A review of the reasons to pipe up, strike up the bands and play along with the grace of one of the greatest traditions in all of law enforcement

By Mitchell Krugel 

Rumblings, revving and other sounds of excavators, backhoes and bulldozers working cleanup detail drenched Ground Zero several months after 9/11. Broken records, fingernails on a blackboard or even the beeeeep-beeeeep-beeeeep of a truck in reverse might have been more soothing.

Then, Tartan Day came in April 2002, and soon pipes and drums would be parading through New York City to recognize the outstanding achievements and contributions made by Scottish Americans to the U.S. First, however, there was a stop to make.

Barnegat Township Local 296 State Delegate Chris Ebert, a son of a Jersey City law enforcement officer and still months away from becoming a Class II, prepared to play the parade with the Ocean County Emerald Society Pipes & Drums. Joining with players from the Port Authority PD Pipes and Drums, they paraded into Ground Zero.

All the big machines digging and moving dirt suddenly went silent. Operators stood at attention. The pipes and drums
circled up, the snares rumbled, and “Amazing Grace” echoed through the grounds.

“Just gave you chills,” Ebert recalls.

Pipe bands can raise the spirits at any hallowed ground. Some pipers have been known to raise spirits, but that’s another story. Pipes and drums can raise the roof off any church. Pipers and drummers can raise the emotion at any memorial, service, parade, celebration, concert or bar to an otherworldly pinnacle.

Pipes and drums have provided a soundtrack for law enforcement around here since the time Lady Liberty first took up her post. They have a military presence and purpose dating back to Scotland and Ireland, and that family tartan and heritage underscored the blue family when the Scottish and Irish came to the States and filled the ranks of law enforcement 150 years ago or so.

Family, department, country – all of that – are reflected in those bagpipes. The connection to playing in a pipes and drums band and what it can do might very well be out of this world.

“It’s almost like joining a group that has a long, storied history, thinking that I just stepped through a time warp and I’m part of something that’s been going on for such a long time,” explains a one-time Police Pipes & Drums of Morris County piper named John Hulse. The longtime Byram officer, Sussex County Local 138 State Delegate and PBA executive board member has never lost that feeling that comes with picking up his bagpipes and striking up the band.

“You put on your kilt, dress up in the uniform, and it’s pretty amazing,” he continues. “The Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, they all have bands, right? The Roman legions had bands. Every great army-sized organization has a band, and that’s us. You’re proud to have
this loud device to shout it out to the world.”

Bands of brotherhood

Pipe band music and the privilege of playing the hallowed tunes are as far-reaching and fetching as hearing “Going Home” or “The Marines’ Hymn” off in the gloaming. NJ State PBA President Pat Colligan even took a turn on the pipes about 20 years ago, and he gets the chills just hearing somebody practicing on them.

“It tells you that there’s some pomp and circumstance up next,” Colligan confirms.

Law enforcement knows the pomp of pipes and drums from the way they give first responders lost in the line of duty the hero’s send-off they deserve. Accompaniment to usher them into the next life.

If somebody’s having a charity function for whatever cause, though, and entertainment is needed, members have learned that the pipers and drummers are the first ones to put up their hands. Whatever the occasion, pipes and drums silence a room at a fever pitch and are the ultimate attention-getter, which is why you see them every year at such events as the NJSPBA Valor Awards.

The Ocean County Emerald Society Pipes & Drums performs at the 2022 NJSPBA Valor Awards (Photo by Ed Carattini Jr.).

“As soon as you hear the drums do the three-count rolls and you hear the pipes start up, it just sends a chill through you,” echoes Donnie Gilmartin, the retired Newark Fire captain who helped found the Essex County Emerald Society Police and Fire Pipes and Drums and is known as the “don” of bagpiping. “I’m doing this for 42 years, and I get the same feeling every time.”

The pipes and drums tunes also add to the reverence wherever they play. Some 20 years ago, Raritan Township Local 337 State Delegate Meg Hammond became one of the only female pipers at the time when she joined the Somerset County Pipes and Drums.

She was already taken with “Scotland the Brave” from the Scottish heritage that Hammond has always embraced, even while growing up in Alaska. But she captures what the music can do to you when she closes her eyes and hears a piper playing “Going Home,” like it is rendered
at so many police memorials, including the Candlelight Vigil at National Police Week, where the late piping legend and Port Authority Local 116 member Steve Butterbrodt played so many times.

