As a member of the Claire Connelly Scholarship Foundation Board of Directors, I was invited to attend this week’s Riverside County Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony. The event, held annually at the Safe In His Arms Memorial in downtown Riverside, honors fallen officers and their families. Claire was one of those honored, and Carole Nagengast, her mom, was present to honor her daughter’s ultimate sacrifice. It’s a side of law enforcement we don’t often see. The loss, pain, and grief of family, friends, and colleagues who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
“It is their duty to serve,” the chaplain said at the ceremony, “and our duty to remember.”
I wasn’t living in Riverside the summer Claire was killed in 1998, so I didn’t know that much about her death…or her life. “I am writing to tell you about my youngest daughter, the late Claire Connelly of the Riverside Police Department, and the Scholarship Fund we have set up in her honor,” Carole explained in an email addressed to me earlier this year. The email was an invitation, a note to ascertain my interest in serving as a member of the board. Before responding, she wanted me to know who Claire was and what she valued.
Claire had a passion for education and was fond of skiing, flying, running and poetry. She had earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and had planned to return to school to earn a Master’s Degree before her life was cut short. She was enthusiastic about life and helping others. She hadn’t lived an ideal life, in fact she had her share of falls and trips. She was a recovering alcoholic who had been 14 years sober and served as a mentor and sponsor to others who were struggling with the same challenge. So it was bitterly ironic that she was hit by a drunk motorist as she investigated a traffic collision on a Riverside roadway. That night Claire became the first female officer in Riverside Police Department’s history to be killed in the line of duty.
She had only been on the job 18 months.
Since 1999, Claire’s mother Carole and the rest of her family, have kept her memory alive through a scholarship fund. Since its inception, the Claire Connelly Scholarship Foundation has awarded over $200,000 to students whose parent or parents work in some capacity for the Riverside Police Department.
Last year California led the nation in officer on-duty deaths. And while we are quick to join the national debate on police accountability and law enforcement’s code of ethics, we often forget a simple truth. We forget that danger is inherent in the nature of their profession. We yell and fight when one officer is caught doing something wrong but don’t thank the thousands that serve selflessly and courageously. This ceremony served as a reminder to me as well.
As I sat in the audience and watched grieving parents, wives, and children mourn the fallen, I thought not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to those who gave their lives selflessly for our safety, but we also must honor, respect and support those they have left behind. The Bonaminio Family. The Crains. The Jacobs. The Connelly/Nagengasts. They are just a few of the 62 families of fallen officers in Riverside County who over the years have deserved our respect and our support.
As I witnessed the folding of the flag, watched the helicopters fly overhead in salute, and listened to the lone bugle player solemnly pay Taps, I secretly wished the larger community was there to join me…To see women and men wipe the flow of tears from their cheeks as the honor roll of the fallen was read aloud. To hear the father’s voice crack as he read the name of his son forever lost to him. To feel the anguish of the daughter who will never really know her dad. I felt the space between “us” and “them” slightly dissipate in solidarity.
At the Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony we awarded five student scholarships in Officer Claire Connelly’s memory. My fellow board member Sergeant Charles Payne read the recipients’ names and Carole was in attendance to give the students certificates and flowers. Claire may not be with us in body, but her spirit lives on in each one of the students we support. As the chaplain reminded us, “danger is inherent in the very nature of the peace officer’s calling. And that danger may require them to sacrifice their lives so that the entire community can live in peace.”
And that is something we must never forget.