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The cutout image of a police officer carved into the face of a memorial at Tampa Police Headquarters is reflected in the window of the department. The messages were created by children as a tribute to the officers killed on Tuesday.
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]

Police memorial becomes focus for grieving


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 1998

TAMPA -- This city's suffering and hope intersect at Madison and Franklin streets in downtown.

Here, in front of Tampa Police Headquarters, is the black granite memorial that has drawn hundreds of stunned police officers, grieving relatives and sympathetic strangers since Tuesday.

They've left heaps of fresh flowers, framed poems and even an American flag folded in a triangle in memory of detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers and state Trooper James Crooks.

Originally, the memorial was planned for the old Police Headquarters on N Tampa Street, a site virtually walled off from downtown by Interstate 275. The building had rats and mildew, and the gritty neighborhood around it once was known as "The Pit."

But last year Police Headquarters moved downtown, putting the memorial to officers slain in the line of duty next to the oak-lined park that serves as Tampa's town commons. The new location brought the Police Department squarely into the civic life of the city and set the stage for an outpouring of public support unlike anything in memory.

"We really didn't put it there for that reason, but it's kind of overwhelming," Detective Roberto Batista said Thursday. If the memorial had gone up at the old Police Headquarters, "I don't think it would have had the same impact because here the citizens we serve actually get to see it."

This week, people have gathered at the memorial almost without thinking. It began Tuesday afternoon, when former prosecutor Darrell Dirks heard that two detectives he liked and respected had been killed.

"I just left my office and I started walking and I walked down toward the Tampa Police Department," he said. "When I walked past the memorial, it just seemed like the thing to do," so he went to a nearby store and bought two bunches of flowers.

Those were the first flowers left at the memorial, but since then hundreds of people have made the same journey. Late Thursday, Grady and Kathi Chapman drove all the way from Land O'Lakes to pause before the memorial.

"It helps you deal with it," said Kathi Chapman, 53, a Winn Dixie cashier. "I don't know the men, but I could picture the families getting up in the morning and then not coming home from work . . . It shows that people care."

The reaction has overwhelmed both police and J.J. Watts, the Tampa sculptor who carved the life-sized cutout statue of an officer in the memorial's face.

"I've been down there a couple of times just sort of standing back, and I'm amazed that it's become a place where people could express their feelings," she said. "It's almost altar-like."

That is no coincidence, said Dr. Stephen Happel, a Washington, D.C., scholar who studies the relationship between art and religion.

"Clearly, that sort of ritualization of an historical event must be some deep psychic need that human beings have to mark territory as special," said Happel, chair of the department of religion and religious education at the Catholic University of America.

Happel noted that such impromptu memorials do more than honor the memories of those who are dead. They also let people express their resistance to what has gone wrong in the world and, in many cases, reach out for something larger than themselves.

"When someone dies out of season like this, our sense is, "This isn't the way it ought to be,' so placing a memorial is a way of saying (that) . . . we hope there is an Other who will right this injustice," he said.

At Tampa Police Headquarters, that wish is literally carved in granite. On the back of the memorial, down near the base, there is a poem written by a retired Los Angeles police officer.

It begins: "I never dreamed it would be me, my name for all eternity, recorded here at this hallowed place."

It ends: "I ask for all here from the past; Dear God, let my name be the last."

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