News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

July 17, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Community outpouring represents collective sympathy for fallen officer

TERRE HAUTE — Every Terre Haute resident has probably been asked the same question.

“Why do you live there?”

Of course, there are reasons not to live here. Paychecks are bigger elsewhere, with median household incomes 30 percent lower than the state average, and 36 percent lower than the national norm. The child-poverty rate frequently ranks highest in Indiana. The nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away. Getting “railroaded” is a literal reality here, and not just a slang term for being forced to do something.

Yes, this community harbors flaws. Still, there are moments when the town exhibits a level of goodwill that overwhelms the thorns and ruts. Last week, Terre Haute showed why the majority of its 60,785 residents choose to stay and call this place home.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Hauteans and other concerned folks from around the Wabash Valley stood silently on both sides of Seventh Street as a hearse transported the body of a fallen police officer from Union Hospital to the Mattox-Ryan Funeral Home. The 34-year-old member of the Terre Haute Police Department’s K-9 and SWAT units died in the line of duty a day earlier. Officer Brent Long, his partner dog Shadow, and a police task force entered a North Eighth Street apartment Monday afternoon to serve a felony arrest warrant. The suspect, investigators say, opened fire, fatally injuring Long and wounding the dog. The 33-year-old suspect, Shaun M. Seeley, had a lengthy criminal past. Seeley died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police say.

In larger cities, the shooting death of a law officer might be sadly commonplace. Here, thankfully, such a traumatic loss is more rare — the last similar incident involving a city police officer happened 27 years ago.

The townspeople shared in the heartache, mourning the loss of Long, a young, active, contributing member of their community. Even if local folks didn’t know Long as his family, friends and colleagues did, they felt shock and hurt. Long worked to keep the peace, and the senseless, violent taking of his life shattered the tranquility most of us take for granted. His wife lost her husband. His kids lost their dad.

As the procession passed Tuesday, one man standing at Seventh and Wabash Avenue said, “This sort of thing happens all the time in other places. But when it happens in your community, it hits home.”

And this is, indeed, “home” for thousands of us, for better or worse. Violent crime can, and does, happen here, obviously. Yet, it is not something people here accept. The lines of citizens standing alongside Seventh Street, some holding flags and others with a hand over their heart, represented a collective sense of agony, and of sympathy and backing for Long, his family and his comrades.

Seeing such an outpouring amass just one day after the shooting amazed John Plasse, the Terre Haute chief of police.

“Just to see that so early, it doesn’t take away the pain and hurt, but it means a lot to see the support,” Plasse said, “and I’m sure the guys and girls here [on the force] would tell you the same.”

The heartfelt sentiments continued and grew throughout the week, in advance of today’s visitation services in Hulman Center and Monday’s funeral at Mattox-Ryan.

Such a sustained reaction might not occur in a huge metropolis — one of those big cities that never sleep, that dazzle our eyes from afar and make us think the grass is clearly greener on their vast side of the fence. Here, in this small, Midwestern college town, where we argue about the color of city trash receptacles and unsanctioned tree trimming downtown, the lights don’t sparkle quite so brightly. What does shine, in little Terre Haute, Indiana, is our ability to unify as neighbors in times of trouble.

For many of us, that’s why we live here.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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