Evening shift officers remember their 3 fallen brothers
Every Thursday, they pray at roll call knowing every day could be their last.
“Pray with me,” the pastor says. “Oh God, watch over the men and women who have the awesome task of watching over this city.”
The busiest shift at Southwest patrol is coming on duty, the third watch.
“Focus on each other,” Deputy Chief Albert Martinez tells his troops. “Focus on the citizens.”
Three of the four officers who died in the July 7, 2016, attack were assigned to this watch. Sgt. Ivan Gunter supervised the three slain officers, Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Krol.
Prayer helped see Gunter through the worst of it.
“We still feel it intimately,” Gunter says. “These weren't just officers. These were family members. These were best friends. These were people who you relied upon.”
When they gather for detail, the officers see portraits of the fallen officers from Southwest patrol. It is a daily reminder of the job’s dangers.
Community members donated time and money to build a new memorial.
“If I could retire without having anybody else (die), that would make my career, but is it a possibility, yes,” says Sgt. Alan Villarreal. “But, we still have to keep doing our job.”
Their brothers are in their hearts on the street every day. Third watch starts in the afternoon but goes into the night.
Officer Gretchen Rocha, a Wisconsin native, was inspired to join DPD by the reality TV show, “Police Women of Dallas.”
“They were just badasses, and they were having so much fun. I was like, ‘I want to do that,” she said.
Before Rocha and her partner leave the station, they load their medical kits, rifles, heavy vests with rifle plates and anything else they might need for their shift into the squad car trunk.
That night, they arrested a drug suspect. The booking progress at the county jail took more than two and half hours.
Next, Rocha and her partner respond to a report of a prowler in a church parking lot. “Got any weapons on you? Rocha asks, patting a man and woman in a car down.
She tells them that they were called out there because a business owner saw someone on the property. They ended up telling the two homeless people to move along.
It’s a routine call in a job where nothing is really routine.
“You just kind of think 'What is the worst thing that can happen and how I can plan for that?'” Rocha said.
Rocha was two and half weeks out of the academy on the night of the downtown attack. She was just 23 years old.
“I remember being a rookie and being like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a big deal today. This is going to be a protest,’” she says.
She was with Gunter’s group, a team called the “Foxtrots.” Krol, Zamarripa and Ahrens had worked many protests, so for them, it was just another day.
“I remember we all joked, ‘We’ll stay close to them. They’re so big and strong,’” she said.
She recalls a distraught homeless person approaching Zamarripa. Someone had taken his potato chips. “He’s like, ‘Ok, let’s buy you some chips,’” she recalls. “He even offered to buy him more chips.”
The kindness he showed told her something about what it really means to protect and serve.
When the shooting started, Rocha took shrapnel in the leg. She helped load Krol in a shot-up cruiser and drove him to the hospital on blown out rims.
Some would call her a hero. “He didn't get to go home,” Rocha says. “I think that if an officer dies in that situation, you don't get to say, ‘I'm a hero.’”
Rocha still wears what she calls her “survival pants,” the pants she was wearing on the night of the attack. They still have the hole in them from the shrapnel entering her leg.
She tries not to replay the memories when she's on the job. “These people who are calling police are having the worst day of their life,” she says. “I don't need to be rethinking mine.”
Her husband and family have helped her get through it. Her two-year-old daughter keeps her busy. “I can't speak for how everybody's doing because some people can look good and deep down they're hurting, and it's not my place to say that they're doing good either,” she says. “I don't think you need to be doing good either after that.”
Holding a grief-stricken station together
Martinez had been chief over Southwest patrol, just shy of a year at the time. He was out of town when he got the initial word that there had been an attack in downtown Dallas.
He would soon learn from another deputy chief that Zamarripa and Krol had died, then came the call that Ahrens had been hit.
“He said, ‘We’re probably gonna lose him. I don’t think he’s going to make it,’” Martinez says. “Lorne was the one I knew the most. I had ridden with Lorne a few months before and I used to be a supervisor to his wife, Katrina. That hit really hard.”
Three other Southwest patrol officers, including Rocha, were injured.
Martinez had the difficult task of holding his grief-stricken station together. The job really doesn’t give people time to stop and grieve. They still had a job to do.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the next day at roll call. “At detail, there are three empty chairs that will never be filled again by those officers,” Martinez says. “There were three chairs of officers who were wounded.”
A succession of funerals and vigils followed. He is thankful to the officers from others agencies who helped out so that his officers could say goodbye to their fallen comrades.
“It was hard to look at my officers because we were functioning, but we weren’t really functioning,” he says. “I can tell you as a commander the hardest thing was after the funerals was to turn around and still have them check out cars and their equipment and go back to work to provide police service to the citizens, knowing that they were wounded and hurting.”
His officers had continued to perform in outstanding ways that have largely gone unrecognized, he says.
“It’s been difficult or was difficult and really continues to be because we’re all in different areas right now in our grieving,” he said. “I don’t think there will ever be enough words to describe how proud I am of them. It’s an honor and a privilege to lead them. What they don’t realize is that there are also times that they have led me.”
He says he’s made it a priority for supervisors to do debriefings with officers after critical incidents, such as the death of a child. He doesn’t want the unseen psychic wounds to pile up on them.
“People say this was one of the biggest assaults on law enforcement probably since 9-11, but the reality to me, it’s very personal,” he says. “It’s a part of my life, part of what I’ll deal with forever.”
Good days, bad days
For Gunter, there are good days and bad days. Memories of that night are a blur. He does not like to talk about his acts of heroism, either.
Under fire, Gunter and other officers had put Zamarripa in the car, so he could be taken to the hospital.
He took part in the standoff at El Centro College with the gunman, who was ultimately killed by plastic explosives attached to a remote-controlled robot.
“I don’t think you ever move on,” he says of losing three officers. “You just learn to live with it.”
He has been grateful for the support of the community and to the pastors who began coming to pray with third watch every Thursday since the attack.
“We still need that contact,” Gunter says.
In his heart, he still hears their names during roll call: Zamarripa, Ahrens, Krol.
“They're never going anywhere without me,” he says. “They're always going to be here. What happened cannot be erased. My people cannot be replaced.”
The men and women of third watch pray they never have to add another portrait to the wall.
“We’re never going to forget them,” Rocha says. “We’re always going to remember them. You can’t forget them.”