The Thinner Blue Line
|He’s my brother: Officers carry the coffin of John
Pawlowski. (photo by JEFF FUSCO)|
Saying goodbye to Officer John Pawlowski.
by Daniel McQuade
Watch Jeff Fusco's slideshow from the funeral.
It was a fearfully cold day, and thousands of police officers marched past the
memorial squad car for yet another fallen officer. They shared the same small steps, the
same grave looks, the same stiff backs. They marched into the Basilica of Saints Peter
and Paul past a sea of fellow well-wishers who stood outside, cheeks red and cold in the
wind. They marched inside until the Basilica was nearly filled with people; those left
outside stood solemnly during the Catholic funeral of Officer John Pawlowski.
After the service, the officers marched out, same as before, then police cars zoomed
off in an endless line. The hearse carrying Officer Pawlowski was followed by a phalanx
of motorcycles and sparkling white cars from the Police Department. The motorcade went
up I-95, toward the neighborhoods where the grid system breaks down, where so many of
the police officers live in stout postwar houses near the Delaware. (Pawlowski still
lived where he grew up, in Parkwood Manor, a stone’s throw from the suburbs.)
The procession swept past officers and firefighters on overpasses, past officers
paying their respects in solemn roadside salutes. It went into the suburbs and by the
schools and strip malls on Street Road. It went through fire-truck arches and past
bikers holding American flags in the brisk February winds. Finally, it went through the
gates of Resurrection Cemetery.
Seven police officers have died in the line of duty since May 2006. This was
after nearly 10 years without any shooting deaths of police officers. But things feel
commonplace when they cluster this way. The local TV stations didn’t interrupt
programming for the funeral of Officer Pawlowski, and the crowd in the plaza outside the
Basilica was smaller than in the past.
Yet the number of police officers who memorialize their fallen brother or sister seems
to grow each time. The services, the procession, the officers at the cemetery—it all
seems like more this time. Even actor David Morse, the guy who played a
former Philadelphia cop in the TV show Hack, stands against a light
pole outside the church. With each loss, the department grows stronger.
Enormous groups of police personnel gathered in John Pawlowski’s memory last week.
They lined the pews at St. Anselm’s in Parkwood on Monday night. They marched down
Academy Road on Thursday at dusk to the funeral home for the wake. They processed in and
out of the Basilica and stood still at the cemetery as the cold wind swept across the
hillsides lined with headstones. The fierce, consistent presence is an impressive show
of unity. It shuts down streets; it silences cities.
Police officers hold an immense amount of power, both individually and as a
group, and that power is public. They are imposing when they walk down the street. Their
contract talks are daily news. They are frequent topics of household debate.
They are feared and comforting, loathed and respected. They are always late and always
on time. They inspire strong emotions.
So it’s fitting the police funeral has become such a spectacle. Police Commissioner
Charles Ramsey came here from Chicago, where police funerals almost stop time. He felt
Philly needed more pomp and circumstance. He wanted to march with the mayor to the
funeral home for the wake; he wanted police recruits to dot the road to the gravesite;
he wanted the horse-drawn carriages and the symbolic reminders that one good man is
At the cemetery, helicopters flew overhead in a missing-man formation. Police officers
from the 35th District signed off Officer John Pawlowski for the last time: “From
members of the 35th District and your entire police family, we thank you for a job well
The words of the service, the procession of cars, the final words at the cemetery are
ritual and tradition, done the same way many times over the last few months.
But they are done with a precision that shows great care. The pallbearers practiced in
the days leading up to Pawlowski’s funeral by carrying a casket stuffed with dumbbells.
When the time came, they marched despite the cold weather. The spectacle of it all is
maybe the most uplifting thing the police department does. They just do it right.