MOUNT VERNON – By the time the sun had risen Friday morning, Nancy Oliver had already claimed her spot.
She parked her red-white-and-blue lawn chair in front of Mazza’s Restaurant, staring down the long driveway that leads to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office. Everything she wore was blue – her flannel, scarf, jeans, gloves and mask. Even her flag, which she hoisted proudly to the east, had a thin blue line beneath the stars. Oliver had colored it in with Sharpie.
“I have a magnetic flag on the back of my car,” the 76-year-old beamed, “and I drew the blue line on it, too.”
Friday was an important day for Oliver, and one she said was long overdue. She showed up early, and for good reason.
“The sheriff is my son,” she said with a proud smile.
Oliver sat alone on the end of the driveway, a flag-themed umbrella shielding her from the searing July sun. She sat there because it was a short walk from her car, and she wanted to remain socially distanced from the crowd that lined both sides of the driveway. It also allowed her to keep a motherly eye on the day’s events – two sessions of cheering as police officers and sheriff’s deputies pulled into work.
She didn’t want to miss a thing.
“I think it’s great. I think it’s needed,” Oliver said. “I think they need to know that they’re appreciated. I just think sometimes they’re forgotten.”
That was the point of Friday’s “Back the Blue Rally,” organized by Roger Tickle and Amy Hudson, two members of the Knox Community Chaplain Corps. The organizers wanted to give local law enforcement officials something to smile about during a time of national turmoil. They wanted officers to feel loved and appreciated by the community they serve.
Tickle believes they accomplished that.
“I was really pleased with how it went...” he said. “It was very positive and it stayed peaceful, and I think the police officers and the sheriff’s deputies, they all really appreciated what happened.”
Organizers estimate that a total of 400 people showed up to Friday’s morning and afternoon rallies. Families and individuals brought signs, noisemakers and balloons, and cheered on each first responder as they passed through the driveway. Many officers honked or flashed their lights, waving to the crowd as they drove by. Some stopped to shake hands and hand out water bottles, with temperatures nearing 80 degrees as early as 8 a.m.
Inside the sheriff’s office, deputies were offered fresh-cooked meals they could take in to-go boxes. Organizers grilled hamburgers and chicken patties, which were coupled with potato chips and homemade cookies. Everlasting Cup donated donuts and the Mount Vernon Tim Horton’s provided coffee for the occasion.
Tickle predicted that around 25 officers received free meals on Friday. The rest of the food was donated to the sheriff’s office and the Mount Vernon Police Department.
Knox County Sheriff David Shaffer said the community has always supported his staff, as he receives letters, emails and phone calls every week from residents expressing gratitude. Still, days like Friday “bring it home” for his deputies, he said. They provide a kind of motivation that’s hard to find anywhere else.
“I know they may not say it a lot, but obviously it means a lot to them when they see this community support…” Shaffer said. “When they drive up and down this driveway and see just the amount of support from the community, that kind of reinforces, ‘OK, this is why I’m out here doing this.’”
Tickle and others wanted to organize the rally because they felt law enforcement had received undue criticism in recent weeks. Communities across the nation have protested systemic racism and police brutality following the policeman killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd on May 25. Mount Vernon played host to two peaceful demonstrations in early June, which brought a combined total of nearly 1,000 people to Public Square.
“It seems like the good police officers have kind of been lumped in with the bad officers,” Tickle said Thursday. “They are human beings just like us. They have children, they have wives, they have moms and dads, they have families.”
Several nearby communities have organized similar pro-police rallies in the last two weeks. Ashland held a “Shield the Line” demonstration June 26 that drew more than 200 people to the county fairgrounds. A group of 30 or so gathered in Mansfield on July 5 to show their support.
Floyd’s killing has prompted America to reexamine the role of law enforcement and reckon with its flaws. Civil rights leaders have called for meaningful police reform, largely aimed at increasing police accountability and altering use-of-force protocols.
Some have proposed “defunding the police,” which would divest funds from police departments and reallocate them to non-policing forms of public safety and community support, such as social services, youth services, housing, education, healthcare and other community resources.
