News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

October 16, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: ‘Understandable’ not the same as ‘wise’

TERRE HAUTE — Because I’m not running for office and don’t plan to, I figure I am free to publicly question the designation of some 30 stretches of city streets as “memorial ways” for police and firefighters killed on the job.

My questions are beyond those raised recently by the families of some fallen responders. The families have a problem with the proposed locations of the special street signs. I have a problem with the entire concept.

Offered by City Councilman Pat Ralston, D-2nd, the memorial ways resolution is an understandable extension of a tidal wave of emotion that followed the fatal shooting of Terre Haute Police Officer Brent Long. But “understandable” is not necessarily the same as “wise” or even “appropriate.”

Ralston’s resolution, which is backed enthusiastically by law enforcement personnel and firefighters, would include every known member of the THPD, THFD, county sheriff’s department and firefighting units from other areas who have been killed on the job within the city limits of Terre Haute — ever. Ironically, Brent Long himself was a proponent of such memorials.

Until Thursday’s City Council meeting, each designated section of street would have centered on the location at which each responder was killed. But relatives of some of the fallen recently told officials they do not want to be reminded of their loved one’s violent death each time they come upon such a spot. So, Terre Haute Police Chief John Plasse, who spoke on behalf of the resolution at Thursday’s meeting, requested that it be tabled, and it was.

Councilman Todd Nation, D-4th, responded with a suggestion to form a committee to consider the resolution and to look at “other ways that we might properly honor the fallen police and firefighters in our community.” That is a wise, cool-headed idea. Even though memorial ways are not official street name changes, the issue needs plenty of discussion — and perspective.

Terre Haute has almost no guidelines for granting the special street sign honor. Until we do, memorial way designations can’t help being prey to special interest pressures, political manipulation and emotional overload.

Obviously, many people have strong feelings about the death of a cop or firefighter. While police and firefighters accept that the territory includes risking their lives, someone killed in the line of duty is elevated to special status forever. His or her death takes on more importance in a community than the tragic death of anybody else, be it a child who drowns, a young mother of four cut down by an early cancer, or a hardworking trucker who gets taken out by a drunk driver. People who never met the fallen responder are moved to grieve, to line up for the funeral procession and to appropriate the loss as their own.

So it has been for Officer Long. A memorial way designation for him already has been given to a 1.5-mile stretch of North Brown Avenue. A unanimous City Council approved that in July, only three days after the THPD veteran died from gunshot wounds while trying to serve a felony warrant. Also approved are a life-size bronze statue of Long and another of Long’s Canine Corps dog, Shadow, who survived the July 11 gunfight. Shadow will be further honored with a link of the Heritage Trail named after him.

Ralston’s resolution would spread this concept over more than 130 years. Beginning, presumably, with Deputy Constable William Ash, who died of gunfire Nov. 27, 1880, each fallen emergency responder would be honored with several blocks of memorial way in various parts of the city. Multiply the blocks by the necessary number of brown designation signs, and the street memorials could cost in excess of $10,000. The project also would more than quintuple the current number of memorial way designations.

A lot of folks might not realize it, but Terre Haute’s fallen first responders already have a memorial, a triangle of grass adjacent to the Police and Firefighters Museum on South Eighth Street. There is a huge gold bell at the Fire and Police Memorial Plaza, a brick monument and an in-ground plaque that tells visitors, “This park is dedicated to the memory of the firefighters and police officers who gave their lives in the line of duty for their fellowman.”

Thirty-three names are on the monument wall, including Officer Long’s and those of three volunteer firefighters. (Deputy Constable Ash’s name is not there.) The monument was dedicated in 1982 “To Perpetuate The Memory Of Policemen and Firemen Who Gave The Supreme Sacrifice For Their Fellow Men.”

Perhaps the park isn’t big enough or in the kind of high-traffic area that can provide what supporters of the memorial ways resolution consider proper honor for cops and firefighters killed on the job. So, how about funneling some of the money proposed for street signs into expansion and refurbishment of the existing monument? Or explore a different venue, such as the city fire and police training facility on Maple Avenue? The kind of committee Nation suggested could do just that.

In the meantime, let’s create some solid guidelines for designating memorial ways. Just because they aren’t official street names, their selection shouldn’t be knee-jerk or frequent. Too many big brown special signs around town could diminish the relevance of memorial ways and, ultimately, discount the very lives that inspire them.

If we are determined, however, as a community to create many memorial ways, why not look to the rest of the population for candidates: beloved local teachers, nurses, doctors, volunteers, philanthropists, artists, sports figures and, well, elected officials who might deserve distinction? Cops and firefighters are a significant element of our city, but they — and their deaths — aren’t the only ones that bear commemoration.

Stephanie Salter may be e-mailed at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.

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