chapter of the National Black Police Association and others often pitch in as well.
The single biggest financial contribution, though, comes from an organization that has turned one man’s vision into a major community resource. It is called the 100 Club, and its founding mission is to provide financial assistance when an officer is killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. It is, says Reed Trickett, whose father Bill Trickett was a founder, “a classic example of moneyed community leaders spotting a need and filling it.”
Seed money, invested through the years, has turned into a reserve of $1.6 million, and along the way the families of 12 officers, a firefighter and a paramedic have received funds. The organization helps with the funeral and other expenses but has never gained much visibility.
“My father wanted it to be a very behind-the-scenes operation,” says Trickett, although that has changed. These days, the organization is reaching out to others in the community willing to contribute $100 in annual dues.
“We have no paid staff,” he says. “It’s 100 percent run by volunteers. The only expenses we have are stamps and envelopes, and we cover any organized fire department or police department in Davidson County.”
The family of Officer Billy Bowlin—whose father was also a major in the department—was among the first to receive 100 Club benefits following his gunshot death in 1982.
“It was seven months after he was married, and they were still paying off the florist,” Trickett says. “None of these guys are making a lot of money, and it’s a real comfort to the family to have someone come and pay off the house, the car, the credit cards. For the most part it’s not going to be that much money because, once again, they don’t have big houses somewhere and a lot of debt.”
The gratitude, he says, is long-lasting. “When my father died, I remember being at the visitation and a gentleman came up to me, a black sheriff’s deputy, and he said, ‘My dad was John Wesley Smith,’ and this guy had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Your father came to my house and he had $5,000 of his own money to give to my mother. He said, “This is until we can get to you.” ’ That’s the kind of guy my father was.”
Jesse Dedman was never thrilled about the fact that his daughter Christy chose law enforcement as a profession, but he knew better than to argue.
“If my mama and daddy had tried to talk me out of a job,” he says, “I don’t suppose I’d have listened to them either.”
Jesse was a maintenance electrician at the state prison in West Nashville, where Christy went to work as a secretary for the associate warden to get her foot in the door. From there she went to the Alcoholic Beverage Commission and then to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, where she spent 13 years before setting her sights on the Metro Police Department.
“She wanted to be out in the field where the action was,” says Jesse, “and once she was there, she said, ‘Daddy, I know you don’t like what I’m doing, but I like it better than any job I ever had.’ ”
“She just thought she could make a difference,” her mother added. “She wanted to do something good.”
Christy had a degree in law enforcement and was finishing work at MTSU toward her master’s degree in education—“so if she ever got burned out on law enforcement she could teach”—when she was killed by an unlicensed driver with a bad driving record who had been hired nonetheless by a trucking company.
“I realize police officers are in a certain amount of danger,” Jesse says, “but that was the most useless killing that I’ve ever seen.”
In the three years since Christy’s death, Jesse and Vera Dedman have come to exemplify the sense of community that can develop in the wake of tragedy. They visit the Hermitage precinct, where Christy worked, three or four times a year, carrying food and sweets, and they are in frequent contact with friends throughout the department.
“Christy told us once, ‘They’re the most wonderful, caring, loving family that you could ever have outside your own family,’ ” Vera says, “and she was right.”
They received a great deal of support from friends and neighbors, but they reserve their highest praise for the Nashville police community. The department arranged for the Dedmans to be driven to Nashville the night of the accident, offered them a hotel room, and for the next several days accompanied them and kept the press at bay.
The Dedmans buried Christy in her uniform—“We dressed her just like she was going to work,” Vera says—and have remained in close touch with people in the department ever since. When they traveled to Washington last year for Police Week events, they were escorted by FOP chaplain Eby, their lodging and travel expenses were comped by the FOP, and the department paid for the officers who accompanied them.
“We talked to quite a few people from other states whose loved ones were killed,” Jesse says, “and I didn’t talk to anybody who said they got the support from their police department that we did.” The Dedmans experienced the largesse of the 100 Club as well. “They were up there at the police precinct the next morning after she was killed,” says Vera. “They took care of her funeral. We didn’t ask them to. That’s just what they do.”
In the Dedmans’ open garage sits a Nissan Pathfinder with a bumper sticker that says, “Move Over. Save a Life” and one that says, “Drive safely for Officer Christy Dedman, September 4, 1969-July 19, 2004.”
The latter sticker is also on an older Ford pickup. Vera works part-time nearby. Jesse is retired. Christy is, of course, never far from their minds.
“You just have faith,” Vera says. “You remember who your family is, which is the entire police department plus your immediate family. You’ve got to have the faith of all these people in order to survive it.”
Echoes of Christy’s kindness to others still reach them. “She touched a lot of people’s lives,” Jesse says. “When she got killed, we got a stack of sympathy cards from people we’d never heard of that came in contact with her.”
There are several memorials to Christy, and two stretches of highway dedicated to her, one on I-40 where she was killed, one on Highway 100 near where she was raised. Despite that, and despite all the friendships, the reality is that Christy died on duty at the age of 34. Jesse, a tall, very thin man wearing a checked shirt, blue jeans and bedroom slippers over white socks, smoked a cigarette as he spoke of her as a spunky child, a strong-willed girl who wanted nothing more than to be in law enforcement, and an athletic woman who worked out every day and ran marathons. Now and then a single tear would roll down his lined cheek.
“Christy’s been dead almost three years,” says Jesse. “Everybody says it’ll get easier, but it hasn’t gotten any easier for me. Unless you went through it—losing a child—you don’t know what it is.”
It was no easier for the children who lost their father. “It hit me pretty hard,” says Gary Smith. “I was devastated. I didn’t want to do anything. I was in a shell for a long time—I mean a long time. Then one day about 10 years ago, all of a sudden I just took all the pictures I had of him and just put them up in the attic.”
It was about this time that Smith was to graduate from the police academy. His grandfather, who had stayed in his own shell since his son’s death and had cancer, said he would not be attending. “But I went over there and picked him up myself,” Smith says. “And that night, at the ceremony, my mother said tears came out of his eyes while he was in the audience. She asked, ‘Mr. Smith, why are you crying?’ and he said, ‘I thought I’d never see this day.’ ”
The sadness surrounding an officer’s death, and the possibilities for healing inherent in the support available from other officers, their families and the wider community, are all part of the message Trina Scott carries to each training academy class.
“You never expect to be in a situation like this,” she says, “and when I talk to the rookies, I make them look side to side and I say, ‘You might be here in a year and he might not be here.’ But then I say, ‘COPS will be there for your family. I will be there for your family,’ and I tell them, ‘You are not invincible.’ ”Flags on government buildings nationwide will fly at half-staff on Tuesday in honor of those who have fallen, one symbol of the shared remembrance for which Gary Smith remains grateful. “It means a whole lot,” he says, “and it makes me feel good that the city remembers these people—not only my father, but all the other people who have given their lives.”
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