In Michigan, more than 500 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty in the state's history.
There’s no statewide memorial to fallen Michigan police, but an effort to create one has lagged for years.
Now, that dream appears closer to reality.
In every lifetime, there’s at least one pivotal event. One of those happened to Mary Johnson 17 years ago.
The memory is as fresh as if it were 17 hours ago.
"It just seems like it was yesterday,” she says.
Mary’s brother, Rick Johnson, was a Michigan State Police trooper. He was making a routine traffic stop along I-94 west of Kalamazoo when a car barreled off the road between his vehicle and the one he’d stopped.
Johnson was caught in the middle. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
May 6, 2000 was Trooper Rick Johnson’s ‘end of watch.’ That’s what he would have called it, just like his sister does. She’s a police officer, too.
Michigan State University Police Captain Mary Johnson wants to honor her brother’s memory, and those of the more than 500 Michigan law enforcement officers who’ve died in the line of duty.
“Just like you’ve seen for the hurricanes and everything else, they respond, they go out, they answer the calls...they would never not help somebody in distress,” Johnson says. “And that’s the side of police officers that deserves to be seen and that’s what these memorials show.”
Johnson stands near a wide green parcel of land along Allegan Street in downtown Lansing, off the grounds of the Michigan Hall of Justice. There’s a little traffic noise here, but not enough to keep one from slipping gently into a moment of serenity.
This site was dedicated for a Michigan police memorial back in February 2007. It’s been sitting vacant ever since.
“This is not an unusual experience for this sort of project,” says John Szczubelek. He’s an assistant Michigan Attorney General and chairs the Michigan Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Commission. The group oversees fundraising for the estimated $3 million project.
It’s been slow going since the recession began a decade ago, and the price tag is a moving target.
“We’re somewhere between, say, $900,000 and $1.5 million off,” Szczubelek notes. “That may sound strange that I can’t pinpoint it for you, but I will tell you, as projects like this go, this one is very, very complicated.”
“The Sentinel” will be a series of 21 vertical panels, four feet wide and eight feet tall. An underground electronics system will light the panels in various colors. The names of the fallen will be etched on crystal polymer glass.
“The Sentinel” will always be a work in progress.
"Unfortunately there will be space available,” says Michigan Fraternal Order of Police executive director Dave Hiller. “We’d like to think we’ll never have to use it again, but we know that’s not true.”
Hiller retired in 2016 as chief of police in Gross Pointe Park.
“In all the years of being a cop, that’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had to do...to tell a family we’re here to help you, and you’ve got some five-year-old kid saying ‘bring my daddy back,” Hiller says, sadly. “That’s what this is all about. It’s not about the cops, it’s about the families, the survivors; the ongoing ‘thank you’ for the true sacrifice that you gave by losing one of your loved ones.”
The Michigan Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Commission hopes to finally clear its money hurdles within the next year. Under a state grant program, the commission is eligible to receive a two to one match on every dollar it raises up to $2 million. Reaching that threshold is the commission’s top priority..
Commissioner Mary Johnson wants to cross the finish line, too.
Her brother Rick has been gone 17 years. She doesn’t want him or the many others who wore the badge to be forgotten.
“They had lives, they had families, they had friends,” says Johnson, her voice breaking. “And often times, they went above and beyond. These aren’t officers who just quit at the end of the day. These were extraordinary people and they deserve to be remembered. So, it’s important that we show that we know that they were heroes, and this memorial needs to be built.”