Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Paying Tribute to a Fallen Officer

I've lived in the city of Guelph now for twenty-two years, and in all that time I can count on the thumb of one hand the number of police officers that have died in the line of duty. Two weeks ago was the first (and hopefully the last) time our community has had to mourn a fallen officer. Constable Jennifer Kovach died while en route to a call. Her cruiser went out of control on an icy curve and crashed into a bus. Thousands of police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel and citizens, not only from Guelph and the surrounding area but from across the continent, turned out to honour her last Thursday, at a funeral that saw a parade down one of our main streets, and the local arena filled to overflowing, with those not able to find a seat accommodated at the River Run Centre close by. The funeral was broadcast live on local television. And it had at least one local letter writer asking why the spectacle. In a letter to the Guelph Tribune, David Nash asks: Is not the life of a construction worker, who died "in the line of duty," just as precious? Or the pilot who died in Alberta, or the fishermen who died off the east coast? Why no elaborate, state-funded funerals for them? Was this simply not a display of "statism", and not an honour to the deceased constable at all? Now, Mr. Nash does not come off as someone who denigrates police officers, or does not appreciate what they do. He is, instead, asking a valid question, one which I struggled to answer myself in the days following the funeral. And I believe that no, the death of a police officer is not the same as the death of a construction worker, pilot, miner, or fisherman. No, the funeral was not a display of force by the state, but a fitting tribute to one of those few who are asked to give up much and risk all to keep the rest of us safe. A fisherman, a construction worker, a pilot, a miner--all of these occupations are covered by laws designed to keep them safe. While the death of any of these workers is indeed a tragedy worthy of note, it is not quite the same as the death of a police officer in the line of duty. Because a police officer, a firefighter, an EMS worker or a soldier are all lacking one thing that the rest of us take for granted--the right to refuse unsafe work. A police officer's work is by definition unsafe. Constable Kovach was rushing to the aid of another officer who was confronted by a routine traffic stop turned into a drug bust. She did not have a right to refuse this dangerous assignment--it's a condition of her employment that she engage in potentially life-risking actions. On the other hand, the construction worker and the fishermen and the pilot all had employers who were bound by law to keep them safe, and were themselves responsible for telling those same employers that they would refuse to work if the work was deemed unsafe. In addition, the construction worker, the pilot, the miners, the fishermen, if employed by someone else, all have the right to strike to improve working conditions. Constable Kovach did not have that right, either. Persons working in such an environment necessarily develop an extremely close bond. When your life depends on the actions of your comrades, you draw closer to one another for mutual protection. When one of those co-workers dies in the line of duty, it can be much, much more devastating than the death of a co-worker might be to an ordinary worker. I saw the pictures of lines of officers, firefighters and other uniformed personnel to be not a display of statism, but a display of solidarity for a fallen comrade. Each one of those uniformed personnel was intensely aware at the moment the hearse passed them that they could be the next one so honoured. As for the fact that her funeral was state-funded, I feel that is only appropriate. Our police officers and other emergency personnel give up a great deal in order to keep us safe. They give up the right to strike, the right to refuse unsafe work, and even the right to work sane shifts, as someone must be on duty 24 hours a day, every single day of the year. They give up Christmas and Easter and birthdays and holidays with their families. Constable Kovach gave up her right to be with her family to celebrate the birth of her brother's new daughter in order to work the shift that killed her. They deserve our public honour and recognition.

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