In the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombings, West New York was thrust into the national media spotlight when it was discovered that the sister of the suspected terrorists, Ailina Tsarnaev, lives in an apartment only blocks from Town Hall.
Within the local police department, which was tasked with securing the perimeter around Tsarnaev’s building, there was a feeling that something more could be done. When news spread throughout the police community that departments throughout the country would be sending delegations to attend the funeral of fallen Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by the bombing suspects as they attempted to escape Boston, the department’s honor guard sprang into action.
“I received a lot of calls from members of the guard about whether or not we might get a group together to go up there,” said Sergeant Marcos Garciga, who heads the honor guard. “A lot of officers expressed a desire to take part.”
So in the wee hours of the morning on April 24, nine members of the department’s color guard packed into a 15-person van and drove the four and a half hours to MIT’s Cambridge campus, where a memorial service was to be held for Collier. Over 10,000 people attended, many of whom were members of law enforcement agencies and the various branches of the armed forces.
“The atmosphere was very mixed,” said Detective Henry Codina. “It’s tough any time a fellow officer makes that ultimate sacrifice, but it was also really nice to see the support.”
Codina mentioned meeting police officers from not only the United States, but also Canada and Ireland. Additionally, the group met the honor guard from Newtown, Conn., scene of a deadly school shooting on Dec. 14.
“It’s a bit sad that it takes something as tragic as this to bring people together,” he said, “but in all my years of serving on the honor guard I’ve never seen anything that powerful.”
Officer Madelyn LaBoy, who handled the planning of the trip, called the experience “humbling.
“Seeing all the officers that had come from so far away, it was very humbling,” she said. “It sort of shows that we’re a big family, no matter where you’re from or who you know.”
She also noted that the department’s attendance was meant to be in support of Collier’s family as much as for the city of Boston itself.
“It’s tough any time a fellow officer makes that ultimate sacrifice, but it was also really nice to see the support.” – Detective Henry Codina
Garciga, who has served on the honor guard for over 10 years, said that he thought the most touching moment of the ceremonies was a speech given by Vice President Joseph Biden, who told the audience, “We have suffered, we are grieving, but we are not bending.”
“I’ve participated in hundreds of events with the honor guard, but I can’t recall anything that memorable,” said Garciga.
Robert Rogers, Collier’s biological brother, told the New York Times that he was honored by the attendance of Collier’s other brothers – members of the law enforcement community, most of whom Collier had never even met.
“People ask me, ‘If Sean were here, what would he think?’ Are you kidding me? He would love this,” Mr. Rogers told the Times. “You’ve got sirens, flashing lights, formations, people saluting, bagpipes, taps, the American flag. He would have loved it.”
Reactions from home
Asked if any other attendees had questioned the West New York officers about their role in securing Tsarnaev’s apartment, Detective Yousef Awadallah said it never even came up.
“No one was really thinking about that, it wasn’t really the time,” he said. “Everyone was very focused on the event.”
According to Garciga, a photo of the West New Yorkers at the ceremony circulated quickly throughout the department, and many officers have since thanked the honor guard for participating.
“We’ve gotten a really positive reaction from the force,” he said. “Everyone’s very thankful and full of pride that we were able to represent the town and the force.”
Some of the officers attended said that the experience was also somewhat of a reality check about officer safety. When he was killed, Collier had been sitting in his patrol car, and was shot before he could draw his gun.
“A lot of the times, when pedestrians walk up to us in our cars, we roll the windows right down,” said Garciga. “He was a sitting duck. It reminds us we can never let our guard down.”
Codina echoed the sentiment.
“Sometimes officers can get complacent with their own level of safety,” he said. “When something like this happens, you realize things about your own performance on the job you may not have realized before.”
Garciga thanked local businessmen Edwin Sheikh and Alex Marrero for covering the group’s transportation and food costs, the town’s Police Benevolent and Police Supervisor’s Associations (PBA and PSA), as well as the department itself for helping to arrange for the honor guard officers to take the day off to attend Collier’s memorial service.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org