Jack Gibson, in Father’s Footsteps

Posted October 19, 2007 at 6:25pm

Jack Gibson remembers a sea of blue uniforms — hundreds of them, stretching into the distance — as he left the church of his father’s funeral almost 10 years ago.

It felt as if every officer in Washington, D.C., who could get time off had come to pay their respects to the slain Capitol Police officer, he said.

“They talk about the law enforcement family, but you don’t even see it until this tragedy,” he said. “To see that support — you hear about it — but when you see it, it’s amazing.”

Gibson was 15 at the time, the middle child in a close-knit family from Woodbridge, Va. Now he’s 25, and like his father, he’s a Capitol Police officer.

It’s a decision that draws surprise and admiration from those around him.

“Considering everything that happened with his father, it’s really honorable that he does the job,” said Jeffrey Howell, a 23-year-old fellow officer who grew up with Gibson.

Gibson’s father, John, died in 1998 after a mentally unstable gunman burst into the Capitol, first shooting Officer Jacob Chestnut and then attempting to push his way into then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) office. A gunfight ensued when Gibson, a special agent guarding the lawmaker’s office, tried to stop the intruder from approaching DeLay and his staff. He managed to wound the gunman but died in the struggle.

“I wasn’t as gung-ho about [becoming an officer] until that happened,” Jack Gibson said, adding that he hopes he can “even halfway” live up to his father’s legacy. “He did his job. Yeah, he died in the line of duty, but you know that you go into it with that as a possibility.”

Gibson’s and Chestnut’s deaths were a huge shock to the Capitol Hill community. Before that day in 1998, only one other officer had ever died on duty in the Capitol Police’s 170-year history. Their funerals attracted thousands of bystanders, and the motorcade to Gibson’s burial stretched for miles. Gibson and Chestnut are still not forgotten — tonight, officers will face lawmakers in the Longest Yard Football Classic, a game that raises money for a memorial fund created after the officers’ deaths. Other organizations also have raised money for the officers’ families.

It all has helped tremendously, Gibson said. He was able to pay his college tuition at Christopher Newport University, afford books and pursue his career goals without the baggage of debt, he said.

He immediately set out to prepare his résumé, working as an aide during college for the university police. He did that for three years, working late nights and helping to develop a program for witnesses to anonymously report crimes.

Now, he has made it through the Capitol Police’s one-year probationary period, earning his official status earlier this month.

He recalls with excitement his first protest, where he suited up in heavy gear and held back swarms of angry anti-war demonstrators. But most of the time, he says, he stands guard around the Senate buildings. He often sees his brother, Daniel, around the Capitol grounds; the 23-year-old works in the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office.

“It’s really slow,” he said. “Capitol Hill is a busy place, but it’s a lot of hurry up and wait.”

Gibson exudes respect; he’s the sort of guy who uses phrases like “my old man,” thinks carefully about everything he says and keeps a low profile on the force. He hopes to join the Dignitary Protection Division, protecting specific lawmakers like his father had done.

But in some ways, he’s different from John Gibson — for one, he is more patient and reserved, said officer and family friend Jack DeWolfe.

“He’s just a great kid. He’s got a great heart. He’s really patient with people,” DeWolfe said. “I was just so proud when he came on this department and wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps.”

In uniform, Gibson looks like the emblematic policeman. He’s clean-cut, slim, composed. But he’s also a tattooed skateboarding fan who listens to heavy metal bands with names like First Blood and Death Before Dishonor.

“My mom hates it,” he says with a smile.

However, his dedication to those closest to him shows up in his acts of rebellion: A tattoo on one side of his ribs spells “friends” while the other side reads “family.” There’s also the giant koi that wraps around his entire right leg.

He was never a jock or a fraternity brother, preferring instead to hang out with a small group of friends and attend the concerts of his favorite bands. He sometimes sees himself in the kids who skateboard around the monuments and feels a bit guilty for having to discipline them. But it’s his job, and he’s dedicated to doing it right.

“I can honestly say he’s a stand-up guy,” Howell said. “He puts forth an effort with everything that he does.”

Howell and Gibson grew up amid the same police environment, both of their fathers working the same hours on dignitary duty. After losing touch for a few years, the two reunited in police academy and now carpool to work together. They still live on the same street.

In that environment, becoming Capitol Police officers just seemed natural, Howell said.

“Just growing up in the family and stuff, you’re around it and you just take an interest in it,” he said. “It’s a different way of growing up.”

Several officers stayed close to the family after John Gibson’s death, and the Capitol Police department has kept up with them. The younger Gibson now hears stories about his father all the time and attends the Longest Yard football games.

Gibson admits that his mom, Lyn, was apprehensive about him pursuing the job his father died doing. But he isn’t afraid of terrorist attacks or violent confrontations, he said, though he’s also keenly aware of the possibility.

“That’s our job. If you’re not ready to deal with that realization, you’re not ready to be a Capitol Police officer,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your mind.”