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In New York, Some Police Funeral Rites Go Back To The Civil War

ARUN RATH, HOST:

New York has a long tradition of funerals honoring police officers killed the line of duty. Again from member station WNYC, Jim O'Grady reports on the rituals that accompany these funerals and where they come from.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPE MUSIC)

O'GRADY: Bagpipes, helicopters, folded flags - over time, these have become the solemn details observed at the funeral of a New York City police officer. Some are new, like the helicopters. They fly in a formation that leaves a gap of sky to symbolize lost members of the force.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

O'GRADY: Others have their roots in the Civil War, says Tom Repetto, the author of several books on policing in New York - or, more precisely, in soldiers returning from the war and then joining the city's police department.

TOM REPETTO: After the Civil War, a lot of police departments and other organizations began to adopt the uniforms, the rank structure.

O'GRADY: And that's when New York's police department, at funerals, took up the military custom of removing an American flag from the casket of a fallen officer, folding it and then presenting it to the family with formal words of thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

O'GRADY: New York established its police force in 1845. It was modeled directly on London's Metropolitan Police Service, which was designed to be a civilian organization, not an army. New York cops wear uniforms that are blue because London's cops wore blue to distinguish them from Britain's military, which wore red coats.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNERAL CEREMONY)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Detail, dismiss.

O'GRADY: Former police chief John DeCarlo, who's now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, describes the somewhat conflicted nature of a civilian force that, at times, adopts a military culture.

JOHN DECARLO: I've been to police funerals where there's a, you know, 21-gun salute, and, you know, they're - you know, we're not military. You know, cops aren't military, but we function in a paramilitary environment.

O'GRADY: Some cops blame de Blasio for what they see as anti-police sentiment in the city. An online message board popular with officers features calls for turning their back on the mayor, along with pleas not to do that, but to act respectfully to honor the fallen men. DeCarlo says he hopes the funerals serve their primary function for the officers who attend, which is to grieve in solidarity with each other and their profession.

DECARLO: I've been to many of them, and I've been sad, but I felt part of a bigger picture. I didn't feel alone, you know. I felt part of a shared world view.

O'GRADY: That world view now includes the idea that police funerals should have bagpipes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGPIPE MUSIC)

O'GRADY: The pipes became de rigueur in the 1960s with the rise of the Emerald Society, nicknamed the NYPD Irish Brigade. The police in New York are much more diverse now. The days of a majority Irish force are long gone. Just look at the slain policeman. Officer Ramos's family is from Puerto Rico, and the parents of Wenjian Liu were born in China. Still, DeCarlo thinks that the bagpipes will hang on as a tradition at police funerals because, he says, they're so damn mournful. For NPR News, I'm Jim O'Grady. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim O'Grady
Jim O'Grady is a contributor to NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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