“The songs tell stories,” Hammond relates. “That second movement of ‘Going Home,’ da da da da da da da da da. I know it’s odd, but it reminds me of standing on top of a mountain and looking over Alaska.”

But every playlist would begin with ‘Amazing Grace,’ and here’s why:

“I went into a church at the end of a funeral like you would do, played the “Amazing Grace, turned, and marched out,” Ebert describes. “I was the solo piper, and when I got out, the pipe major said, ‘Did you see any heads down?’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘If you see the heads down and they’re shaking, that means they’re crying. That means you’re doing a good job.’”

And so take a pause for the cause to consider the need to extol and examine the pipes and drums and police and why they’re such a blast (pun intended). Mr. President, if you please.

“It evokes emotion, it evokes a spirit of camaraderie. I mean, everybody loves watching them,” Colligan says. “We just got to get more people playing them.”

Pipe lines and drum lines

You’ve seen the bands in their different-colored kilts at the annual Law Enforcement Memorial service in Ocean Grove. The Ocean County Emerald Society band has played the Count Basie Theater and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. In Dublin, Ireland. With more than 2 million people attending.

Members of various police and fire pipes and drums played all 37 funerals for the Port Authority officers lost on 9/11. Gilmartin describes the five-tune service set bands often play for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. When they play it at a fundraiser, wedding or maybe just a pub, the band invites the veterans to come up and join their circle when the tune from their branch is played.

“You see these guys, especially the Vietnam vets, coming up. They were never greeted the way they should have been,” he shares.

Kimberly Best, a Middletown Township Local 124 member and detective lieutenant, recently played pipes on the battleship New Jersey when her chief was honored by the Knights of Columbus. And you will most likely run into the Port Authority band, which plays the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, German Day Parade, Columbus Day Parade, Puerto Rican Day Parade and Veteran’s Day Parade in New York City. You also might see them or any other band on the national stage, playing at the Police Unity Tour arrival in Washington, D.C., or the NAPO Top Cops Awards.

Playing the bagpipes consists of blowing air into the bag, squeezing air to make the sound and playing the notes on the chanter at the bottom of the bag.

“Each one is very special to us and enjoyable,” declares Brian Ahern, who has been on with Port Authority for 22 years and is now pipe major for the band. “I believe pipe bands are a big part of a police officer’s career, from where they’re playing the bagpipes at your graduation,
playing throughout your career, whether it’s a medal ceremony, a promotion ceremony or walking up Fifth Avenue representing the men and women at the police department. And we’ll play you on your last day when you’re walking out. It definitely brings a passion and a sense of pride to officers when they hear the pipes and drums.”

Interestingly, Ebert’s first public performance came at his own wedding. The band joined him in playing “Kelly, the Wearing of the Green” and “Minstrel Boy.” Then, he soloed on “Amazing Grace.”

So the performing art of the police pipes and drums is truly a sight to behold. And a sound.

“To have the bagpipes there to represent is our own romance to it,” described Hoboken Local 2 State Delegate Chris Hatfield, who played some pipes early in his career and did a turn with the Police Pipes & Drums of Morris County. “Bagpipes are used for ceremonial purposes, for weddings and also for funerals. It’s a very diverse instrument, and you don’t see that with other instruments out there.”

Play along

The pipes line filtered from the way a largely Irish force in New York City incorporated them into the law enforcement tradition in a variety of ways. Bernie Snyder, a retired Lacey Township Local 238 member who served as State Delegate in the 1990s, got hooked when growing up in Jersey City and hearing their splendor play on what his family called the “high holy day.” Also known as St. Patrick’s Day.

Many longtime band members like Snyder, who has been playing with the Ocean County Emerald Society band since it began in 1993, know the attraction.

“How do they say, it’s in your blood,” Snyder details. “It’s the most fun I ever had, playing the bagpipes.”

Or there are members who traveled this path like Rich Allen, a retired Franklin Township Local 154 member who served as Local president. He picked up the pipes 10 years after retiring.

Looking back, Allen admitted he wished he had started younger and started the way some officers used to: playing the practice chanter that teaches fingering the notes during slow times in the patrol car. And to experience what he has found to be the greatness beyond the notes.

“It gives you that sense of belonging,” Allen notes. “You’re pretty much hanging out with a bunch of like-minded people, and if you happen to like the music, it’s just that much better.”

Many of today’s players felt the attraction after 9/11, including Hatfield, Hammond and Hulse. Hatfield, in fact, revealed that after seeing the Police Pipes & Drums of Morris County play, he was inspired to become a law enforcement officer.

