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Buffalo officers, Lehner family travel to D.C. for tribute

WASHINGTON – Buffalo police officers lined up along the Niagara River for five days last October, staring out at the water, hoping and praying for a colleague they had lost but at first could not find.

And they lined up again Tuesday, in sharp dress uniforms with the Capitol in front of them, to pay tribute once again to the late Officer Craig E. Lehner – this time in the company of President Trump and a host of other officials to honor the 199 law enforcement officers nationwide who died in the line of duty in 2017.

Lehner, 34, disappeared while on a training exercise with the Buffalo Police Department's Underwater Recovery Team. His body was not found until five days later.

"We were waking up every day, saying: 'God, let us find him,' " recalled District Chief Alphonso Wright of the Buffalo Police Department. "It took so long. All the officers in Buffalo felt like they were part of what was happening."

That's one reason why so many officers wanted to be part of Tuesday's 37th annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service, Wright said. The Buffalo Police Department's seven-member honor guard made the trip to Washington for the event, which would be expected, but so did more than 20 other officers, including members of the Underwater Recovery Team.

Many have been in Washington since Sunday, when the nation's Police Week began with a candlelight vigil for the fallen officers on the National Mall.

A wreath at Tuesday's National Peace Officers' Memorial Service honors the late Officer Craig E. Lehner of the Buffalo Police Department. (Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Brian Higgins)

"We rendered a proper salute, and we hugged and we cried a little," said Lt. Darryl Williams, commander of the Buffalo Police Honor Guard.

A night later, officers gathered informally at the Dubliner, a Capitol Hill Irish pub that looks like it could belong in South Buffalo. There, a cop from another city picked up his bagpipes and played "Amazing Grace" in honor of those who died in the line of duty, and once again Wright thought of Lehner.

"It's always so emotional for us to hear that song," he said.

Tuesday's ceremony, built around the reading of the 199 names of the fallen, was more solemn than emotional.

Trump changed the tone, though, during his speech, in which he called for the death penalty for those who murder police officers and defended the men and women in blue from what he sees as an onslaught.

"In 2016, an officer was assaulted in America on an average of every 10 minutes – can you believe that?" he said. "It’s outrageous and it’s unacceptable."

Trump also took time, though, to try to empathize with those who lost loved ones who worked in law enforcement.

"To the families and survivors with us this morning, I know today is filled with sadness and pain," Trump said. "But today is also filled with love — the love of an entire nation."

Lehner's mother, Kathleen Lehner, certainly felt that love.

Officer Craig E. Lehner's name is now engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Brian Higgins)

"It meant the world for me to be here because I could see my son was not forgotten," she said.

Both Lehner's mother and his sister said they were thrilled that so many officers from Buffalo attended the event.

"I needed them here," said Donna Wilson, Lehner's sister. "I can't say enough about them coming down and helping us and being here for us as well."

Tuesday's event meant a lot to the officers from Buffalo, too.

"It was such a painful loss," said Officer Patrick Morrow, part of the honor guard. "It was so hard, to go from a rescue operation to a recovery and not find him for days."

Morrow recalled one time when he worked with Lehner, when they were both called to respond to a domestic disturbance. The perpetrator fled the scene and tried hiding on a nearby garage roof – until Lehner's beloved partner from the K-9 unit, Shield, sniffed him out.

Shield wasn't at Tuesday's ceremony, but one of Lehner's closest friends in the Police Department, Detective Lucia Schultz, made sure to be there.

"I miss him like crazy," Schultz said of Lehner. "He's missed by a lot of people."

She said Lehner would have loved Tuesday's ceremony, with all its men and women in blue – several hundred of them, at least, from around the country – sweltering in summerlike heat for nearly three hours to pay respects to their fallen colleagues.

Schultz explained why so many of those officers came from Buffalo.

"We're a tight-knit city," she said. "We love each other – and that's even more true for our police officers. We're brothers and sisters, so we couldn't miss this."

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