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Editorial: We are all poorer for the loss of Officer Lehner

Since Friday, when Buffalo Police diver Craig E. Lehner slipped away beneath the turbulence of the Niagara River, it was painfully evident that he could be lost to his family, his police colleagues and the community he served.

On Tuesday, that pain turned acute. Lehner’s body was recovered downstream and was taken to Erie County Medical Center along a route lined with a grieving honor guard. His death is a bracing reminder that police do dangerous work and that even training for those duties carries heightened risks.

Most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the dangers that police and other first responders must accept to learn and then to perform their jobs. That’s natural, if unfortunate. But police know.

The nature of their work is to deal with crisis. Some may complete a career without a scratch, but the threat to their health and safety is an inescapable constant.

Their universe is trouble: victims of crime or perpetrators of it; people in peril or people endangering others. Performing their work professionally and successfully requires training. For example, how do you rescue someone who has fallen into the Niagara River? By rehearsing for it.

That’s what Lehner was doing on Friday: training so that he could help others in danger. In waters moving at a swift 10-12 mph, the 34-year-old police diver was doing his job. Because of the current, alone, it’s a hazardous place to train, but hazardous places are where people are likely to be in danger. Debris and other difficult conditions further complicated an already challenging environment. On Friday, something happened.

Investigators are still trying to understand how it happened, but team members working a tender cable attached to Lehner could tell that he had stopped moving in waters about 25 feet deep. They knew something had gone wrong.

They tried to bring him to the surface. Other divers entered the water in an effort to rescue him. They sent a spare oxygen tank down the tender line, but the river’s relentless current kept it from sinking. By the end of a terrible day, they had to have feared – and, at some level, known – their colleague was gone.

It took almost four more days of agonizing effort before rescuers found Lehner’s body, about 160 feet offshore, near Acqua Restaurant on Niagara Street. It was a moment of tremendous sadness but also relief for the community and especially for police: At least they had found him and could provide his family the space to grieve.

Lehner was a nine-year veteran of the force and was also a K-9 officer, working with a German shepherd named Shield. He was in the Army National Guard and served in Iraq.

With his death, Lehner joins 51 other members of the Buffalo Police Department who have died while on duty or because of something that happened while they were on duty. Those losses have occurred over the course of some 150 years, or about one death every three years. The most recent was Officer Patricia Parete, who died in February 2013 of complications from a gunshot wound she suffered seven years earlier.

That the toll is not higher does little to assuage the sorrow of the moment. In some ways, it underscores the inherent dangers police face: Of the previous 10 officers who died on duty, half were killed by gunfire. Four others died either in automobile crashes or because they were struck by a vehicle. One, Patrolman Carl O. Reese, died of a heart attack in 1977.

As in any city where good men and women put on a police officer’s uniform with a commitment to protect the public, the residents of Buffalo and Western New York are fortunate that people such as Craig Lehner exist. It’s not fair to anyone that he paid so heavy a price for his decision to serve, but we can be thankful that he, and others like him, are ready to put on their uniforms every shift, knowing that terrible things can happen any time, any day.

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