The spring has been deadly for the Los Angeles Police Department. In just over two months, four officers died in horrendous traffic collisions. Another died from an apparent heart attack.
—Officer Nicholas Lee died on March 7 when an out-of-control dump truck coming down Loma Vista Drive in Beverly Hills smashed into his patrol car. The 40-year-old’s partner in the black-and-white was also injured.
—On April 5, veteran motorcycle Officer Christopher Cortijo, 51, was fatally injured after being rear-ended at a red light in Sun Valley. The Chevy Blazer was driven by a woman allegedly high on cocaine. He died four days later.
—Officer Roberto Sanchez, 32, died during an early morning pursuit on May 3 in Harbor City. His patrol car was rammed by a third vehicle, an SUV, whose 20-year-old driver was charged with murder. Prosecutors allege that the driver intentionally hit the cruiser to help a friend that the officers were following.
—Officer George Nagata suffered an apparent heart attack while on duty and also died May 3. He was a 33-year veteran of the LAPD, currently working at the Central Division.
—Detective Ernest Allen, while working a second job, was killed on May 9 when a runaway cement truck lost its brakes coming down Loma Vista Drive, near where Officer Lee had died. Assigned to the Southwest Division, the 52-year-old grandfather had been a member of the force for 27 years.
Murdered by accident
At the funeral of Officer Sanchez in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck lamented, “I keep asking, as you all do, when is enough enough?” Later he pointed out, “Today is different. Today that grief is compounded by anger. Roberto didn’t just die. He was murdered.”
LAPD chaplain Msgr. Frank Hicks concelebrated the funeral Mass, at which Archbishop José Gomez presided along with Bishop Kevin Vann of the Orange Diocese. Called out to Harbor UCLA Medical Center the morning of the intentional crash, Father Hicks did a “conditional” anointing of Sanchez before accompanying the family to the coroners. He attended a family viewing, which he describes as “absolutely, desperately sad,” as well as the committal service at Good Shepherd Cemetery in Huntington Beach.
With motorcycle Officer Christopher Cortijo, he was at the hospital with the family until the 26-year veteran of the department was taken off life-support. He also anointed him.
The 72-year-old Msgr. Hicks — who was ordained in January 2000 after retiring as a border patrol agent for the U.S. Department of Justice — has in fact ministered to the families of every police officer who died on duty since 2001, including the recent four killed in auto crashes.
“So-called ‘normal’ funerals for those who have lived a long life are different, with a different tone,” he pointed out during a Tidings’ interview at his cozy office behind St. Basil Church, the Koreatown parish where he is pastor. “They’re sad, but they don’t have that sense of ‘this isn’t right,’ you know.
“Four-out-of-five of these were accidents, with one accident-murder. Yeah, ‘this isn’t right.’ This is not how it’s supposed to go. And their ages. The youngest would have been Sanchez. But they were all relatively young.”
While from different divisions, the five deaths in the 10,000-sworn-officers force and accompanying wave-after-wave of grief has hit the LAPD hard.
“One of the things it’s done, and we will have to be very aware of this, it has made officers almost immune,” stressed Father Hicks. “Their emotions are devastated, and they need to recover to get a good sensibility of their emotions. The deaths have almost dulled their emotions, with that number killed in such a short time. It’s never happened — not that number in that period of time. And to be so gratuitous and be so inexplicable like traffic accidents.
“It’s astounding. And one right after another. So I think that in some ways, really, they’re operating out of a protective mechanism right now. I think they’re up to here,” he added, raising a hand to eye-level. “Even Beck said, ‘Enough is enough.’ You’re just devastated and inundated. How do you cope?”
Helping crestfallen members of the LAPD to do that is what his chaplaincy is all about. And being a retired law enforcement officer himself as well as a recovering alcoholic and a Catholic clergyman, Msgr. Hicks believes, gives him an edge.
Still, the work is mostly simply “showing up” when he gets that dreaded call from the police dispatcher. “The only thing you can do is a ministry of presence,” he said.
To think that “you’re going to give them some edifying words, you’re going to take away the pain,” he said, is “nonsense. You go in there and you are with them, their family and loved ones. They’re aware of your presence — if they have a question, if they want to pray.
“You don’t intrude. Because this is very raw grief that you’re dealing with right then and there. And you try to extend the presence of Christ and the Church into the situation.”
‘Greatest catechetical moments’
Father Hicks, who was 58 at his ordination, also believes the deaths and funerals of anybody — cops included — offer the “greatest catechetical moments” in a priest’s life.
“You know, you do baptism, people love it,” he said. “Everybody goes, ‘The baby’s so cute.’ Then they go out and have a party and say, ‘Thank you, Father.’ And at weddings, it’s, ‘Oh, isn’t the bride beautiful’ and all the flowers.
“You have a funeral coming up, and that is where the rubber hits the road. That’s where people are just reaching out, grasping for some meaning for something they cannot understand or they find impossible to comprehend. But then there’s a Catholic priest being present. And I say Catholic because as much as I get along with all my evangelical brothers, a Catholic priest fosters a unique sense of belief, ritual and forgiveness.
“You can go miles in reconciling people to the Church,” he said. “A lot of damage that might have accumulated can be eliminated. So I consider it a teaching moment. It’s very catechetical.”
Correspondently, the pastor notes, the loved ones and family members of a dying or dead person will remember forever if a priest acts inappropriately — and, especially, if he doesn’t bother to show up at the hospital, funeral home, cemetery or mausoleum.
As for the LAPD deaths this spring, Msgr. Hicks asserts that the department is resilient. But he points out how it’s a constant balancing act for officers and their supervisors — between getting the job done (keeping citizens safe and arresting bad guys) and mourning the loss of fallen comrades. Focusing on the untimely passing of the five officers can be overpowering and paralyzing, while ignoring their tragic deaths can take away from the close-knit community.
“The department will survive. The department will continue to render the service it has,” he maintained. “But every death is a loss in some way for the department. And the pain is felt. As I say whenever I’m doing a committal, ‘How do you get over a love story and do you really want to?’”
After a moment, the pastor and chaplain said, “So there is this constant challenge that goes on in the department when you lose someone but you know that the job still has to be done. And so that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to my boys in blue.”