We Knew Him Well
By: BBO Staff Writer
A few weeks back, I had written a reflective piece on law enforcement line of duty death funerals. Little did I know that, as I sat there, those words would be so relevant so quickly.
On February 12th, 2019, NYPD Detective Brian Simonsen was killed in the line of duty as he and several other NYPD police officers and detectives attempted to apprehend a robbery suspect. What followed in the days after was a living representation of what I had just written about weeks before.
As a police officer since 2007, I have seen my share of police funerals, both line of duty and otherwise. While there is a familiar cadence to services surrounding a line of duty death, each one is unique; as unique as the individual who was lost. As a board member for Brothers Before Others, I have been afforded an even more special perspective.
Since he founded the group in 2014, BBO’s Founder/President, who also serves as Editor-In-Chief for the New York edition of BLUE, retired NYPD Police Officer Michael J. Burke has had one goal in mind; honor our police officers and support their families. In order to accomplish this, Michael immediately established the National Flower Fund, which has sent a floral arrangement on behalf of the group to the services of every line of duty death, regardless of where in the country they have occurred.
From a personal perspective, attending a line of duty death service, when feasible, is, or should be, a requirement. As I discussed in the article I referenced earlier, it is impossible to leave a police funeral without a profound sense of humility. Our presence, often referred to as a “sea of blue” is a crucial step in what is the beginning of a family’s healing process; both for kin AND blue.
While the ceremonies of both the viewing and the actual funeral are a show of respect for the fallen, they are so much more than that. As police officers, we often take for granted that our friends and our families love this profession as much as we do. For us, understanding the level of sacrifice made by the ones we mourn comes naturally. However, for those whose life is focused on simply supporting their loved one and running the household while they were off playing policeman, that understanding might not come so easy.
When we turn out for police funerals the way that NYPD turned out for Detective Brian Simonsen, the family left behind has no choice but to see that the loss of their loved one was not in vain. The parents, siblings, spouses and children immediately are hit with the reality that their loved one was a hero.
Being a member of Brothers Before Others has afforded me the experience of attending police line of duty death services in a unique capacity. I am not family. I am not a friend. Often times, I am not even on the same department. Yet, especially since partnering with Philadelphia Police Officer Jonathan Castro and often times hand-delivering one of the portraits that he creates, I have been able to meet and connect with the grieving family left behind. I can tell you that, of all the things I have done and seen in this life, both on and off the job, these interactions have been by far the most humbling experiences that I carry with me every day.
There is a saying (paraphrased) that, when an officer is lost in the line of duty, it’s not a department that loses someone, it’s the entire law enforcement community. Attending Brian’s services reinforced this point to me.
Again, being an essential outsider, I was there out of respect; respect for Brian, respect for his sacrifice and respect for the sacrifice that his family has made and will now make every day they live without him. However, being separated from the immense grief experienced by Brian’s close friends and family, I was able to more closely observe and appreciate, in real time, the amazing amount of love and respect being shown by everyone who braved the cold weather. I was able to see the strain on the faces of his coworkers. I was privy to just how much work and time went into those days, ensuring that not one need or request of Brian’s family went ignored.
One of the things that humbled me was how clear it was how much Brian was loved. As I stood in the lobby of the church, watching photo after photo of Brian with his friends and family scroll on TV screens that had been placed around the church, I couldn’t help but see exactly why they called him “Smiles.” Listening to the heartbreaking eulogies delivered by his coworkers and friends, there was no mistaking what Brian meant to the people in his life.
As police officers, I think we often take for granted that people are just going to pack the church at our funeral because of the uniform and shield we wear. However, I am here to tell you that is not the case. The turnout that you saw for Brian, the visible strain and emotion on the faces of his family, coworkers and friends, all were a testament to who this man was.
We personalize funerals. We always do. Virtually every line of duty death starts off as something that police officers do every day, sometimes multiple times during a day; motor vehicle stop, vehicle pursuit, domestic violence intervention, motor vehicle accident investigations, assisting disabled vehicles, and as was the case with Brian, calls for help/service. So, inevitably, you find yourself sitting there thinking “Damn. I do that stuff every day” and the weight of the humbling reality hits you. You’ll often hear cops say, “We hardly knew you, but we knew you well.” We DO know each other well, because we experience the same stresses and realities.
This emotion was so prevalent during my time at Brian’s services that I could literally feel its presence. As I looked at the photos, heard the stories and met his law enforcement family, I was overcome with the reality that none of us really think this could be us. An incident like the one that ultimately took his life was the farthest thing from Brian’s mind as he posed for the pictures that we all saw flashing up on the screen.
I try to take something from every service; basically my way of acknowledging to the lost that they taught me something, even though we often times never met. Brian reminded me to not take one day on this job for granted; whether you have 19 years in as he did, 12 like I do, or if you’re just starting out. He reinforced the concept of conducting myself, both on and off the job, as someone who people will WANT to remember when they retire or leave this earth. Most of all, Brian made me want to be the kind of guy who, when I’m gone, will be remembered for my smile. How amazing and outwardly loving must he have been for his smile to be that impactful?
While my heart breaks for their loss, I am grateful that every member of the Simonsen family, including those he worked with, were able to experience that kind of great love. I am grateful that they had someone in their lives so amazing, worthy of every tear they have spent and will spend.
Former NYPD Commissioner Bratton once said during a eulogy that he was delivering: The most common phrase he hears repeatedly at police funeral services is that “God always takes the good ones.” He added, “That is not a mistake. Because police officers represent the best of all of us.”
I may have been an outsider at Brian’s services, but I left without a shadow of a doubt that Brian was exactly the kind of cop Commissioner Bratton spoke about and that is a tribute to both how he lived, how he loved and, most importantly, how he was loved.
Fare Thee Well, Detective Simonsen.