Three-day bike ride serves as a tribute to fallen officers
Before I became a police officer, I attended an information session at the Newport Beach PD. The sergeant addressed the group of prospective applicants and shared that a police officer has a unique role in their community, in that every person they meet is in the midst of their worst moment, and they have the opportunity to help that person and to either save them from themselves or from someone else. I heard that message and immediately knew my life’s purpose. I’d never known of a job like that and was absolutely sure I couldn’t do anything else but Law Enforcement. What the sergeant did not say, but something everyone in that room, and every police recruit, academy graduate, trainee, and veteran officer knows, is that a police officer also has the unique possibility, that every shift – every time they put on their uniform, pin their badge, and holster their gun – they may lose their life while providing that unique service to their community. It’s an absolute truth that we as police officers carry with us, both on and off duty.
On the night of Aug. 23, 1988, Seal Beach Police Officer Ed Clavell should have had his trainee with him, but a schedule change caused him to be solo in the Saleen Mustang patrol car when he lost his life in a traffic collision. Thirty years later, his trainee Joe Miller, would become the Chief of the Seal Beach Police Department. On July 29, 2011, 31-year-old Buena Park Police Detective Dan Ackerman collapsed after completing a SWAT physical agility training and passed away the next morning. His younger sister Christie would one day follow in his footsteps and join the Seal Beach PD family in 2016. On September 21, 2013, Laguna Beach PD Motor Officer Jon Coutchie was pursuing a reckless speeder when a vehicle turned in front of his motorcycle, tragically ending his life. Jon, an Army Ranger with several tours of duty, loved his job and loved being a motor officer, and I have to believe he was smiling all the way to heaven. On Oct. 8, 2017, Cypress Police Officer Matt Ward was off duty driving his 5-year-old son to a Boy Scout function on the 405 freeway. A vehicle travelling behind his truck lost control, collided with his truck and ended his life. Matt’s son Liam, now 7, wants to be a police officer just like his dad.
When a police officer dies, the loss reverberates through the entire Law Enforcement community. Whether on or off duty, the more than 800,000 police officers all over the United States feel that pain and that absolute truth, when the every-day possibility of losing your life – sometimes for no other reason than wearing a badge – becomes a reality. This brotherhood transcends gender, ethnicity, rank, language, and jurisdiction. It is why officers travel from across the country and sometimes overseas to attend a funeral for a brother or sister they have never even met. It is why flags are flown at half mast, why fire trucks line the overpasses with crews in stoic salute. It is why we wear a black band over our badge, in silent and constant mourning for a fallen hero. I can’t imagine the pain of losing your child, your sibling, your spouse, or your parent. I grieve alongside these families with every loss and I share in their sadness at the inconceivable and tragic deaths that come with this profession.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed May 15th Peace Officers Memorial Day and the week in which that date falls as Police Week. There are many important tributes during Police Week, held in Washington D.C., including a candlelight vigil at the National Mall, and a memorial service on the West Front of the US Capitol with the United States President serving as the keynote speaker. In the 2019 services, the names of 371 fallen Law Enforcement officers – including 158 who died in 2018 – were read aloud, followed by the ringing of a bell. The names were added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in D.C., which now bears the names of 21,910 fallen officers. Preceding the Police Week events is the Police Unity Tour, a three-day bike ride covering over 250 miles. More than 3,000 police officers and survivors (the immediate family of a fallen officer) come from 12 chapters all over the United States to ride together, for 50-100 miles a day, rain or shine, over all types of terrain, to serve as a moving billboard paying tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, so that there will never be a fallen officer forgotten.
I met Gloria Opstad twice. First, in the week after her son Matt Ward’s funeral. She and her family were seated at a table at The Fish Company restaurant, surrounded by officers from Cypress and Tustin Police Departments (Matt’s brother Rob is a TPD Officer). My husband Brian, a police officer at Garden Grove Police Department, and a classmate of Matt’s from preschool through high school, walked up to the Opstads and introduced himself, expressing his condolences for their loss. They immediately recognized him as little Brian from Rossmoor and we talked for over an hour. Brian and I knew the pain of losing a brother in blue. We both started out at Laguna Beach Police Department, and lost our partner and friend Jon Coutchie in 2013. Brian mourned Matt’s death as both a fallen officer, and as a childhood friend, who like Brian, grew up in the Seal Beach/Los Al community, graduated from Los Al HS, went through the LA County Sheriff’s Academy, and became a police officer. And like Brian, Matt married an awesome woman and had two beautiful babies. For me, although I had not known Matt for very long, I heard him on the radio almost every shift. Seal Beach, Los Alamitos, and Cypress PD share a radio channel, and we consider all the officers in our three cities to be family. In 2015, Matt taught a Drug Recognition Expert training class I was in, and he came up to me at the very first break to ask if I was related to Brian. I’ll never forget his kind face, infectious smile and bright red hair.
