For NYPD, a moment of ribbons and remembrance

A compelling event in normal times, the annual awards ceremony has new resonance this year with the unprecedented loss of 24 officers.

Carnegie Hall goes dark, and a movie screen fills the stage with images of police officers searching for survivors in the ruins of the World Trade Center, standing guard over a wounded comrade, or diving into the harbor to save someone. To go along with these gripping shots is the deep voice of James Earl Jones, who booms, "NYPD: all heroes."

The heroes this particular day are about to be recognized in the annual "Medal Ceremony." Since 1871, New York has been handing out pieces of ribbon and medal. But this year is different. The city has given its highest award, the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to the largest number ever: 23 men and one woman. All except one were killed Sept. 11. No other American city has lost that many police in a year.

Almost every police department in the country holds an event like this to remind its citizens of the sacrifices law-enforcement officers and firefighters are ready to make. The moving ceremonies often entail bagpipes, honor guards, and recitations of heroic actions.

So far this year, there have been 216 officers nationwide killed in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Web page.

The loss of so many police in New York alone had left many of the city's living heroes - officers who braved gunfire from drug runners or disturbed people - without much appetite for fanfare later in September, when the ceremony is normally held. So, it was postponed until this week. Even so, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said, "We are still shaken. We are still mourning."

Even in normal times, the ceremony is an emotional and compelling event, said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani afterward, "because you relive the tremendously difficult circumstances through which our police officers are placed at a moment's notice."

For example, six officers were given the Medal of Honor after they responded to a violent, emotionally disturbed man in possession of a lot of firearms. Several of the officers were shot and had to be rescued by yet more men, who were also wounded. By the time the smoke cleared, five of the officers had been shot, although all survived.

Of course, the bulk of the city's losses came on Sept. 11, when, in addition to the police losses, 343 firefighters also died. For the past few months, there have been memorials for the lost firefighters. But the medal ceremony was a chance for the police - usually a stoic group - to let down some of their reserve. At times, the chief of the department, Joseph Esposito, could not continue reading the officers' names as their wives held toddlers' hands and accepted the awards for their missing husbands.

As Commissioner Kerik said, those officers answered the most difficult question faced by a law-enforcement official: "Would you be willing to lay down your life to protect our way of life? We know the answer with these officers. It was a resounding yes."

The solemnity of the event did not stop the mayor from getting a little political and reminding New Yorkers - and the particularly the media - that the police didn't stop to ask sexual orientation, religious inclination, or color when they saved lives. "They responded because a human being was in jeopardy," said Mr. Giuliani.

And, in what might be seen as some advice for the future mayor, Giuliani suggested the most important thing to help the police in the future would be give them the benefit of the doubt - something the mayor has done despite criticism throughout his eight years.

After his short - and unscripted - speech, Giuliani went back to what he has been doing best in recent weeks: comforting people in the midst of grief. As wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters came on to the stage at Carnegie Hall, the mayor kissed and hugged them. At least two of the families had grief piled on grief: a policeman and a fireman in the same family lost in the twin towers.

Many of the officers had young children - at least one still in baby clothes. In a long red dress, the tiny daughter of police officer Moira Smith - the only woman officer killed on Sept. 11 - arrived holding the hand of her father, Jim, also an officer. The mayor bent down and placed the green ribbon with a gold star around the little girl's neck, then gave her a kiss.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.