BATON ROUGE, La. — The gunman’s bullets that killed three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge also targeted the country and “touched the soul of an entire nation,” Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday at a memorial service for the fallen officers.
“We need to heal,” said Biden, who was joined at a Baton Rouge church by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the officers’ widows and hundreds of others.
Biden spoke directly to the three officers’ relatives from the stage. He promised them that a day will come when the memory of their loved ones will “bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”
“They were defined by their courage,” he said. “It matters who they were, and it matters who we are as a country.”
Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald, 41, and Montrell Jackson, 32, and sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola, 45, were shot and killed by Gavin Long, an Army veteran from Kansas City, Missouri, outside a convenience store on July 17.
Authorities say the gunman was targeting police officers.
“When that assassin’s bullet targeted our heroes — and he was an assassin — he not only targeted them, he targeted the city. He targeted his country, and it touched the soul of the entire nation,” Biden said.
Long, 29, also wounded three other officers before a SWAT officer gunned him down. Long killed the officers less than two weeks after protests erupted in Baton Rouge over the death of Alton Sterling, a 29-year-old black man who was shot and killed during a scuffle with two white police officers. The killing was captured on cellphone video and circulated widely on the internet.
Biden said he heard that Sterling’s aunt embraced the father of one of the slain officers during a chance encounter after the shooting. He said they prayed together because “loss is loss is loss.”
Lynch said it can feel as if the world is “broken beyond repair” after tragedies like the deadly shootout in Baton Rouge. But she said the gathering shows the community is united by “collective heartache” and a “common humanity.”
“We are not alone,” she said. “The pain that we feel is shared by everyone, as is our hope in the future that has always been this nation’s guiding star.”
Lynch is scheduled to remain in Baton Rouge through Friday afternoon to meet with local police officials and other first responders. The Justice Department is investigating Sterling’s death. The two officers involved in his July 5 shooting were placed on administrative leave
Rosie Hernandez, whose nephew who is a Baton Rouge police officer, attended the service with her husband. She said she is confident that the ceremony will help unite a community that has been grappling with racial tensions.
“Out of this tragedy, the hope is that we will become a closer community,” she said.
Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Tullier was critically wounded and has remained in a hospital since the shooting.
Jackson, a corporal, was a 10-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police Department. He was married and had a 4-month-old son. Days before he was shot to death, Jackson posted a message on Facebook about the difficulties of being both a black man and a police officer in the tumultuous aftermath of Sterling’s shooting.
“Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better,” wrote Jackson, whose funeral was Monday.
His widow, Trenisha Jackson, smiled broadly as she encouraged audience members to stand up, raise their right hands and repeat these words after her: “I will not let hate infect my heart.”
Garafola, whose funeral was Saturday, is survived by a wife and four children: sons ages 21 and 12, and daughters ages 15 and 7.
His widow, Tonja Garafola, recalled trying to find her husband on the morning of the shooting and described how her heart sank when he didn’t answer her call. She found out he had been shot about an hour later.
“Since then, our children have slept in our bed just so they can feel … the presence of their dad,” she said.
Gerald was a former Marine and Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq before joining the police force nine months ago. His wife, Dechia Gerald — now a widow with two young daughters — called him “my blue-eyed rock” in a written tribute she read aloud Thursday.
“My heart is heavy, but the admiration and pride I feel gives me the strength I need to carry on,” she said.