Veteran Seattle Police Officer Mike Severance is seeking city approval to place signs near where Seattle police officers have died in the line of duty.
David Sires was the first, gunned down in cold blood on what is now Yesler Way in October 1881.
His suspected killer would never face a jury. A lynch mob broke into the jail and strung him up in Pioneer Square.
The most recent was Timothy Brenton, who was shot as he sat in his patrol car at 29th Avenue and Yesler Way on Halloween night 2009. His alleged killer is awaiting trial.
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Sires and Brenton are among the nearly 60 Seattle police officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty during the city’s 142 years. It’s a long and largely forgotten list that underscores the dangers inherent in police work, whether during the boom time of the Klondike Gold Rush, the doleful Depression years or the city’s rise as an aerospace hub.
The deaths of many officers would serve as lessons for the thousands of men and women who would follow them into the force — the details of their slayings sometimes used during police training — but their sacrifices have been largely lost to history.
Mike Severance, a veteran officer with nearly 44 years on the force, wants to change that.
Severance is seeking city approval for a plan to place a memorial sign at the closest intersection where each of 58 police officers and 42 firefighters lost their lives while on duty.
Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess supports the idea and plans to introduce an ordinance this year that will authorize the mounting of signs on city-owned utility and sign poles and allow creation of a fund to accept contributions
The project will be funded solely through private donations, according to Severance.
Severance said he committed to the project after attending the memorial service for the four Lakewood police officers who were killed one month after Brenton was slain.
The five officer deaths, coming within one month of each other, rocked the region, he recalled.
When the memorial service for the Lakewood four was held in the Tacoma Dome, hundreds lined the route.
“I was awed by the number of people lining the procession route,” Severance wrote in an article for The Guardian, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild newspaper. “These were citizens standing in the bitter cold to show their respect for four fallen heroes and for the law-enforcement profession. They represented all the decent people we meet every day on the job. These decent and caring people are the reason we do what we do.”
Severance said Brenton and the four Lakewood officers deserved the outpouring of respect and appreciation, but no more so than the other officers and firefighters who died before them.
All of them were just doing their jobs when something happened to — using police parlance — end their watch, he said.
Severance’s idea was to erect simple signs, resembling memorial markers, as a reminder of the sacrifice police and firefighters are called upon to make.
Severance said the signs honoring firefighters will be erected chronologically from most recent deaths to oldest. Those honoring officers will be based instead on the ages of the slain officers’ survivors. He hopes to first honor those who have living widows and children.
First in line, said Severance, is a memorial sign placed at 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 117th Street where Officer Robert Allshaw was killed during a robbery in progress on Nov. 11, 1968.
His widow, Suzanne, lives in California.
“It would mean something to her and her children,” said Severance. “And I don’t know how to say this, but she’s not getting any younger.”
The names of the fallen officers are recorded on the wall at police headquarters and on a plaque at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Occidental Park.
But few people see them and fewer still know what they mean.
Both Severance and Burgess understand the timing of the effort may strike some as odd, coming as the Seattle Police Department has come under criticism from community groups that claim some officers engage in unlawful use of force and biased policing. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice found that Seattle police engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force and the department was deficient in its oversight of officers with regard to when and how they use force.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered Police Chief John Diaz to begin carrying out changes urged by the Department of Justice.
Nevertheless, Burgess said the memorial-sign project is an appropriate honor for officers.
“We need a strong, effective and functioning department,” he said. “So even as we are addressing the criticism — some of which is very legitimate — it’s very appropriate for us to honor the sacrifices of the officers and firefighters who gave their lives.”
As Severance researched the history of fallen officers, he learned about the city’s history and the lives of its officers. Some, like Enoch E. Breece, who had been one of the city’s pioneers before joining the police force, became almost like friends to him.
“Breece had such an interesting life,” said Severance.
Breece was with a deputy game warden on July 3, 1902, when they learned that Oregon prison escapee Harry Tracy was hiding out in a Seattle home. Tracy had already killed at least three corrections officers, three civilians and a detective in Everett.
Breece and the game warden were killed when they tried to arrest Tracy.
After the two men were slain, The Seattle Daily Times opined about Tracy in the purple prose of the era: “In all the criminal lore of the country there is no record equal to that of Harry Tracy for cold-blooded nerve, desperation and thirst for crime. Jesse James, compared with Tracy, is a Sunday school teacher.”
Tracy committed suicide a month later, when he was cornered in Spokane.
Severance also learned one of the department’s worst days came on Jan. 21, 1921, when three police officers were killed.
Officers William T. Angle and Neil McMillan were walking their beat on Broadway between East Mercer Street and East Republican Street when they tried to talk to a man who was acting sketchy.
The man, John Smith, shot and killed them both. Later that day, Smith shot and killed Detective James O’Brien at Cherry Street and Second Avenue.
Smith, who had robbed a Spokane bank before coming to Seattle, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death six days later.
“I wonder how many Seattle officers pass those places everyday, not knowing it is hallowed ground,” he said. “The passage of time doesn’t make it any less important.”
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times associate producer Nikolaj Lasbo contributed to this report.