There is a contract you enter into with society when you become a police officer. You sign up for the job with the full understanding that you will never be wealthy. You accept the fact that you will work nights, weekends, and holidays. You will work in the blistering heat of the summer and the Arctic chill of the winter. You understand that there will be family events cancelled at the last minute due to a chaotic work schedule. Little League games and piano recitals will be missed. You will consistently see the worst that human existence has to offer. You know that, statistically, you will die younger due to heart disease and stress-related illnesses than the average person (the most generous study has police officers surviving to an average age of 66, compared with 73 for the average US male population).
Finally, you understand fully that your spouse or partner may at some point receive a visit from very somber people in the middle of the night, a visit which starts with the words "we have some bad news."
This is not a theoretical risk. In 2011, 173 police officers were killed in the line of duty. That number represents a 14% increase from the year before. For the first time in 14 years, more police officers were killed by gunfire than by on-duty auto accidents. Firearms related fatalities for officers, in fact, rose 70% from 2008 to 2011. In one 24 hour period in January of 2011, 11 officers were shot in 5 states. Last year was open season on cops.
The deal with a contract, though, is that obligations extend to both parties. In return for the sacrifices listed above, police officers have a right to expect certain things. A wage that allows you to raise a family in modest surroundings. Patrol cars that don't explode when rear-ended. Body armor that stops bullets most of the time. The ability to take your child to the doctor when she is sick.
And if fate determines that we don't return home one evening, we expect a big funeral. Really big, with scores of squad cars, officers in their dress uniforms, and citizens lining the streets. This may sound shallow or trite, but trust me, it isn't. I didn't understand the importance of this ritual before I became a cop, and even then I didn't truly understand it until I became a father. It simply boils down to this: if I am killed in the line of duty, I want my wife and children to see that my community appreciates the sacrifice they had to make.
However, the contract does not end after the funeral. It used to be that we could count on society to take care of our families to some degree: A ceremony every year. A name etched into a memorial. A politician praising the sacrifice of a profession undervalued by society. Special death benefits for the families of officers killed in the line of duty. Not enough to make our families wealthy, but enough to keep them out of poverty. Maybe reduced or free state college tuition for our kids.
There were several unbearably bitter ironies to this incident. The first was that Craig was a decorated veteran of the United States Army who had survived combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He survived in a war zone only to be killed on the soil of his own nation. This is almost too heartbreaking to think about. The other bitter irony is that Craig was murdered by another combat veteran.
This incident devastated those of us in Wisconsin's law enforcement community. It is remarkable how much you can grieve for a man you never met. I and my coworkers cried freely at Craig's memorial service. He was, by every single account, an absolutely extraordinary young man, a fact that makes the pain of this loss even more pronounced. A wonderful, happy, committed, compassionate, and principled young man cut down in the prime of his life.
The other tragedy is that Craig left behind the love of his life, Ashley. I can't even begin to fathom the depth of her loss. A young couple with hopes, plans, and dreams, all cut short on March 20, 2011.
Nothing can take that pain away. Nothing can soothe that ache. There are, however, things society can do to try to hold up its end of the contract.
In the Wisconsin Legislative session of 2009-2010, a bill passed both the Senate and Assembly providing health insurance to the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty. For reasons unknown to me, police officers were not included in this legislation. However, in May of 2011, a bipartisan effort led by Republican Senator Van Wanggaard and Democratic Senator Bob Jauch sought to remedy this. Senate Bill 18 added the health insurance protection to the surviving spouses and children of Wisconsin's fallen law enforcement officers, retroactively. The bill passed the Senate on May 17, 2011 by unanimous vote.
In August of 2011, Ashley Birkholz attended a hearing in front of the Wisconsin Assembly to discuss SB 18. She wrote a letter to the legislators, read by Fond Du Lac officer Jeff Harbridge on her behalf. She told them about what the legislation meant to her and the families of other fallen officers. She was joined by Charlette Nennig, whose husband LeRoy was killed in the line of duty with the Sheboygan County Sheriff's Office in 2004. Also testifying that day was Jenny Van Handel, whose husband Heath, a DNR pilot, was killed in 2009 in a plane crash while assisting in fighting a forest fire near Marshfield. On multiple occasions, Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, explained to the Wisconsin Legislature how much this bill meant to the brave men and women of Wisconsin law enforcement. Nobody can claim that the Assembly members didn't know the importance of this legislation, because they heard about it first hand from the very people who need the assistance this bill would provide.
Few could have predicted what happened next.
At the last minute, the Republican legislators in control of the Assembly blocked the bill from being brought to a vote. BLOCKED the bill that unanimously passed the Senate. From what I have discovered, the Birkholz family was given the choice of coming to the Capitol for the resolution only, but understandably opted not to attend. In a horrendous display of partisan politics in what should have been a unifying issue, John Jagler, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, called SB 18 an "unfunded mandate" on local governments that "isn't ready to become law." "We're looking at a more fiscally responsible way of funding it," he added.
These officers, and their families, have given everything in service to the people of the State of Wisconsin. I mean EVERYTHING. Lives are lost, and countless others are shattered. The least we could do for them, on behalf of a grateful public, is to give the survivors the peace of mind of health care. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but the Assembly Republicans apparently believe it wouldn't be "fiscally responsible."
The contract broken.
To the people who blocked this bill: It isn't enough to attend the funerals of fallen officers in your districts, or memorial services during Police Week. It isn't enough to get teary-eyed when the bagpipes play, and to talk about how grateful the citizens of Wisconsin are for this ultimate sacrifice. Your words are hollow, because your actions have broken the contract. These families are trying to put their shattered lives back together, yet all you can talk about is fiscal responsibility. For the sake of decency, please do not attend another officer's funeral, or another police memorial service, until you make this right. You are not welcome to share in our grief until that happens.
To my readers here: please share this with everyone you know. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere else you can post it. Email it to your friends and family. This situation is a disgrace to the citizens of the great state of Wisconsin, and dishonors the sacrifice of our fallen officers.
The following politicians are responsible for the failure to bring this bill to a vote. Please send them emails on behalf of Ashley Birkholz and the families of Wisconsin's other fallen heroes, and ask everyone you know to do the same. Please spend 5 minutes of your time serving those who sacrificed their lives serving us. Demand of these legislators that they bring this important piece of legislation to an immediate vote.
Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald: Rep.Fitzgerald@legis.wisconsin.gov
Representative Bill Kramer: Rep.Kramer@legis.wisconsin.gov
Representative Dan Knodl: Rep.Knodl@legis.wisconsin.gov
Representative Joan Ballweg: Rep.Ballweg@legis.wisconsin.gov
Representative Mary Williams: Rep.WilliamsM@legis.wisconsin.gov
Representative Samantha Kerkman: Rep.Kerkman@legis.wisconsin.gov
Tell them it's part of the contract.