The Los Angeles Police Department lays yet another officer to rest on Wednesday, casting a gloom over a department drained from losing five officers in the last two months.
It's hard not to notice the LAPD in mourning. Blue ribbons are tied to trees outside police stations and onto antennas on black-and-white patrol cars.
"We all do think about it,” said Sgt. Rose Mejia of LAPD’s Hollywood Station. “But it’s kind of one of those things, you can't really obsess about it.”
The recent toll has been high:
- A funeral Wednesday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels remembers officer Robert Sanchez, the third LAPD officer to die in a car crash this year. Authorities allege Sanchez was killed May 3 when an SUV crashed into his patrol car in Harbor City; police say the SUV was driven by someone trying to help a friend the police were following.
- That same day, 33-year veteran officer George Nagata suffered a heart attack and died while at work.
- On April 5, a driver in Sun Valley crashed into LAPD motorcycle officer Chris Cortijo, killing him, while he was stopped at a red light.
- In March, officer Nicholas Lee died after a heavy-hauling dump truck lost control on a steep street in Beverly Hills and barreled into his police car.
- It’s the same street where off-duty LAPD detective Ernest Allen lost his life Friday in a similar fatal crash.
That's five LAPD officers lost in two months.
Mejia tries to conceal the hurt many officers are feeling, but it’s nearly impossible. She works at the same station officer where Nicholas Lee was assigned.
His pictures hang above the station's lobby and in the watch commander's office, and Lee has a memorial star etched into the sidewalk outside the station.
“[It] just really hit home, because it could have been any of us,” Mejia said.
Mejia's been with the LAPD for 13 years, and for 13 years her Bay Area parents have obsessed about their daughter's risky job. If an officer shooting makes the news up there, her phone rings.
“They're like, 'Oh, my God, are you OK?' I'm like, 'Yeah, it wasn't me, Mom,'” she said.
Mejia, 37, is reserved and professional. She talks quietly and listens to the police radio closely. Her focus is on traffic while she steers her patrol car. Hurried drivers zoom past idling buses, but she waits before carefully making a left turn. Part of that vigilance comes from the front office, Mejia said.
“Making sure everybody wears their seatbelt,” she said. “It's kind of been brought up a lot more."
Police officers are more likely to die in traffic accidents than in shootouts, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports that, last year, 43 officers died in a car or motorcycle crash or when struck by a vehicle, compared to 31 officers who were fatally shot.
Still, the fact that four LAPD officers have died in car crashes recently — two of them on the same stretch of road — can be hard to digest. L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck said he was in “disbelief” when he got the call about last Friday’s fatal crash.
“I asked. I called back. I drove out here myself, and I still didn’t believe it,” Beck said last Friday. “It is just too horrific for words.”
Mejia said she felt the same.
“My heart just sank,” she said, remembering flipping on a TV news channel that day. “It’s almost like, what's going on?"
Across town, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, officer Drake Madison directs news reporters, volunteers and police staff as he sets up another traditional law enforcement funeral for officer Sanchez.
"Seems like we're going from one funeral to another,” he said. Madison's organized four so far.
LAPD funerals are impressive. The cathedral seats 3,500 people, and hundreds of extra chairs had to set up outside to accommodate people paying their respects. Officers in crisp blue uniforms stand stoically in rows as the procession snakes through city streets.
Madison said he's become too familiar with the routine. “A funeral is a funeral,” he said, shaking his head. “You know, one at a time. And we move forward.”
That's how Mejia tries to look at it. "Anything can happen anywhere, and if it's your time, then it's your time,” she said.
Her patrol shift ends, and she rolls back into the station parking lot and parks her car, passing a flag that's been at half-staff for two months.
Mejia went to the last couple of funerals, but she isn’t so sure about this one. They get wearisome, and the LAPD still has to say goodbye at one more.