All photos are courtesy of Tom Smith and are of this year’s Police Unity Tour
By: Kimberly Redmond
What began as an informal bicycle ride to Washington, D.C. by a group of Morris County police officers has now evolved into the largest annual fundraiser for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and a way to bring public awareness to law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Back in May 1997, Florham Park Police Officer Patrick Montuore was a newly-minted bicycle cop and suggested a ride to the national monument to honor fallen officers, a group that includes a member of his department and a close friend.
That year, 18 officers took a four-day fundraising bicycle ride from Florham Park to Washington, D.C., raising $18,000.
Now known as the Police Unity Tour, the non-profit organization includes over a dozen chapters made up of 2,500 members from across the country and the globe who participate in the ride each year.
More than two decades later, Montuore, who retired in 2015 as Chief of the Florham Park Police Department, remains blown away by what the organization has become.
“It’s been a humbling experience and one I’ve been honored to be a part of,” he said. “One of the things I’ve learned is that you can have an idea, but it takes many for it to become a reality. There are so many people who selflessly gave to this idea to make it real.”
During the most recent trip, more than $2,700,000 was raised for the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, bringing the Police Unity Tour’s total donations to nearly $26 million over the last two decades.
Riders include officers from a variety of law enforcement agencies, ranging from municipal forces to county departments to sheriff’s offices to federal entities, he said. When participants arrive in Washington, D.C., Montuore greets each and every officer, thanking them for making the journey.
“Being around all walks of law enforcement still wows me. We have all these wonderful people from all over the country and world – India, Italy, England, Ireland, Australia, to name a few – and I’m wowed by the support of people and our sponsors,” he said.
“I’m also wowed by the cyclists who spend months training to get ready for May,” he said. “They are thinking of the bracelet, the picture they are carrying, the family of that officer and their fellow brothers and sisters.”
This year, the four-day Police Unity Tour, which ran from May 9 through 12, marked its 23rd anniversary, with more than 2,500 current and retired police officers biking to the nation’s capitol to pay tribute to fallen officers and the families left behind.
The fifth day includes a candlelight vigil and ceremonies at the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial and Museum.
The monument, Montuore said, “is a beautiful, sacred place,” which carries the names of more than 22,000 law enforcement officers who lost their lives serving and protecting the public.
“It’s a living memorial,” he said. “We go out willingly every day knowing we could die, but we understand our role and the risks. Each year, we ride for those officers because they’d ride for us if they could.”
It’s also drawn immense support from the communities that riders pass through.
Hillsdale Police Sgt. Tom Smith, who just completed his fourth Police Unity Tour, said, “A lot of the public gets the reason for the ride – ‘We Ride For Those Who Died.’ We will ride through towns and the streets will be lined with school children, teachers, townspeople and other police departments clapping and showing their support.”
“People know that we are riding our bikes to honor the fallen and they appreciate it, no matter where you ride through,” Smith said.
And often, it’s that support from the community and fellow officers that help riders push through what can be a grueling journey.
River Vale Police Lt. John DeVoe said this year’s ride was faced with dark and gloomy weather, conditions that included rain and winds, but that didn’t stop riders or supporters.
“People from all walks of life came out to support us – men, women, boys and girls of all ages and backgrounds. They ran out from their homes, jumped out of their cars and came out from their workplaces as we rode by. They waved flags, clapped and gave us thumbs up,” DeVoe said. “They encouraged us with words like ‘You’re doing great,’ ‘Keep going’ and ‘You’re almost there.’”
“And, after four days and 300 miles of pedaling, we rode into the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C. Among our family and friends were the family and friends of those brave men and women who gave their lives in the line of duty. They held up signs and gave us high fives and hugs. Even more remarkable, they thanked us. But in the end, it is us who should be thanking them,” he said.
Smith said, “it’s about something bigger than you.”
“A few years ago, I went to see a few coworkers ride to the Police Officer Memorial in Washington, D.C. Seeing the time that they had and the stories they came back with made me want to be part of something so special,” he said. “On July 17, 2014, Police Officer Christopher Goodell from Waldwick was killed in the line of duty. I went to high school with his sister and remember seeing him a few times throughout the years. His death solidified my desire to do it.”
Smith believes there are many reasons the fundraiser has grown so large.
“The camaraderie, support and everyone riding for something bigger than themselves is truly something that you don’t know until you experience,” said Smith. “When you ride into the memorial, you thank God that you are wearing sunglasses because nobody will see you crying. This past year, I removed my sunglasses just before I entered the memorial because it was raining and overcast. I locked eyes with an older gentleman, who gave me a hug and thanked me profusely for riding my bike.”
“I thought to myself, all I did was ride for 300 miles. These people lost a friend or a family member to a tragedy,” Smith said. “That feeling – and that support – will keep me coming back until my body tells me that I can’t do it anymore.”
For more information, visit www.policeunitytour.com.