Family members and friends of fallen officers, along with members of local law enforcement, gathered in front of the Merced County Administration building on Wednesday for the annual Peace Officers Memorial Ceremony.
The event honors law enforcement officials who lost their lives while serving their communities.
During the event, family and friends of fallen officers quietly dabbed their eyes during the Merced High School band’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” and Merced County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Avila’s performance of “One More Day.” Grieving spouses, parents and children bowed their heads when their loved one’s name was read during the ceremony.
Ceremonial shots rang through the air during the 21-gun salute, jolting a few people from their chairs and surprising the police dogs.
While no law enforcement officers in Merced County died while on duty last year, 46 officers statewide died on the job, according to the Merced County Sheriff’s Office. Approximately 27 of those deaths were related to COVID-19.
“This memorial is a chance to honor the brave local, state and federal law enforcement officers that have died in the line of duty,” said Corey Gibson, the Merced County Undersheriff. “This is an opportunity for all of us in law enforcement, as well as the community, to reflect and pay tribute to those peace officers and their families that have made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting their communities.”
The Merced County Sheriff’s Office, which hosts the solemn ceremony, brought the memorial back this year after a two-year hiatus because of COVID-19, according to law enforcement officials. The Peace Officers Memorial Wall, a gray marble slab which has the engraved names of deceased law enforcement officers from Merced County, is a staple of the ceremony.
The names of those officers were read during the Wednesday ceremony. All told, there are 14 Merced County law enforcement officers who have died on the job. The county didn’t lose any law enforcement officers last year, so no new names went on the wall this year.
The ceremony this year also featured a posting of the colors, a presentation of the colors and a reading of the fallen officers’ names by Merced Police Chief Thomas Cavallero and California Highway Patrol Captain Becky Hagen-Burton, as well as a keynote address by Assemblyman Adam Gray.
“When you put on the badge, you choose a life of service and duty and a life of uncertainty,” said Gray. “Put simply, you choose a hard, frontline job. My job and the job of every other elected official in this country is to listen to what you have to teach us.”
Family members of officers who died while on duty said the ceremony provided a chance for them to remember their loved ones.
“For us personally, it’s always different depending on where we are in life. We’ve had some major milestones lately and he hasn’t been there,” said Michelle Gray, the widow of Merced Police officer Stephan Gray. “We’re so thankful they continue to remember Stephan and his sacrifice. We always miss him.”
Gray was shot by a gang member on April 15, 2004 while making a traffic stop. Michelle Gray said they had been married for almost 10 years when he died.
“He was fun and he was a great dad,” Michelle Gray said. “He had a huge heart for kids. He loved his job. He was really a person that just really grabbed life and just ran with it.”
Other family members who attended the ceremony on Wednesday said their fallen officers wanted to make their community a better place and that years or decades after their death, they are still missed.
“I’d never experienced death in my life,” said Nikki Frago of her husband, CHP officer Walter Frago, who died in the Newhall massacre in Valencia in 1970. “It was awful. It was hard. I still miss him to this day.”