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Craig Lehner's patrol partner: 'I refuse to say goodbye'

For nearly a decade, Officer Tommy Champion was Craig Lehner's patrol partner in the Buffalo Police Department.

They were also the best of friends who shared the same passions – music, working out and muscle cars – and a devotion to their job.

"Together Craig and I worked meticulously, with an emphasis on diplomacy and respect while also being extremely productive and active," Champion said Wednesday in eulogizing his partner. "But we always took care of business when we had to."

Standing before a crowd of thousands at Lehner's funeral Wednesday in KeyBank Center, Champion spoke with poise and raw emotion about his friend and partner who died in a police dive team training accident in the Niagara River.

He shared his admiration for Lehner's devotion to the police department and the New York Army National Guard, as well as his embrace of living life to the fullest. Then there was the matter of Lehner's movie star good looks that would prompt his friends to call him "Bradley Cooper."

Buffalo police Officer Craig Lehner, who vanished during a police diving unit training exercise on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in the Niagara River. Lehner's body was recovered Tuesday, Oct. 17 by authorities. (Courtesy of Shannon Davis)

Champion recalled the day when they were still rookies and Lehner walked over to him in his patrol car.

"Hey, bro. You want to ride together?" Lehner asked Champion.

"Little did I know that would be the beginning of a bond and a journey together that would transcend this life itself," Champion said.

From the time they were in the police academy, Champion said, Lehner showed the kind of man he was. Although he had a hernia there, Lehner never let it get in his way of his training.

"I knew that he was in pain yet here [he] was," Champion said. "This guy was doing more reps than most people there despite being hurt. That was the sort of toughness that I could come to expect from him all the time."

Champion shared stories of how Lehner interacted with the public – testaments to the kind of police officer and human being he was.

He recounted the time, early on in their career, when Champion was handling a landlord/tenant dispute – the kind of thankless call police deal with all the time – and Lehner pulled up in a Crown Victoria patrol car to back him up.

Champion remembered being struck by how Lehner conducted himself.

"He listened to the complainant's issue and began to advise them. Practically. Efficiently. Respectfully," Champion, who is African-American, said of his white partner who grew up in rural Akron.

"This was important to me as I grew up in that community and was a product of the inner city," said Champion. "I said to myself, 'Wow, this guy is sharp.' I was surprised and almost vexed at how good, how capable he was and how well he treated people."

Lehner's body found on anniversary of pal's 2003 death in Iraq

There was also the goofy, fun-loving side of Lehner.

When they would pull in their patrol car next to a driver who was rocking out and singing along to music, Lehner would start dancing and Champion would join him.

"The drivers always burst out laughing hysterically and start cheering him on with their hands up as we drove off to our 911 call," Champion said. "That was the humor, beauty and brilliance of my partner. What a unique soul."

Speaking to the thousands of law enforcement and military personnel who turned out at the funeral, Champion seemed to address current tensions about police and race.

"Do not be dismayed," Champion said. "… Although sometimes it feels the world no longer respects the sacrifices that we make, scrutinizes us and treats our patriotism and dedication as an anachronism, a relic belonging in the past, we shall not yield. We shall not falter," Champion said. "We will continue working toward a better tomorrow carrying out the oaths that we all solemnly vowed to. This is who we are and this world needs us."

In closing his 12-minute eulogy, Champion said he looked forward to seeing Lehner again one day.

"I refuse to say goodbye," he said. "Look around you. His vast presence is still here with us. I know I will see him again one day.... Love you, Craig."

The mourners gave him a standing ovation.

A somber farewell to Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner

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