Just like the protests, this discussion of police reform has reached Mount Vernon as well. Christina Hambleton, a Ariel Corporation data analyst and Capital University law student, presented City Council with a police reform proposal on June 22 that focuses on three main issues: holding city officials accountable for enforcing specific policing standards, establishing a clearly defined use-of-force policy, and developing an anti-harassment policy for law enforcement.
In an email sent to council members Friday, obtained by Knox Pages, Hambleton said she plans to speak again at Monday’s meeting, this time alongside an advocate for her proposal. She and other members of the group Action for Equality passed out fliers at Friday morning's rally that explained the ways in which they hope to initiate positive change in local law enforcement.
Tickle, who volunteers with the Mount Vernon Association of Police Chaplains, says he knows local law enforcement well. He has supported many officers emotionally and spiritually during tough times. He’s seen first-hand the toll that policing takes on officers and their families.
“We do have a good police force here,” Tickle said. “They aren’t perfect, but we have some good men and women in there.”
Many of those families were in attendance Friday morning, including the Uhlers, who arrived early to stand on the south side of the driveway. Kasey, the wife of Mount Vernon Policeman Zach Uhler, brought their two children, Ella (8) and Brantley (6). They wore matching shirts and cheered for their favorite officer.
“It’s just to show them that we care and that we support them, because there’s so much negativity,” said Kasey, a nurse at Knox Community Hospital. “They need to see the good, and the support of everyone.”
Being the spouse of a police officer can be nerve-wracking, she said. They risk more than most. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, tabulated in 2016, police officers are roughly four times as likely to die or become injured on the job as other citizens.
Kasey, 34, said her husband has received threats while working. He’s been a police officer for five years, and despite the heightened turmoil surrounding the profession now, Kasey said “it’s always been that way.”
“There’s so much that goes on that people don’t realize…” she said. “You just never know what’s going to happen.”
The last week has been particularly hard for the Uhlers. Kasey watched as Ohio mourned the death of Toledo Policeman Anthony Dia, 26, who was gunned down by a man in a Home Depot parking lot on July 4.
He left behind a wife and two children – ages 8 and 6.
“It’s scary,” she said. “I don’t want to raise my kids by myself. We’re lucky that we live in a smaller community and we don’t have that going on, but yeah, it’s hard.”
Oliver can empathize.
Sitting in her patriotic lawn chair less than 50 yards away, she recalled the year Shaffer began his law enforcement career – 1987 – and the stress it caused her on a daily basis.
“I was scared to death,” she said.
Oliver “would have worried every day,” she said, but at some point she made peace with her son’s new reality.
“I finally got it in my head that every day, he was just going to work,” she said. “I couldn’t think of what his work was every day, or I couldn’t have made it.”
Shaffer has been Knox County’s sheriff since 2013, and was re-elected this spring to another four-year term. He’s served in law enforcement for 32 years, including an early stint with the Fredericktown Police Department.
Still, his mother worries. She watched Dia’s funeral on Tuesday and “cried through the whole thing.” She still bears the weight of those who care for, and love, the ones behind the badge.
“You know, they get a bad rap,” she said of law enforcement. “But they’re loved, too.”
That was evident Friday, as residents with no familial ties to local law enforcement participated in the rallies as well.
Michael and Theresa McAlpin, of Mount Vernon, came to the morning session with a homemade American flag quilt. They stood quietly on the periphery, waving to officers and holding their quilt high. The reason they came to participate was simple.
“It’s our honor, really, to honor those who put their own personal safety at risk day-in and day-out, so we can walk down these streets without fear in our hearts,” said Michael, a retired postmaster and social worker. “It’s the least we can do for them, after all they do for us.”
Uhler hopes people understand that many police officers, like her husband, enter the profession because they want to serve the public. Like Tickle, she believes most are well-intentioned, and they deserve the respect and support of their fellow citizens.
“They do more good than bad…” Uhler said. “Like one situation happens and then they assume all cops are bad cops. And 99 percent of them are good cops.”
Tickle admittedly didn’t know what to expect heading into Friday’s rally. It was the first time he’d ever helped organize one. But afterwards, he said he received multiple requests to have another, given the turnout.
Asked about it on Saturday, Tickle said he hadn’t planned a second rally. But he also didn’t rule the possibility out.
“We had a lot of people that were telling us they’d like us to,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s to-be-announced.”