WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Police Department is once again well-represented at the Police Unity Tour, a national movement coinciding with National Police Week that sees police officers from around the country ride bicycles and motorcycles to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., in honor of those who have died in the line of duty.
For the tour’s 20th anniversary, five of West Orange’s finest — Deputy Chief John Buoye, Capt. Michael Keigher, Sgt. Patrick Matullo, Det. Ed Diaz and Officer Chris Jacksic — embarked on their 300-mile trip from New Jersey to Washington on May 9, in order to arrive at the memorial as part of the roughly 1,800 officers participating in this year’s tour May 12. The next day, the police will assemble for a candlelight vigil in tribute to the 20,789 names currently listed on the memorial’s two marble walls — including Edward Brennan and Daniel Laird from the WOPD — which represent every officer who has been killed since the first recorded death in 1791.
But that is not the only way West Orange is being represented on the tour; in fact, much of its leadership has ties to the township. That includes Executive Director Harry Phillips, a retired WOPD sergeant, and CFO James Waldron III, a retired WOPD lieutenant. Though founder and CEO Patrick Montuore is a retired police chief of the Florham Park Police Department, he also happens to be a West Orange native.
And retired WOPD sergeant and current Unconditional Love Christian Church pastor Greg Boyle is taking part in his 12th tour as the tour chaplain. And even though Boyle is a veteran of the circuit, he said he never ceases to be amazed at how moving it is.
“The Police Unity Tour is the most powerful event in America,” Boyle told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 6 phone interview, describing an awe-inspiring sight of hundreds of officers in blue riding through communities in a united show of support. “It’s really the best way for police officers to get around survivors and let them know that we’re with them and that we’ll never forget their fallen heroes.”
This year will mark Boyle’s third time giving the invocation during the candlelight vigil, at which the names of police officers who have died in the line of duty during the previous year will be added to the memorial. But the chaplain said he still vividly remembers his first invocation 10 years ago as particularly meaningful to him. Gazing out on a sea of somber faces bathed only in the flicker of tiny flames, he told the thousands of officers and loved ones of those killed that it is OK to be angry at God as long as they do not hold onto anger for too long. Afterward, many people told Boyle that his words really had an impact on them, which Boyle said meant a lot to him.
After all, Boyle said his mission of reaching those stricken with grief can be challenging. But it is a ministry he feels compelled to deliver every year nonetheless.
“I try to offer them hope,” Boyle said, adding that most of the people he speaks to are very receptive. “When people suffer through tragedy, their souls are bared wide open. I see it as an opportunity and a call.”
Hope is not all the tour provides. Though raising awareness for the thousands who died is the primary purpose of the movement, it also brings in a lot of money for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which oversees both the memorial and the National Law Enforcement Museum. Since the tour’s first year in 1997, the participating officers have collected approximately $18 million in donations, with Boyle estimating that 2016 will see roughly $2 million contributed to the fund. The chaplain said the fact that they are willing to fundraise on their own — everyone is required to collect a minimum of $1,850 — shows how dedicated the officers are to the cause.
What also shows commitment is the fact that so many police officers are willing to trek 300 miles to Washington by bicycle alone. Buoye, who has participated in the tour since 2004, said cycling the long route is indeed difficult, especially when dealing with all types of weather and terrain. The officers who participate must train to get into shape for the task, Buoye said.
Yet no one will hear Buoye complaining. The deputy chief told the Chronicle it is an honor to be part of the tour and to ride in tribute to those who died in the line of duty. At the same time, he said the entire experience is not completely joyous.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Buoye said in a May 6 phone interview. “It’s an amazing time for the 300-mile journey that we do. You get to see a lot of people along the way — people that come out in support of it — and it makes you proud to be a police officer. But it’s bittersweet when you get to the memorial because you meet families that have lost loved ones, and you just have to keep in mind that you rode for them in honor of their name.”
Keigher, a tour veteran since 2001, said taking part in the event has been a moving experience for him, too. Keigher said it is always powerful to arrive at the memorial and see the many officers and loved ones already there.
Overall, Keigher said he is grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the tour every year.
“It’s really special,” Keigher told the Chronicle in a May 6 phone interview. “I love being part of it. It’s a privilege.”
Boyle, Buoye and Keigher all agreed that any officer would benefit from joining in the tour at least once in their careers, though Boyle pointed out that those who have suffered the loss of a fellow officer can especially take something from it. The chaplain said it is never easy losing a colleague, but an event like this can be exactly what is needed in order to help the grieving process.
“I think this is part of the system that we use for healing,” Boyle said. “The pain never really fully goes away, we get that. But what does help in healing is when your kind — people who can empathize with you, people who can sympathize with you, people who are in the same profession, people who have the same fear that their names will be added to that memorial wall — come together to say ‘We’ll never forget.’”