The Funeral Of Officer Swasey: The Thin Blue Line Gets Thinner

posted on January 1, 2016

On Friday, Dec. 4, thousands gathered to honor officer Garrett Swasey, murdered in the attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood on Nov 27. 

A University of Colorado at Colorado Springs officer, Swasey was on duty that bitter cold day after Thanksgiving. It was certainly not unusual for Swasey to respond to off-campus calls, and with the University a mere 3.5 miles away and school closed, the choice to respond was surely a no-brainer for the 44-year-old. 

Details on what happened next are veiled by the ongoing investigation: Reports say video surveillance reveals Swasey had time to check on a fallen brother officer before advancing on the building. By then, the horror of the maelstrom into which he had hurled himself must have dawned on him.

There are unique rituals associated with the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty. One is the Honor Guard—brethren officers from outside departments who come to pay respect. As they passed the flag-draped casket in review, their shoulder patches reflected the surrounding communities: Colorado Springs. Parker. Thornton. Walsenburg. Monument. Littleton. The Line is all that separates society’s sheep from its wolves. And when a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, or a holiday party for county employees in San Bernardino, or a community college campus in Oregon suddenly become targets, we ask The Line to stretch further than ever.

Each raised an arm in solemn salute. Colorado College. Denver Public Schools. Fort Morgan. Fremont County. They included far-flung departments such as Melrose, Mass., and the University of Wisconsin.

Attending at the invitation of an officer friend from a neighboring community, we drove together to the New Life Church, itself the site of an attempted mass shooting in 2007. Congregation member and former police officer Jeanne Assam bravely brought down the deranged shooter before he could complete his rampage.

“There are protestors,” intoned our friend as we turned off I-25. She was following the police feed on her phone. “Volunteers are forming a wall to screen them off.” 

It’s always stunning to me that someone would bring an agenda to a funeral, but it’s not unknown in a community that has buried more than its share of heroes. Colorado Springs is home to five military bases, and as we drove past the throngs on the side of the road, distasteful dissent was invisible. 

We walked about 200 yards from an adjacent lot, squeezed through the human barriers and passed under an arch formed by two construction cranes hoisting a massive American flag. The sprawling New Life parking lot was reserved solely for law enforcement—a clue to the magnitude of their support.

Inside, two-thirds of the 5,000-seat sanctuary were dressed in blue.

The eulogists were a solar system of speakers circling ever closer to Swasey. The governor was succeeded by the mayor and the university’s chancellor. They revealed Swasey as a devoted husband and father who was deeply involved in his own church, Hope Chapel. He was even an immensely talented figure skater, having won a junior ice dance national championship in 1997.

UCCS Police Chief Brian McPike and his shift partner, Larry Darnell, sharpened the details of his life: 

McPike said being a police officer “was what he did, not who he was.” Swasey had an intensely curious intellect that caused him to research matters exhaustively and compelled him to share his findings with you the next day. “And then there was the famous, ‘Hey, Chief, you got a minute?’ That was a ploy; you see, this is where Garrett came into our offices, under the guise of just discussing an idea or project he was working on, that would easily turn into 30- or 60-minute work sessions.” 

Darnell met Swasey 25 years ago while both worked at the now-departed skating rink at the Plaza of the Rockies and knew his sense of humor well. He told of the time Swasey showed him his worm farm, which consisted of a five-gallon bucket; of watching him push-start a motorcycle uphill; and of playing together in a band, where Swasey’s commitment to excellence wouldn’t allow him to be satisfied with the simple chords of “Jessie’s Girl.” He told of needling Swasey, a Boston-area native, for being a Patriots fan: “Garrett’s son, Elijah, is a huge Broncos fan. And if I could throw it out there to Peyton Manning, there’s a young boy here who could use some cheering up … and I know you’re not busy.”By then, the horror of the maelstrom into which he had hurled himself must have dawned on him.   

Darnell also remarked on a video made by a woman “who, instead of thanking him, asked, ‘Why would the city of Colorado Springs police send an untrained campus security guard to handle the situation?’ Garrett took an oath. He swore to serve and protect … and when the call came out … he was already on his way.”

Swasey was not the only officer shot in the attack: The wounded CSPD officers who were able sat in the front of the sanctuary. Darnell looked them in the eyes as he spoke: “I dearly want to say your names; I would love to honor you as well, but I can’t because of the investigation. I also want to honor the deputy sheriff who checked on Garrett and also got shot in the process. We will never forget you, as a department.” 

On the way back to the car, I asked our friend how many of these funerals she’d been to. “Too many,” she replied. 

On the procession route, a flag-draped fire truck parked on an overpass; cars and SUVs halted along the entrance ramps, and hundreds gathered in the chill. TV cameras showed an endless bumper-to-bumper ribbon of berries and cherries. Garden City. Alamosa. Wheat Ridge. Pueblo. Buena Vista. 

For a city of more than 500,000, Colorado Springs can feel very small. The Planned Parenthood attack occurred three miles from my house: I dine and shop in the shopping center where people took shelter during the five-hour ordeal. Our first office here was located in Plaza of the Rockies, in the exact location once occupied by the skating rink. The procession brought the city to a standstill, and I don’t mean just traffic.

Darnell had referenced the narrative that, “The country doesn’t appreciate us much anymore.” But the honor bestowed by Colorado Springs on the Thin Blue Line as it snaked its way through the failing winter light was honest and true. It reminds us that The Line is all that separates society’s sheep from its wolves. And when a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, or a holiday party for county employees in San Bernardino, or a community college campus in Oregon suddenly become targets, we ask The Line to stretch further than ever. Arvada. Evans. Aurora. 

But, it’s a Line that seemingly never breaks … even after the loss of a Garrett Preston Russell Swasey. 

Donations to the Officer Garrett Swasey Memorial Fund can be made here.


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