The Thin Blue Line.
Its definition is simple: it is the line, drawn by law enforcement, between chaos and order.
The line is defined as thin in terms of numbers – officers trained to take on the evil of this world.
“It’s law enforcement’s stance between protecting the citizens and the other part of society,” said Sergeant Greg Payment with the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department.
Sadly, that line can be crossed, and lives lost. Aitkin County’s Government Center plays host to the Law Enforcement Memorial, which pays tribute to the five officers who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Those officers – James G. Harney, Russell J. Nelson, Benjamin Christensen, Thomas J. Wyatt and Steven M. Sandberg – are honored with their names, law enforcement agency, end-of-watch dates and a replica of their badges on the memorial, located at 217 2nd St. NW in Aitkin.
Above the names reads a quote from the Bible: “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called the children of God.”
The memorial was one of the first official projects by the Aitkin County Law Enforcement Benevolent Association, or ACLEBA as it is called.
It began in 2016 after the death of Sandberg, who died in the line of duty in October 2015, guarding a prisoner at St. Cloud Hospital.
“This mission was to remember fallen officers and also support fallen officers’ families,” explained Payment, who has served as president of the organization.
The group has provided coverage of shifts when officers have fallen in the line of duty, sent money, flowers and support to families of the officers both in-state and out, and also attended funerals to show solidarity.
The memorial, though, has a far more local impact.
In January 2016, ACLEBA was formed to organize efforts to fund memorials for the fallen officer.
The group met with Layne Lodmell, a St. Paul police retiree who has been to Washington, D.C. 20 times. Lodmell helped guide the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office in forming the new association.
ACLEBA applied for non-profit status with state and federal agencies in the beginning of February 2016, and there are dozens of members in the group now, from the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office; patrol staff along with jailers, dispatchers and support staff, Aitkin, Hill City and McGregor police departments, Minnesota State Patrol and Minnesota conservation officers.
“The mission was to remember fallen officers and also support fallen officers’ families,” Payment said.
The five-ton, 7-foot tall memorial was done in the style of the state memorial in St. Paul, echoing the blue line of lights.
It was finished in 2016 and officially dedicated May 15, 2017, on Peace Officers Memorial Day.
It honors five different men, all in a variety of positions. Harney, for example, is listed as a member of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is now a part of the ATF.
He was in Aitkin County enforcing prohibition, and was shot and killed investigating a moonshine still in Tamarack.
Harney’s death is the earliest, in 1932, while Sandberg’s is the most recent. The other three officers died more recently – Nelson in 1975 in a float plane accident while looking for illegal duck hunters; Christensen in 1979 of a heart attack while serving a warrant; and Wyatt in an on-duty automobile accident in 2004.
The duties and enforcement agencies differ, showing the wide variety of officers involved in keeping Aitkin County safe. And more names are scheduled to be added as ACLEBA finds more names.
All are honored with badges unique to each department they were part of.
“There are some unique job descriptions that are on there,” said Payment. “We wanted them to each have their own representation. We wear these badges every day, so to have it on the memorial, we felt it was important.”
The memorial moved to its permanent home in January of this year, tucked between the government center and the sheriff’s office.
During afternoons and evenings as the sun sets, the tall flagpole sits in the light, while the memorial is lit by ambient sunrays and the thin, blue line of lights.
As dusk falls and drops into evening, the flag and memorial gain illumination from gentle spotlights, with the line of blue lights leading up to the slab of marble.
Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida said that its location allows officers – and visitors to both the government center and the sheriff’s office – to see it when they enter.
“In our scenario, every single one of us … walks by it,” Guida explained. “It’s just a reminder of the sacrifice the people who went before us paid.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that people don’t notice it,” he added. “It’s in the right spot now, that’s for sure.”