At New York Police Department Funerals, Politics, Grief and Shifting Traditions – New York Times

Officers Mark Cava, left, and Jason Muller on Sunday during a moment of silence for two colleagues who were killed.
By AL BAKER and J. DAVID GOODMAN
December 22, 2014

The rumble of motorcycles, the faraway sounds of bagpipers, a hearse carrying a coffin covered with a flag. Helicopters passing in a “missing man” formation, leaving a gap of open sky to symbolize a lost life.

For decades, this is how the New York Police Department has buried its dead, in solemn funerals attended by thousands of fellow officers whose pressed uniforms form seas of blue. Again, this week, they are being planned for two more officers, killed violently, and soon to be laid to rest: Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

But this time is different.

Whether Mayor Bill de Blasio would deliver traditional remarks at either remembrance was an open question until late Monday, when he made it clear that he would attend both events. The ceremonies also coincide with an emotional time of year, the holiday season.

Indeed, the backgrounds of both officers diverge from the Irish and Italian roots of the department, which has rapidly diversified over the last decade. Where once services could be counted on to be held in Roman Catholic churches, the venues now more closely mirror the cultural complexities of the city, and the world.

For Mr. Ramos, 40, the services will be in a Protestant setting, the Christ Tabernacle Church, in Glendale, N.Y., with a wake Friday and the burial Saturday.

For Mr. Liu, 32, who did not attend a formal religious institution, preferring to pray at home, the logistics of finding a large enough space for his funeral are still being worked out. Both are awaiting relatives from outside the city: Mr. Liu’s will arrive from China, with the help of officials securing travel documents, and Mr. Ramos’s from Puerto Rico, where his roots lie.

“This department was a very Catholic department many years ago,” said Lt. Tony Giorgio, who, as the longtime leader of the department’s Ceremonial Unit, has orchestrated hundreds of funerals since the late 1980s.

“Over the years, we have had to diversify the unit, get to know these other religions,” he said. “We have to know those services. Sometimes they’re in Hebrew. Spanish. It could be an Asian language.”

Often, contradictions abound at such affairs. Inside churches or other houses of worship, words of praise and healing are spoken. Outside, officers stand in white gloves and blouses, sometimes in the wicked cold or summer sun, all through such ceremonies, sometimes grumbling about what they see as departmental shortcomings or political hypocrisies. There is crying, and there is rage.

For mayors, funerals are obligatory, important moments, sometimes entangled in political difficulties like those that have engulfed Mr. de Blasio in recent weeks as the police unions have stepped up their criticism of him. Mitchell L. Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, said: “In New York, a cop’s funeral is about more than burying the dead. It is a way of recognizing the central role of the police in the city. A mayor is tested at a cop’s funeral, for he is conveying the gratitude of all New Yorkers to the family of the deceased police officer.”

Over recent weeks, Mr. de Blasio has faced an outcry from the largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which urged its members — who have been working without a contract since June 2010 — to sign petitions asking the mayor not to attend their funerals should they die in the line of duty. When Mr. de Blasio went to the hospital where the mortally wounded officers were taken on Saturday, the head of the union, Patrick J. Lynch, and others turned their backs on the mayor in a symbolic act of disapproval.

But Monday, standing alongside Police Commissioner William J. Bratton at Police Headquarters, Mr. de Blasio said he would “absolutely” attend both funerals.

For most families, the pomp of the ceremony and the crush of a city’s eyes on their most painful moments can be overwhelming. In the aftermath of the death, some do not want a large funeral, Lieutenant Giorgio said.

In the end, he said, “they always turn around and say, ‘That day was a day I would never forget.’ ”

As the department continued on Monday to make plans for the two funerals, the widow of Officer Liu, Pei Xia Chen, made her first public statement.

“The Liu family would like to express our gratitude and our appreciation to the Police Department, our neighbors, the entire New York City community, friends and co-workers for the help and the support they provide,” she read from the stoop of the Gravesend home she shared with Officer Liu, struggling to hold back tears.

Ms. Chen and Officer Liu had married only two months before.

For those who attend a line of duty funeral in uniform, the particulars of how the officer died — whether in the course of an arrest, or rushing to the scene of a crime, or in a fire — can elicit uncomfortable memories of their own similar experiences.

“In this case, there isn’t a police officer in the history of the Police Department who hasn’t spent numerous times having lunch or a cup of coffee while sitting talking to his partner in a radio car,” said Louis R. Anemone, a former chief of department, invoking the ambush killings of Officers Ramos and Liu as they sat in their marked patrol car.

“The reality of it really hits home,” he said.

As at any funeral, raw emotions and frayed nerves can occasionally spill over. Mr. Anemone recalled the time in 1996 when he encountered Howard Koeppel, a friend of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, at the front of the church during the service for a lieutenant shot in the face.

Mr. Koeppel’s connections to City Hall had won him designation as an “honorary commissioner,” but because he was neither a relative nor a member of the department, Mr. Anemone asked him to leave.

“He violated that space while there are cops waiting outside,” Mr. Anemone said.

Despite whatever rumbling may be beneath the surface, the affairs come off as mighty shows of solidarity. John J. Miller, a deputy commissioner, said he has long marveled at the scope of the task. “No matter how complicated,” he said, “they do it in such a way that you don’t see any of the moving parts.”

The behind-the-scenes logistics begin the night an officer dies. A close friend of the victim in the department is assigned to shepherd the relatives through a sudden storm of paperwork and attention, from friends, city officials and the news media.

Mr. Giorgio said even as the languages and customs he encounters have grown more numerous, there are several constants, rooted in a century of tradition in what officers still call “an inspector’s funeral,” from the days when a chief inspector would send representatives from every command.

To be laid to rest, the officer is dressed in a blue uniform, the shield pinned to the chest. At church, the coffin is borne by a set team of officers who are trained in the task, not any who knew the officer.

After the ceremony, two buglers play taps as officers form ranks outside. The department’s official flag — or an American flag if the officer is a veteran — is folded and handed to the family. The officer’s shield is removed, put in a box and stored. The number it bears is never used again.

P.O. Liu: 2118. P.O. Ramos: 6335.

Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.

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