Children of the Fallen

Children of the Fallen

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Little Riley Cottongim faced his first day of kindergarten without his father, Zachary Cottongim. An officer with the Louisville, KY police department, Cottongim was investigating an abandoned vehicle on Interstate 64 in December of 2021 when he was struck and killed by a vehicle whose driver had lost control on the highway. When Riley arrived for his first class this year, he was greeted by a contingent of over 20 Louisville police officers lining the sidewalk.

Last year another kindergarten student got a police escort as well. Anna Stolinsky ran up and down high-fiving and hugging the La Vergne, TN Police Department members who lined up outside her school. Anna’s father, Police Lieutenant Kevin Jay Stolinsky died on duty in November of 2021.

Tarpon Springs, FL Police Officer Charlie Kondek was shot and killed as he responded to a noise complaint call in 2014, leaving six children, including a teenage daughter who was to attend her 2016 prom. Members of the department stepped in for a fallen colleague, taking his place to escort his daughter to prom Saturday night. Major Jeff Young stated that he was “sad because we have to be here, honored because we can be here.” Daughter Aleena had not been forgotten.

A dozen Austin, TX police officers attended the 2017 graduation of Mikayla Hunter, daughter of Austin Police Officer Clinton Warren Hunter, who was killed when struck by a vehicle driven by a fleeing felon in 2001 when his daughter was just three years old. “It was so great that they would all come to do this for me, Mikayla said.

Savannah Harris could not hold back the tears when she stepped out of her house on her way to her high school graduation to see a parade of Arizona Department of Public Safety Officers ready to escort her to the event. Savannah’s father, Officer Christopher Russell Marano was killed in a pursuit crash in December of 2009 when she was just seven years old.

These are just a few of the many examples of how the cohesiveness of the law enforcement community extends to the families of fallen officers. Another example is the organization Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) which, according to its website “Was organized in 1984 with 110 individual members.  Today, C.O.P.S. membership is over 75,000 survivors.  Survivors include spouses, children, parents, siblings, significant others, and co-workers of officers who have died in the line of duty.”

C.O.P.S. Kids Camp is a special program for children of fallen officers “that provides families the opportunity to interact in a relaxed setting that is removed from everyday life. Oftentimes, young children who lose a parent do not have a safe, comfortable place to share their struggles with their peers. C.O.P.S. Kids Camp offers that, as well as a place for parents/guardians to do the same. Campers will have the opportunity to attend age appropriate grief counseling sessions that will address their needs. Licensed mental health professionals will support all campers, adult and child alike, by facilitating these sessions and presenting tools for families to implement at home in the future. Attending C.O.P.S. Kids Camp will also give campers the chance to participate in fun, challenging activities while providing a camp-like structure that encourages relationship building. We hope that all campers leave the week with an increased sense of personal growth, and a strong support system made up of peers who can truly understand.”

To be honest, not all families find such support. Most people who deal with the loss of a loved one know the experience of getting sympathy and ministry. Friends and colleagues attend memorial services. Flowers and cards express sympathy. There may be an old-fashioned meal train to provide food for a time. But as the intensity of the moment passes and people necessarily move on with their lives, those left to deal with the loss may feel a sense of abandonment. The ethos of fraternity and never forgetting is shown in law enforcement by the acts of brother and sister officers caring for surviving family members so that no one feels left alone.

 To be honest, this doesn’t always happen. Personnel change and a legacy depicted by a photo on the wall of the squad room that is no replacement for the active memory of those who worked with them and knew them. This is especially true with wounded officers who must leave the agency due to their injury and can easily be forgotten with no ceremony, no grieving, and no photo on the walls.

Nevertheless, with whatever faults they bring, the blue family often sticks together, especially if it brings a smile to a child’s face to know that there are those who still remember and still care.