The second time I met Gloria, I was hosting a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Academy at the Los Alamitos JFTB in August 2018. My only job (really) was to introduce myself and welcome everyone to the training course. At the conclusion of the lesson on the first night, Gloria walked up to me. She asked, “Were you born a Clasby or did you marry a Clasby?” I said that I’d married Brian Clasby. Gloria replied, “Your husband went to preschool with my son.” Of course, I knew who she was, and of course she couldn’t have remembered meeting me almost a year ago. By the end of day four, we had shared hours of stories, tears, and hugs. We left training and went to dinner so that Brian and Gloria could connect. During dinner, Gloria shared with us that a Long Beach PD Officer had just ridden the 2018 Police Unity Tour in honor of Matt. Brian and I had ridden the Tour in 2014, when Jon Coutchie’s name was added to the wall. I told Gloria that she should do the ride and she quickly dismissed it, “No it’s just for police officers.” My response to her was, “No, it’s for you.”
Fast forward about three months and not only was Gloria on board to ride the Tour, but she had recruited her husband David and the Cypress Police Department Emergency Manager Loree Erpelding to join our team as support. Brian and I were excited to ride again, even though it would mean leaving our 3 year old and 12 month old for the very first time and getting back on the bike after taking about a 4 year break. For Brian, it was also an awesome opportunity to ride in honor of the Garden Grove Police Department Fallen Five: Garden Grove Police Sgt. Myron L. Trapp (End Of Watch 1959), Officer Andy Reese (EOW 1970), Officer Donald F. Reed (EOW 1980), Officer Michael Rainford (EOW 1980), and Master Officer Howard Dallies, Jr (EOW 1993).
Seal Beach Police Commander Steve Bowles had been asking me about the ride since I transferred to the Police Department in 2014. Steve and Brian met when Brian started as a Seal Beach Police Explorer in the mid ‘90s. They have been close friends ever since. When I told Steve we were finally ready to do the Tour this year, he immediately bought a bike and quickly lost about 40 pounds training for the ride. Seal Beach Police Corporal (and Honor Guard member) Samantha Mathias and West Comm executive assistant Stephanie Smith also joined the team to help with support. Our team was officially formed and we set out to fundraise and log enough miles that our bodies would survive three 8-hour days of 80 to 100 miles on the bike in uncertain and completely foreign East Coast weather. A police officer friend who knew Matt from the Orange County Police Explorers academy loaned Gloria her bike. That proved helpful, until Matt’s wife Alison offered his road bike about three weeks before the ride. The frame was a little too big and the gears never did shift quite right, but Gloria really wanted to ride Matt’s bike. She got the bike adjusted and was able to ride the Tour on her son’s bright red Scott road bike.
On May 8, our team flew from LAX to Newark, NJ. The next morning, we loaded up into a rental van and drove to a warehouse near the host hotel to find our bike boxes in a sea of 500 other grey plastic cases with names sharpied on the side. We were responsible to assemble our own bikes, although there were a few mechanics available to check them out before riding back to the hotel. While assembling bikes, I met the South Salt Lake City Police Chief Carruth, who was riding for his fallen Officer David Romrell. Officer Romrell was tragically killed in the line of duty on Nov. 24, 2018, when he was struck by a vehicle driven by suspects fleeing a reported burglary. Chief Carruth and I exchanged patches and challenge coins and then he handed me a blue metal memorial bracelet for Officer Romrell and asked if I would ride for him. Of course, I would, and I did.
Before 6 a.m., EST, on May 10, the 500 riders of the SoCal Police Unity Tour Chapter VII assembled in front of the hotel. With little fanfare we rolled out onto the main road and settled into a mile-long peloton of blue and white jerseys. About 5 miles later, we pulled into the Franklin Township Police Department where the Police Chief, the mayor and the president of our chapter welcomed the riders and thanked us for riding. With that, we began the Tour, rolling out of the parking lot lined with people cheering, bagpipers playing, under the crossed ladders of fire trucks with American flags waving, and into the unknown of the next three days. The ride is structured with 30-minute rest stops about every 25 miles along the route. The first day was an 86-mile journey from Somerset, NJ to Philadelphia, PA. Day 2 was a hilly 108 miles from Phillie to the Inner Harbor Baltimore, MD. And Day 3 was 55 miles from Baltimore to RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.
