It was a thin blue line, but it was long and it was heartfelt.
As many as 500 police cars were parked over three blocks long, four and five lanes wide outside the Big Valley Grace Community Church where officers from all over the state grieved with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department for the senseless loss of Deputy Bob Paris.
Police officers all have a code to support each other when they hear an “officer needs help” call on the street, and also when an officer gives his life for his community – they flock to his or her services to show their respect, feeling like a brother.
Their philosophy supports the 100 officers who responded to Deputy Paris’ killing because they didn’t know immediately if there was only one shooter or there were more in the apartment complex. Many left the scene early in the afternoon, but it was an urgent priority for them all when they heard the 11-99 call. With fewer and fewer police on the streets, there is an obvious void when the available black and white units in a community are drawn away from other assignments by an officer and a citizen being shot. Many of the officers who rushed to Modesto took over those routine assignments from the dispatchers.
It was a humbling assignment for me to ride in the Sheriff’s helicopter as it led a formation of nine choppers over the Lakewood Cemetery in Hughson at exactly 4 p.m. to coincide with the burial service that was under way below their rotor blades
Pilot and Deputy Rob Latpie mumbled his feelings in a short comment that came over my headset, as we flew over the cemetery, saying he got a chill in the moment. I think all of us in his chopper and the other flight crews felt much the same as they maintained a tight formation at about 300-feet flying above the trees.
Officers from surrounding agencies had flown into Modesto Airport about noon to prepare for the services. They all met in a briefing room where they were hosted to tri-tip sandwiches and spent an hour talking with old friends. Modesto Deputy Rob Latpie was in charge of the flight operation and held a short briefing telling the pilots the specifics of the fly-over, the direction they would be approaching the cemetery and the distance they would maintain between their ships. He said they had to be in a fairly tight formation or the mourners would not see them all because of the trees.
I was taken up over the Big Valley Grace Community Church at 4040 Tully Road to capture photographs of the buildup of police personnel on the roadway and other mourners parked around the facility for the Sheriff’s Department, but also as a pool photographer for other news agencies wanting aerial photographs.
We would later launch the helicopter for photos of the procession winding its way down Briggsmore Avenue toward the cemetery. Later we learned of the appropriate time frame to fit with the cemetery service for all the choppers to fly in formation toward Hughson and Lakewood Cemetery.
It was not until the point of the flyover that I realized how the flight crews might be having a challenge in dealing with the loss of one of their own. Unlike those who were gathered in the church, the fliers were separated from their fellow officers in saying their goodbyes.
The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit had planned their own memorial at 6 p.m. at their hangar that was expected to last late into the nighttime hours. The helicopter pilots from the other agencies were invited to stay and spend some time with the Modesto deputies.
The other choppers came from Fresno Police Department, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, Sacramento Police Department, Regional Park Police from the Bay Area, Fresno County Sheriff’s Department, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. Two air ambulances including PHI Air Medical out of Modesto joined the flyover.
It was a good day. It was a bad day. It was a tribute to an officer, a paramedic, who left his mark from Tracy to Modesto and all of Stanislaus County.