Hundreds gather at Healing Place Church for vigil honoring fallen officers

Vice President Joe Biden today spoke directly to the families of three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, promising them that a day will come when the memory of their loved ones will “bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”

Biden offered the words during a vigil held at Healing Place Church, where hundreds of people gathered to the officers, who were ambushed by a lone gunman at a convenience store on Airline on July 17. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Gov. John Bel Edwards also spoke.

Biden said the gunman’s bullets that killed the three officers also targeted the country and “touched the soul of an entire nation.”

An Army veteran from Kansas City, Missouri, killed the officers less than two weeks after protests erupted in Baton Rouge over the death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man who was shot and killed during a scuffle with two white police officers.

Biden said he heard that Sterling’s aunt embraced the father of one of the slain officers during a chance encounter after the shooting. He said they prayed together because “loss is loss is loss.”

Residents such as Rosie Hernandez, whose nephew is a Baton Rouge police officer, hoped the vigil would help the city heal of the July violence. Hernandez and her husband found seats inside the church where the vigil is being held. The 62-year-old said she is confident that the ceremony will help unite a community that has been grappling with racial tensions.

“Out of this tragedy, the hope is that we will become a closer community,” she said.

Lynch said Americans can pay tribute to the sacrifices of three slain Baton Rouge law enforcement officers by standing together in unity and rejecting resentment and anger.

Lynch, hailed the officers as heroes, said it can feel as if the world is “broken beyond repair” after tragedies like the July 17 shooting that killed Baton Rouge police officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald and sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola.

But she said the gathering shows the community is united by “collective heartache” and a “common humanity.”

 Edwards said the tragedy should direct how the community moves forward and not define it.  “Help me help our state as we engage in this healing process, and we will be more unified than we were before,” Edwards said.

Healing Place Church was the site of the funeral held last Friday for Baton Rouge Police Officer Matthew Gerald, 41.

Gerald, Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, 45, and Police Officer Montrell Jackson, 32, were shot and killed by Gavin Long, an Army veteran from Kansas City, Missouri.

Long, 29, also wounded three other officers before a SWAT officer gunned him down. Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Tullier was critically wounded and has remained in a hospital since the shooting.

Authorities have said Long was targeting police following the death of Alton Sterling, 37, a black man who was shot and killed during a struggle with two white police officers July 5. The killing was captured on cellphone video and circulated widely on the internet.

During the vigil, East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said Garafola “went down fighting,” with surveillance video showing him firing at the gunman as bullets hit the concrete around him.

Gerald was a former Marine and Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq before joining the police force nine months ago. His wife, Dechia Gerald—now a widow with two young daughters—called him “my blue-eyed rock” in a written tribute. She expressed hope that his legacy will “bridge the gap and foster peace in the country he lived, loved and died for.”

Jackson, a corporal, was a 10-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police Department. He was married and had a 4-month-old son. Days before he was shot to death, Jackson posted a message on Facebook about the difficulties of being both a black man and a police officer in the tumultuous aftermath of Sterling’s shooting.

“Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better,” wrote Jackson, whose funeral was Monday.

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