I find cycling to be a very internal thing. Even surrounded by hundreds of other riders, at some point the conversations die down and the only voice you hear is the one inside your head. For me, I’ve been an avid cyclist for about 15 years. Cycling comes pretty easy to me with a little preparation. For Brian, he’s used to my shenanigans and this would be his fourth multi-day ride. For Steve, every mile logged after about 30 or so became the longest ride of his life. The relentless hilly terrain was physically demanding due to a chronic knee injury and constant leg cramps. But he rode like a champ and never complained. For Gloria, the biggest challenge was facing her trepidation about riding over bridges. And I’m not talking about just any bridges; the route carried us over expansive metal grated bridges, crossing large, rushing rivers. For most riders on the Tour, there were many fears to overcome. The fear of the unknown, the fear of falling, the fear of riding long distances, the fear of cycling through pouring rain.
But the Tour is not about overcoming your fears or tackling obstacles on your own, inside your own head or even with your own muscle. It’s about coming together as one unified group and one powerful cause to pay tribute to our fallen family and friends. It is a physical and visual representation of the unity in the Law Enforcement family. On every hill, as the incline increased the peloton would start to thin out and the riders would separate to tackle it at their own speed. Some riders would start to fall farther and farther back, clearly showing the physical and mental defeat by the slack in their shoulders and the slowing of their legs. But they were never alone. Stronger riders would pull together to push each other up and over the hill, either with a hand on their back pushing them forward or constant encouragement to get them through it.
For Gloria, the encouragers and supporters and family came from everywhere. From the support van, from the mechanics, from the ride marshals, and from the riders from all over the country who had joined our chapter. There is power and comfort and strength in sharing your story about your fallen hero. Gloria provided hundreds of people with an opportunity to meet Matt Ward for the first time through her presence and voice.
On the first day, the lunch rest stop came at mile 54 with the route passing through Washington Crossing Historic Park. By that time in the ride, Brian, Steve, Gloria and I had all separated at least a few hundred yards apart. Hills have a way of doing that, even with the best intentions of staying together. Gloria was in the last pack of riders but was still determined to get to the finish. Behind her were a few other riders, the mechanic trailer and a support van that would pick up anyone who couldn’t finish. A ride marshal pulled up alongside Gloria and asked how she was doing.
In Gloria’s stubborn and strong way, her only response was “Great.” as she kept her eyes focused ahead on the goal. The ride marshal asked if she thought she would be able to make it to the finish and Gloria replied, “I’m riding for my son.” He was hopeful by her response and said, “Oh is he behind you?”
Without turning to look at him or changing her pedal stroke, Gloria said again, “I’m riding for my son.” The ride marshal looked at Gloria for a second and then noticed the laminated sign affixed to her handlebars. It was a picture of Matt in Cypress police uniform standing next to a police car and another picture of him in his Honor Guard uniform paying tribute to the fallen. He looked back at Gloria and noticed she still hadn’t made eye contact with him and made no indication that she was slowing down to get into any support van. She was going to finish for her son. The ride marshal said something that was true in many ways, and something Gloria would learn over the next several days as she grew in her relationships with her family, her friends, and her Law Enforcement support group. He said, “Yeah. You’re good.” And he rode along with her until the end.
Riding into RFK Stadium to meet the other 3,000 riders, and then joining them to finish the Tour with a lap through the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial was a testament to the support and appreciation of Law Enforcement in this country. On small residential streets, people came out to stand in their driveways and clap as we rode by. Entire preschools lined the curb and cheered for us with signs raised and tiny hands outstretched for a high five. On the highways, cars stopped in the opposing lanes of traffic to stand beside their vehicle and salute or wave. Yes, there were a few that disagreed with our mission or purpose but their comments were like whispers against the loud roar of police unity that we felt. I am grateful and blessed for the opportunity to serve the City of Seal Beach. I love and appreciate my partners at the police department and the community that we serve. I cherish our camaraderie and friendship that makes this so much more than a job. And while I pray that my name will never join the 21,910 on that wall, I know that if I die, I will be doing what I love and serving the greatest community in this nation. Thank you for the opportunity to share our story and we look forward to riding again in honor of all the fallen.
If anyone is interested in donating to our 2020 team, donations to the Police Unity Tour are tax deductible (checks can be made out to OCEVA, Tax ID # 27-2874170). Thank you for your support.