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The Globe and Mail

To mourn and respect: Why police march en masse for slain cops

Thousands of police from various police forces make their way down University Avenue as they make their way from 52 Division to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for funeral services for Sergeant Ryan Russell on January 18 2011.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Police funerals are a peculiar ritual. In the biggest memorial Toronto has seen for many years, thousands of police marched to honour Toronto's Sergeant Ryan Russell on Tuesday, then gathered for a service in the cavernous downtown convention centre - all for a single 35-year-old cop killed in the line of duty.

One reader who commented on this newspaper's website called it "over the top." Another said the police were mounting a public-relations exercise to ease the controversy over their behaviour during last summer's G20 summit. Still another said that while the policeman's death was tragic, "I can't help but ask myself if this is really necessary? 10,000 police officers attending from all over North America? A section of downtown closed for the better part of the day? This is turning into a media circus instead of a dignified funeral service."

That kind of skepticism is natural enough, even at a time like this. I have to admit that as the son of a navy man who served in the Second World War and emerged from it loathing all military pomp, I came to this event sharing some of their doubts. But as the day unfolded, I began to reconsider.

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The event began with cops from Vancouver, Montreal, Niagara, Ottawa, Barrie, Timmins, Belleville, Brooklyn and dozens of other services standing on the wet pavement on a grey midwinter morning. New York state troopers wore brown Stetsons. Toronto ambulance workers came in their bright yellow reflective jackets. Even the CN rail police sent a contingent. Looking on, hospital technician Teresa Shortill could not help being impressed.

"It just touched me," she said. "I'm overwhelmed by the support the police officers show each other." Like hundreds of others arrayed along University Avenue, she came "to thank them for their dedication - putting their lives at risk every day."

At 11 a.m. sharp, Toronto police began to march, silently moving south, row on row, followed by the Mounties in their scarlet tunics. The streets of downtown went strangely quiet but for the sound of footfalls on pavement. Some onlookers wiped away tears as the hearse carrying Sgt. Russell's body passed by.

There were so many police and spectators that the memorial service was delayed for an hour while they filed into the convention centre. One woman with a walker shuffled for 40 minutes from her apartment to get there. An electrician who came to pay his respects brandished a big Canadian flag.

Inside, the hall went silent as Sgt. Russell's widow, Christine, walked in, holding her little son Nolan's hand. His grandfather, Sgt. Russell's father, Glenn, a former police officer himself, grasped the other.

Barely holding it together, taking gulps of air as if to sustain herself, Ms. Russell managed to say how proud she was of her husband. "Ryan put others before himself," she said. On Jan. 12, when he tried to stop a man driving a stolen snowplow, "this cost him his life."

In the end, Tuesday's event was the farthest thing from a police PR stunt or a media circus. The Toronto police, grieving for their fallen comrade, were buoyed by the support of the public and the solidarity of fellow officers from other cities. The public was moved by the sorrow of a police service whose members it sometimes takes for granted. Grief demands ritual, and this was a necessary one.

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Police Chief Bill Blair said the outpouring of public support "has raised our hearts in a time of sorrow." More than just a tribute to one of their own, he said, the memorial service was a "solemn expression of our shared commitment to duty and to service."

Instead of being dismayed by the public nature of the memorial, Christine Russell seemed lifted up by it. It was only "because of all of you," she said, "that I am brave enough to stand here."

In the end, we witnessed a remarkable and important moment in the life of the city - a rare chance to reflect on the meaning of public service and to repair the tattered bond between the public and those who "serve and protect."

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