Death in the line of duty isn’t restricted to firefights. Three New Jersey police officers honored at the 25rd annual New Jersey Law Enforcement Memorial Service at the Shore today all died behind the wheel.
“Surely, only someone who’s lived it knows the pain of losing [them],” First Assistant N.J. Attorney General Ricardo Solano Jr. told the solemn gathering today at Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium. Invoking the late Martin Luther King Jr., Solano said all three officers answered the eternal question: “What are you doing for others?” with “courageous, capable, steadfast and reliable” service.
It ended tragically for each in “the last free measure of devotion,” he said, as the hundreds of uniformed officers, loved ones and other attendees in the cavernous, 115-year-old hall fell silent.
The ceremony was exquisite in its dignity — no speeches or extended eulogies. A variety of musical styles offered tribute to the fallen servants, including a rousing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by a pair of choirs from Lyndhurst High School in Bergen County and West Windsor/Plainsboro High School in Mercer.
Atlantic City Police Officers Gerald and Harold Lathan sang a smooth, soulful duet on “Stand,” on the same stage that has featured performances by the likes of John Philip Sousa, Enrico Caruso, Tony Bennett and Ray Charles.
And a pipe and drum band comprised of officers from various departments marched in from behind the auditorium, filling the center and side aisles, before a majestic version of “Amazing Grace.”
With the massive choir of high-schoolers behind them, a line of dignitaries — among them, Weysan Dun, the FBI’s top agent in New Jersey, and Mitchell Sklar, president of the state Association of Chiefs of Police — sat in semi-circle on the stage. In front of the podium were large sketches of each of the dead officers.
Their loved ones were escorted onstage one family at a time:
North Brunswick Lt. Christopher Zerby suffered fatal head and chest injuries when a vehicle driven by a fellow officer veered off the road and struck a utility pole about 300 feet south of a Route 1 overpass on Aug. 12;
Perth Amboy Officer Thomas Raji was killed when the car he was driving, in which another officer and the prisoner were passengers, hit a car crossing Route 1 in Woodbridge on Aug. 22;
Belleville Police Officer Kenneth Santucci was less than a half-hour from the end of his shift when his cruiser collided with a car, sending his vehicle into a uility pole, on the way to a suspicious person call on Sept 6.
Their loved ones received plaques, then were escorted back to their seats.
Each spring for nearly a quarter century, officers from New Jersey who died in the line of duty have been honored for making the ultimate sacrifice in serving and protecting us, in what is the oldest state-wide memorial service for fallen officers in the nation.
As before, those who’ve gone before them were remembered in sections on either side of the massive stage. Affixed to the empty seats were the names, hometowns and dates of death for each officer.
Absent from the ceremony was New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and State Attorney General Anne Milgram, who was a late scratch.
Those who’ve never attended the ceremony in the Grove’s 115-year-old Great Auditorium can’t imagine the emotional power of so many uniformed officers honoring their fallen colleagues. The ceremony reached a tearful crescendo with the playing of “Taps” by a Paramus police officer, following a gun salute outside the hall.
Participating agencies included the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, New Jersey Police Chiefs Foundation, New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, New Jersey State Troopers NCO Association, New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association, New Jersey Sheriffs’ Association, Federal Bureau of Investigation – Newark Field Office, New Jersey FBI National Academy Associates, New Jersey State Police Survivors of the Triangle, Garden State Survivors (COPS), New Jersey State Police, New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, New Jersey County Prosecutors’ Association, New Jersey Police Academy Directors Association, NJ Division of Criminal Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration – Newark Field Office, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives – New Jersey.