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Originally published November 5, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified November 5, 2009 at 3:31 PM

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Rituals of respect for fallen colleagues a tradition among police

Once an oddity, street memorials are a relatively new tradition for police and the larger community to pay their respects to a fallen officer. Officers from across the region have been visiting a growing memorial for slain Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton all week, gathering to share their grief and show support for Brenton's family and colleagues.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Candlelight vigil for Officer Brenton

Night after night, they've come to pay their respects, huddling together on a street corner to share their grief and show support for the family and colleagues of slain Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton.

Since Brenton and officer-trainee Britt Sweeney were ambushed Saturday night in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood, police and firefighters from across the region have visited a growing sidewalk memorial where Seattle officers have maintained a round-the-clock presence.

Meanwhile, at least two Seattle officers have sat vigil at the Capitol Hill funeral home where Brenton's body awaits burial.

Ritual and tradition permeate police culture, especially when it comes to line-of-duty deaths, said Officer Jim Ritter, a 30-year department veteran who runs the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum in Pioneer Square.

"For as long as I've been a cop, the fraternity of the Police Department has always been very close-knit," Ritter said. "We rely on each other with our lives, and if one of us falls, we are even more protective of our fellow officers."

Falling back on traditions — many borrowed from the military — provides officers a way to honor colleagues and the families left behind, Ritter said.

He said Brenton's homicide has been met with anger and anxiety, emotions no one will be able to shake until a suspect is in custody.

"We have not had an officer assassinated in this manner since Prohibition," Ritter said. "This was a premeditated murder, and it's very disturbing to everyone."

Myrle Carner, who retired after 40 years with Seattle police and is now a director at Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound, said that only in recent years have community members left flowers and condolence letters at sites where officers are killed.

"When I was in major crimes [unit], it was an oddity — it wasn't typical in those days," said Carner, who spent several hours at Brenton's sidewalk memorial Monday night.

Though street vigils and memorials may be the community's way of paying homage, they've become an important part of police culture, too. Now, commanders often encourage officers to visit those sites as one way to honor a fallen comrade, Carner said.

"It's critical for officers to see the scene. It gives closure to them in some way," he said. "I think the tears and remorse they feel is important to their health. These young officers need to feel they've closed that chapter."

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At the corner of 29th Avenue and East Yesler Way, paint buckets stuffed with roses and lilies fill the sidewalk. Candles flicker alongside a photograph of Brenton in uniform. Police patches, each covered with a black mourning band, are pinned to a cork board, creating a visual roll call of departments whose officers have visited the scene.

Gig Harbor police Officer Mike Allen and his wife, Debra, went to the street memorial this week because they won't be able to attend Brenton's funeral Friday.

"To me, it's about respect," said Allen, who has lost count of the number of police funerals he's attended over the course of his 21-year career. "We're all family. Whether you're an officer, a trooper or a deputy, it doesn't matter."

In recent decades, police memorials and funerals have become more elaborate as the police department, once "a pretty closed shop," has become more open with the community it serves — which in turn has made residents more comfortable expressing their support of police, Ritter said.

"When an officer falls in the line of duty," he said, "it rattles the entire community and undermines their feeling of safety. Their support is seen at a level that's not usually seen.

"It's reassuring to us because we rarely hear it, what the public has to say about the police — and there are all kinds of great things."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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