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A hero’s send-off

Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier, center, salutes as the body of David Rogers is removed from his home on April 2. (Source: Youtube)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — David Rogers spent his life in service to others. The 56-year-old was a Navy veteran who went on to a long career with the Albuquerque Police Department, retiring as a lieutenant a couple of years ago.

He died too soon following a battle with leukemia, and he got a hero’s send-off on that April 2 morning, with dozens of APD officers showing up at his house to escort the hearse carrying him to the funeral home.

The touching tribute was captured on video, set to the song “Over the Rainbow.”

Officers greet one another and even pose for group photos. Police Chief Michael Geier shows up to provide solace. Officers stand shoulder-to-shoulder outside the house and salute as Rogers’ flag-draped body is carried from his home for the final time. No one appears to be wearing a mask.

APD Lt. David Rogers

Throngs of motorcycle officers then begin the procession through tree-lined streets as the white hearse from Daniels funeral home joins in.

The scene played out in the midst of a pandemic and at a time when mass gatherings have been banned and citizens have been told to stay at least 6 feet apart due to the threat of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. The virus has infected 1,597 New Mexicans and killed 44. Worldwide, it has infected more than 2 million people and killed more than 143,000, including doctors, nurses and, yes, police officers.

Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, told a Journal reporter he recognizes that the officers are not distancing themselves but says it was the bare minimum that could be done to honor Rogers, whom he described as a great man.

“I think that it’s really important to understand that, as police officers, we’re just human beings, we’re struggling, just like everybody else is, to not shake hands, to not give a friend a hug, and to not be there for family members when they are in need or they are sad,” Willoughby said. “I would have been disrespected as a police officer if the department had done nothing. I think it is a show of strong leadership and essence of our police family to make sure that we recognize his service to this community and this police department.”

To be clear, Rogers deserved the procession he got and so much more.

But the gathering came a week and a half after the state secretary of health issued a public order banning mass gatherings, defined as – among other things – public or private gatherings that bring together five or more individuals in an open outdoor space where individuals are within 6 feet of one another.

It’s a message that state and local officials have been driving home over and over again – a message that, they insist, is aimed at saving lives. And it’s an order that authorities say is being enforced. In Albuquerque, open space managers are teaming up with volunteers and police to ensure people are following social distancing rules on public trails.

“It’s extremely important that everyone is following the public health orders to keep us all safe,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a news release earlier this month, this one about how APD, Albuquerque Fire Rescue and the city’s Code Enforcement Division would be working together to ensure that nonessential businesses were complying with the governor’s public health order. “We all have to remember the goal is literally to save lives.”

APD Chief Mike Geier, center, waits with fellow APD officers to escort the body of David Rogers to the mortuary after his death.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, meanwhile, has acknowledged that the orders her administration has issued are causing hardships, but just this week, she thanked New Mexicans for stepping up during the Easter weekend and following them.

“People made sacrifices all over the state to do incredible social distancing which, as we all know, is critical to protecting our first responders, our health care system and saving lives, so we’re going to keep doing that,” she said during a news conference Wednesday.

But when Journal reporter Elise Kaplan asked about the video showing APD officers standing close to one another outside Rogers’ home, neither the mayor nor the Governor’s Office expressed concern.

The Mayor’s Office did not answer questions posed by the Journal, including whether Keller knew about the gathering for the procession or thought such a gathering was advisable. Instead, a spokeswoman sent a statement about measures the department has taken to keep officers safe while fighting crime.

Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman, did address the video.

“It would seem in my view that efforts were made to adhere to social distancing as best it could be while still providing Lt. Rogers a respectful escort worthy of his service to the city,” he wrote.

Chief Geier would not do an interview with the Journal about his own decision to attend the gathering, but APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos confirmed that the officers had organized the escort procession from Rogers’ residence to the funeral home to honor his service the morning he died.

“Chief Geier reminded officers at the residence to practice social distancing,” Gallegos wrote in an email.

Willoughby said the police escort was the only way they could honor a friend and former colleague because it wasn’t possible for anyone to attend a funeral or memorial service. He said Rogers served in the Navy before his long career with APD and he retired in the past couple of years. He said that shortly after Rogers retired he was diagnosed with leukemia.

“This is a man that gave his entire life to service,” Willoughby said. “… With social distancing and the inability to have an actual funeral, I was proud to see the Albuquerque Police Department do what they did, which was they basically did an escort from his home to the funeral home on the morning that he was deceased.”

There’s no question Rogers deserved the send-off his former colleagues gave him. He was a public servant in the truest sense, and that service deserves to be recognized.

But it’s worth noting that there are countless families throughout our community and throughout the country who are grieving by themselves because large gatherings aren’t allowed and because ignoring those orders puts lives at risk. And it’s worth noting that this is a moment of shared sacrifice that’s affecting everyone, from workers who have lost their livelihoods to those dying alone in hospitals.

And even brushing all that aside, Albuquerque can ill afford to lose any more heroes.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach city editor Martin Salazar at 823-3841, msalazar@abqjournal.com.

 

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