Martha’s Vineyard officers honored one of their own at MIT service

Martha's Vineyard police officers were among the thousands of people who paid tribute to murdered M.I.T. police officer Sean Collier at a memorial service held April 24. Left to right: Officer James Neville WTPD, Officer Rusty Ventura WTPD, Detective Nick Curelli OBPD, Lt. Tim Williamson OBPD, Chief Dan Rossi WTPD, Sgt. Steve Conley OBPD, Officer Jeff LaBell OBPD, Officer David Murphy APD, Officer Dustin Shaw OBPD, Chief Randhi Belain APD. Missing from the photo but in attendance: EPD Officers Sgt Chris Dolby, Det. Mike Snowden, Officer William Bishop, Officer Dayce Moore, Officer Ryan Ruley, Officer James Craig, Tisbury Detective Mark Santon and officer Jeremy Rogers. — Photo courtesy of Oak Bluffs Police

Members of the six Martha’s Vineyard police departments traveled to Cambridge on Wednesday, April 24, to join ranks with thousands of police officers from across the state and nation at the memorial service in honor of murdered MIT officer Sean A. Collier.

Officer Collier, 27, had been on the university’s police force for only 15 months when he was shot as he sat in his cruiser by one of the Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. His murder touched off an unprecedented manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding communities.

Members of the Martha’s Vineyard Tactical Response Team were among the police forces that provided security in the aftermath of the bombing and assisted in the search for the at large bombing suspect throughout Watertown neighborhoods following the murder of officer Collier.

For many of the Island police officers in attendance at the memorial service, the fate of officer Collier was a sobering reminder of the unexpected dangers that can appear at any moment and on any call.

Oak Bluffs Police Lieutenant Tim Williamson, team leader, said one thought stood out — the sadness of the event and the youth of the officer.

“This poor kid. I saw on the news that he had just bought a pickup truck. Two weeks ago this kid could have never imagined that his funeral would be taking place on the campus with 10,000 police officers in attendance.”

Mr. Williamson said the sadness was balanced with a sense of pride standing shoulder to shoulder among rows of fellow officers that he thought officer Collier would have appreciated.

“Those are the times that I could not be more proud of the career I chose,” Lieutenant Williamson said. “Those are the moments you think this is a great profession. We all support each other and obviously it shows in times like that.”

Lieutenant Williamson said the tactical team, currently ten members strong, was not required to travel to Boston but did so willingly on April 17 to help relieve fellow officers who had been working 12-hour shifts since the bombs detonated the previous Monday. The Vineyard officers found themselves swept up in a national news event of historic dimensions.

Lieutenant Williamson said the Vineyard police officers were not the only ones struck by the significance of the event. “I would say that every law enforcement agency felt the same way,” he said. “We had not had a terror attack on the homeland since 9/11 and everybody had let their guard down, not literally, but you just did not expect it, and suddenly it happens.”

That Friday, they returned to Boston to assist. “We did not know what our role was going to be at that point,” Mr. Williamson said. “None of us, I think, expected to be doing what we were tasked with.”

The men were asked to board an MBTA bus that was assigned to take them to the inner perimeter of the search. Once there, they were assigned a section of Watertown. The men searched street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood.

It provided a dramatic change from the Vineyard, and some degree of new risks. Looking up at the windows of the two and three-decker apartments that line many of the streets, Mr. Williamson knew that anyone who wanted to take a shot at one of the men below would have the advantage of surprise.

Despite body armor there is no escaping a sense of vulnerability in a situation like that, Mr. Williamson said. Particularly not knowing what type of weapon, pistol or rifle, the suspect might have.

“We just pressed on and we did our job. We searched anywhere that you could imagine where somebody could hide. In a backyard, under tarps, dumpsters, you name it.”

In the aftermath of the search and the funeral for officer Collier the men had time to reflect on what they had experienced. “It certainly reminds you that it could be any of us,” Lieutenant Williamson said. “You never know.”