No ordinary motorcycle death

September 9, 2015; updated September 24, 2015

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A man on a motorcycle gets hit and killed by an elderly driver hauling a trailer. Motorcycle rider deaths in Michigan are not uncommon. In 2013, 127 motorcycle riders died in crashes, 13% of all traffic deaths (source). This death was especially horrifying: the victim was dragged 4 miles under the trailer. Even so, it would have been a single-day, local news item had the victim been a school teacher, factory worker or any other ordinary human being. But this was a police officer - a state trooper - so there were stories not only in state media, but the New York Daily News, CNN, MSN, the Chicago Tribune and the United Kingdom's Daily Mail.

If the victim had been an ordinary citizen, there would have been a quiet funeral attended by family, friends and co-workers. Instead, there were 3,500 attendees including police from around the state and across the country. There was the traditional "end of watch" radio call. There were bagpipers. The U.S. flag flew from a hook-and-ladder truck.

Michigan State Troopers bikes are lined up outside of the funeral for Trooper Chad Wolf at Fenton High School in Fenton. Kimberly Mitchell/Detroit Free Press photographer

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder looks on as the Metro Detroit  Police and Fire Pipes and Drums leads the procession for the casket. Kimberly Mitchell/Detroit Free Press photographer

The car procession for Trooper Chad Wolf begins after his funeral. Kimberly Mitchell/Detroit Free Press photographer

Among the attendees was Governor Rick Snyder, honoring one of his state employees. Would he have been there if the victim had been a state social worker?

This death was tragic, but not heroic. The trooper was on duty, but not involved in a pursuit or any activity specific to the job. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time on a motorcycle.

As I have said here before, these elaborate funerals are not spontaneous. In Michigan, they are organized by the Michigan Sheriff’s & Municipal Memorial Assistance Response Team (S.M.M.A.R.T.), created and led by Lieutenant Timothy Jungel of the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office: (source)

The team’s purpose is to help the family and department by alleviating the stress of planning a funeral in order to allow them to take time for themselves to begin healing and dealing with other emergencies. The team is available 24-hours a day, responds to the community following the tragedy, and remains on-site until the final call. There is no cost to the requesting agency for S.M.M.A.R.T.’s services.

An important element of a law enforcement memorial service is the role of the Honor Guard unit, which traditionally helps plan the ceremonial aspects and logistics of the service. As the Honor Guard/Color Guard Coordinator for his agency, Lieutenant Jungel is responsible for the “casket watch,” the visitation, and the funeral and graveside services. He also coordinates the pallbearers, the bagpiper, and the bugler. Lieutenant Jungel has attended every funeral the Michigan Sheriff’s Association’s S.M.M.A.R.T. team has assisted with since its inception in 2003.

To get a real idea of just how elaborate these funerals are, watch this 4-minute, professional grade video of the Grant Whitaker funeral, with Josh Groban singing "You Lift Me Up" on the soundtrack. Grant Whitaker was the Ingham County Sheriff deputy who crashed last December while pursuing a speeder at 117 mph at night on a 2-lane blacktop.

I'd like to know who pays for all of this. Are the officers who attend from all over the state and all over the country doing so on their own time? Are they reimbursing their employer for use of the vehicle? Who is doing their job when they are away? Who furnishes the horses, helicopters and hook-and-ladder trucks? How much of it is paid for out of public funds?

 

For a partial answer, this from the labor contract for Ingham County Sheriff officers (page 49):

 

One (1) vehicle may be released for one (1) day to five (5) off-duty employees for attendance at the funeral of any local officer killed in the line of duty anywhere in the lower peninsula of Michigan, up to a maximum of five (5) times per year, unless otherwise approved by the Sheriff. Such attendance shall be without compensation and with the prior approval of the Sheriff.

I suspect the purpose of the big show is to enhance the noble image of the police officer and encourage public generosity when it comes to special financial benefits and privileges.

One other thing. Does it really make sense to put cops on motorcycles rather than in cars? This state trooper would not have been killed had he been in a car. Are there any situations in police work when a motorcycle is more effective/practical than a car? Or is it because it looks cool and is more fun?

Motorcycles are dangerous. In fact, two cops on motorcycles were injured on the way to this one's funeral.

Send comments, questions and tips to stevenrharry@gmail.com. If you'd like to be notified by email when I post a new story, let me know.

     Michigan State Troopers bikes are lined up outside of the funeral
     for Trooper Chad Wolf at Fenton High School in Fenton.

     Kimberly Mitchell/Detroit Free Press photographer

 

 

 

 

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