Remembering JSO Officer Lance Whitaker: Love+Laughter=Legacy

He had placed a black and white American flag across the windshield of his patrol car.  It had a single stripe of blue. The blue and red lights flashed silently from the top bar as he watched the procession.  His friend, also a police officer, told me. This officer had had lunch with Lance two hours before the crash. The one that took his life on the way to try to save someone else.  Their eyes were among those of the many first responders and families who lined the route the hearse would travel to watch Lance pass from the morgue to the funeral home.  The first path along the way to saying goodbye to him forever.

He is in his blue uniform and along with his wife and four young kids they are putting flowers around the three new statues at the Jacksonville Police Memorial. The tall bronze officers in uniform were unveiled less than two weeks ago during our local ceremony to honor the 61 officers who died in the line of duty.  Lance will be number 62.  The memorial wall etched with their names and faces has only been here for one year… exactly.  As a member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lance is his family too.  A loss echoed throughout the community of this large small town we all call home.  Flags around town fly half-mast for a hero who has died.

They came in somberly, identically, with their heads held high. About a dozen of them.  Each in their blue police uniforms, their hats tucked neatly under their left arms just below the black bands across their shiny badges. They walked in a single file line silently yet they were the loudest movement in the church.  They had come to show their respects to their brother in blue.  After pausing to say goodbye, one by one in front of the open casket, they greeted each member of his family.  Gestures of kindness and love for those who would forevermore be part of their blue family.  A whispered conversation with Lance’s mom and sister.  A pat on the shoulder for his 14-year-old son.  A hug for his fiancee.  Lots of smiles and handshakes. Then his Zone 6 squad left the room as quietly as they arrived. Without Lance, who remains under the careful watch of a rotating shift of two Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Honor Guards,  who will remain at his side till he is laid to rest.

They came from out of town. Miami-Dade. With wide trooper style hats and green grey uniforms. The six of them paused in front of the casket and ever so slowly together raised their white-gloved right hands in unison and held it.  Then just as solemnly lowered their salute and turned down the aisle to quietly exit the church. Lance was their family too.

He came with his wife and three children. The little group greeted Lance’s family then stood in front of the casket and  knelt down. He leaned his hand and head in toward the casket. They all stayed like that for a few minutes then stood up and walked over to talk to us.  A forehead to forehead hug with another officer.  Then more hugs.  Lance had been on his squad under his supervision for five years and he was his family too.

We came because each of us has been touched by line-of-duty deaths before. The blue family is our family too.  Some were in Washington DC when they heard the sad news.  On the way to a call for help, driving in the rainstorm on the highway , Lance had crashed into the trees and died in the early morning on National Police Memorial Day. They found out hours before attending that service on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.

On the morning of his funeral the church was filled beyond capacity.  Close to 1000 family members, friends, coworkers and Jacksonville citizen’s, the community that Lance died protecting, came to show they were his family too.

“The highest honor that we can give Lance is to be as strong, to be as courageous and to be as compassionate as Lance was every day that he put on his uniform,” said Sheriff Mike Williams, speaking at the service. Three other officers had been seriously injured since he was elected, but Lance was the only one to die in the line of duty.

The highest honor our sheriff and the city of Jacksonville wanted to give Lance and his family was evident at the one-of-a-kind graveside service.  First the JSO Honor Guard carried the flag-draped coffin to his final resting place while bagpipes played “Coming Home.”  The 21 gun salute followed, then the single trumpet playing of “Taps,” bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” and then the Missing Man Formation  (4 helicopters flyover and one leaves the formation to fly over the burial to signify the loss of an officer).

Next they folded the flag ever so slowly in a triangle and Sheriff Mike Williams and the Honor Guard presented two folded flags: one to Lance’s mother and the other to his son along with the shell casings from the 21 gun salute. Finally over a loud speaker from an Honor Guard patrol car-the Last Radio Call for End of Watch:

” Quebec 268. Quebec 268. Quebec 268.  Attention All Units.  Attention All Units.  As of May 23rd, 2018 at 14:18 hours Officer L.C. Whitaker ID #7656 is 10-82 for the final time. Thank you Lance for a job well done.  Rest in Peace.  14:18 hours KJH 224.”

In addition to these honors they added the presence of The United States Honor Flag and the riderless horse with boots, which was led by a single officer past the gravesite.

They came from all over Florida and lined up in rows at the cemetery.  Officers in a variety of different uniforms all united by the risks they take protecting the communities they love. The Governor, The Mayor and the Sheriff were among them.

You were there too. The citizens of Jacksonville. Lining the streets with well wishes, American flags, with your children. And online with Facebook and Twitter watching live feeds and photographs. All saying goodbye to one of my beloved police officers.

“Most people don’t like the police,” said the six-year-old girl many years ago, “but your pictures show them loving each other.”

This little girl was one of the children I had the honor of helping raise as her nanny.  She now has a daughter of her own.

One Jacksonville officer said to me many years ago and these words have always resonated with me:  We are your police officers. This has been my home for almost a quarter century and I cherish these officers like my own family.

For the last approximately 25 years I have documented my heroes lives and specifically focused on the loss of my heroes in a way that I hoped would help you the public understand them and maybe stop people from killing them.  By photographing the love they have for one another seen at line-of-duty funerals.  It was the way I tried to show how much I love my police officers in the hopes that you would love them too.  Because sometimes they need saving too. I hope that my little part here will work in symphony with all the other different pieces of documentation from the week our community said goodbye to Lance.  

“Love each other and treat each other  with respect…because you never know when you’re not going to have the opportunity,”  said retired JSO Master Sergeant Matt Clements in his eulogy at Lance’s memorial service, paraphrasing an online posting from Chief Michelle Cook, of the Atlantic Beach Police Department.

Lance’s funeral is the last one I will photograph.  I am looking for another way to honor my police officers.  I would like to find the right partner to create an educational museum and for-profit boutique store. My vision is for it to become a permanent place where the public can see the photographs I have taken of the people I love while supporting their local law enforcement families.  They can buy items in the store that will in part help provide funds for police (and fire) families who have died in the line of duty.

Because when it all comes down to it everything we do should be about love and supporting those who matter.

On this Memorial Day evening,  police officers , firefighters and friends gathered at a local pub to hold a Blue Line Wake for Lance.  The Jacksonville Fire Department Pipe and Drum bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” inside the bar on stage loud enough that maybe Lance can here it in Heaven.  Each member of the packed full crowd raised their glass and held it for the whole song in a silent toast remembrance to honor their one-of-a-kind hero who was a cherished member of their family.

Steve Zona, 2nd President, Fraternal Order of Police 5-30, Jacksonville, Florida-one of the leaders of Our Blue Family- said it best the morning before attending the wake of his friend, Lance, when he described how to honor a debt of The Ultimate Sacrifice that we can never repay.

“Thank you is not enough,” he said on Twitter. “Make a difference in your life because they made a difference in ours.”

Freedom has never been Free.

Live.  Like.  Lance.

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