Tours Offer Comfort to Families of Fallen

Posted May 16, 2007 at 6:43pm

When Officer Joseph Corr of the New Hartford, N.Y., police department was shot and killed by a jewelry store thief on a snowy February day in 2006, Capitol Police Officer Kathleen McBride didn’t know the close-knit family that had just lost a son and brother.

McBride wasn’t at Corr’s funeral or at the memorial services that were held in New Hartford this year on the anniversary of his death that drew more than 500 people from the small town outside of Utica, N.Y.

But on Wednesday, McBride got to know quite a bit about Joseph Corr as she took seven of his relatives on an afternoon tour of the Capitol. Over the course of about two hours, McBride was able to bring smiles to the faces of a family that is still very much dealing with its loss.

“I wasn’t there when this officer was laid to rest,” McBride said after dropping off the Corr family, which involved several hugs goodbye. “But this is something I can do for them. … This is one of the things I can offer. It’s a fond memory they can go home with.”

Coordinating officer-led tours of the Capitol for friends and families of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty is a service the Capitol Police perform each year during National Police Week.

As the hosting police agency for the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Day Service, which takes place on the Capitol grounds every May 15, the Capitol Police Department plays a key role in one of the more emotional moments of police week, when the name of every officer who died in the previous year is read at a solemn ceremony.

McBride said that between the memorial service, candlelight vigils and a ceremony at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, police week can be a time of “constant emotional upheaval” for families that are still recovering from the shock of losing a loved one. Getting a personalized Capitol tour from a Capitol Police officer can be “a way to escape that a little bit,” she said.

This year, the Capitol Police has hosted more than 20 private tours for families like the Corrs. McBride, a second-generation Capitol Police officer who could rival some professional Capitol tour guides in her knowledge of the building, has led tours for families for the past three years and will have led three this year before the week is finished.

“I get to have hands-on contact with these people, and that makes me feel like I’ve done a little bit,” McBride said. “By the time you’re done, you really get to know these family members.”

Joining Corr’s parents on Wednesday’s tour were his two sisters, two grandparents and his aunt, Pat Wheeler. Also on the tour was a family friend of a California Highway Patrol officer who died in August 2006 when he was hit by a drunken driver while conducting an accident investigation along a stretch of California highway.

Wheeler, who like her sister and nieces wore a locket with Corr’s picture around her neck, fondly remembered “Joe” as a loving husband and father “who only ever wanted to be a cop. But not just any cop, a New Hartford cop.”

Corr had been a New Hartford cop for six years when he and several other officers responded to a 911 call on Feb. 27, 2006, from an employee at a local jewelry store who said four men, all armed and wearing masks, were robbing the shop.

When Corr and the other officers arrived at the scene, the four men fled the store with about $1 million in jewelry. Corr chased one car carrying two men, Walter Richardson and Toussaint Davis. When the men crashed their vehicle into a gas station they split up, and Corr pursued Richardson behind a convenience store. It was there that the 30-year-old officer and father of a 2-year-old daughter was fatally shot.

Richardson, who hijacked a tow truck to escape the scene, later was shot to death during a gunfight with U.S. marshals near his home in Chester, Pa. Just last month, Davis was given a 300-year sentence for his part in the robbery and Corr’s death. Corr’s parents testified at Davis’ sentencing.

As they’ve dealt with their loss in the past 15 months, Corr’s family members, especially his sister, Kelly, have gotten involved in Concerns of Police Survivors Inc., a nationwide support group and major sponsor of National Police Week.

It was during a charity event to raise money for one COPS program that Kelly eventually met Capitol Police Sgt. Kathleen Bignotti, who helped coordinate the family’s tour on Wednesday.

“It’s an absolute honor to have them here,” said Bignotti, who stopped by McBride’s tour Wednesday. The Corr family “is like family to me now.”

Bignotti said she’s happy the Capitol Police Department makes the extra effort to reach out to the families who come to Washington each year to remember their loved ones.

Police Week “is about making people aware of those who have died in the line of duty and who have given that sacrifice. They are truly heroes, those police officers who have died,” Bignotti said.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who also serves as chairman of the Capitol Police Board, said Wednesday that “Talking to some of our own officers, they are actually shaken to the bone seeing the families and those young kids.

“It is just such a privilege and an honor to maybe try to ease the pain of the survivors and to, I think, represent the best of law enforcement,” Gainer said.