Hulse had tried playing trumpet, trombone and guitar, but had trouble sticking with it. Then, he worked at the World Trade Center supporting recovery and cleanup after 9/11 and saw the light.

The Police Pipes & Drums of Morris County once included NJSPBA Special Projects Coordinator John Hulse on bagpipes.

“I told myself, When this is all over, I’m going to go learn how to play the pipes and join a pipe band so that I can somehow contribute in the future to something I saw that was so important,” he adds.

Being inspired to play becomes more significant when the actual learning to play begins. Another pause for the cause is productive here to present an overture.

The band is not the band without the drums. Gilmartin conveys that the bass drum is the heartbeat of the band. The bass drummer keeps the band on time and gives the players a way to make sure they are marching in step correctly. The snare drums cue the pipers when it’s game on and provide a prelude to making the music.

Learning to play is a process, and the learning takes place on a practice chanter that looks like a flute. There are nine notes to learn, and each has embellishments. Any band will let a new piper know that it can take up to a year of learning and daily practice to be ready to perform.

Here’s how the bagpipes actually work:

You blow to fill the bag. Your bass and your two tenors rest on your shoulder, but the actual notes come out of the chanter, played by hand. So when you get enough pressure in the bag, you’re squeezing. You’re actually playing with your arm, squeezing the bag to play the notes.

You can only let up enough to get more air in the bag, but not enough to where it’s going to stop the notes. So you have to keep that pressure on that chanter.

“It’s like blowing up a balloon constantly,” Ebert quips.

A favorite line among pipers jokes that there’s a bell curve of how much you drink to how well you play. It’s not unreasonable to do a shot and a beer to get warmed up. But only one.

There’s not really a correlation between the size of the player and the ability to blow. That might be the logical conclusion due to a scarcity of female pipers. But it’s hardly the case.

“It has nothing to do with strength. It’s coordination and wind,” Hammond submits. “I think it’s more difficult to coordinate the hand movements, the song and the breathing at the same time, and the pumping the actual bag to play and get the drones going. So it takes a long time to get coordinated. And then you have to build your lip and build your air.”

The grace

Police pipes and drums have become their own army in New Jersey over the years

“When we need something, we kind of call out the troops,” Best confirms.

A call went out after 9/11 that players were needed to honor the 37 Port Authority officers lost. The assurance that they would all be properly ushered led to the creation of the New Jersey United Pipe Band. Led by Gilmartin primarily, the NJUPB had a uniform set to play and
a messaging system players could plug into to notify that they would be there for any and every funeral.

The NJUPB still has a Facebook page to learn about opportunities to join a band or for a performance. It has become one of the lasting impressions of police pipes and drums.

The art has produced much lore and many legends, not the least of which is Gilmartin. He formed the first Emerald Society band in New Jersey, and his 42 years of playing makes Gilmartin one of the first ones people hear in their heads when somebody mentions pipe bands.

“Because of the way he gives of himself to make stuff happen,” Hulse comments. “And not only physically lead it, but spiritually lead it as well.”

After Gilmartin formed the band in Essex County, Snyder followed in Ocean County. And then another piping legend from Camden formed the third. Rich Desmond played with the Camden County Emerald Society Pipes and Drums from starting the band in 1995 until passing away in 2019.

“Richie was larger than life,” Best recalls. “Kind, generous, funny. I mean, funny. I remember we did the Blue Mass in Trenton, and we all went out afterwards. Just singing songs, that guy was so full of life, really just beyond description. Everybody loved Desi.”

Some personify the way they play for the love of the band, the music and the culture. Nobody did that more than Butterbrodt.

One of the most legendary police pipers is former Port Authority PD Officer Steve Butterbrodt (left).

Tens of thousands have been seduced by “Butter” walking up the aisle toward the stage at the Candlelight Vigil during National Police Week, playing “Going Home.” Not the biggest man on the pipes, but his stature grew and grew from the way he taught so many to play and always individually tuned them up any time they played with Butter.

Snyder qualified Butter’s presence with a story from when many of the bands were in D.C. to play the Marine Corps birthday celebration, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As Snyder tells it, they were all hanging out at a bar, when Butter walked in. He took a shot of Jameson and began to play.

The bar had a piano player who kept trying to start up every time Butter finished a tune. The Marines in the bar wouldn’t let him play, eventually exerting a little use of force on the piano player so Butter could keep on playing.

Butter passed away suddenly in December 2021 at age 72. But he continues to leave a lasting impact on police pipes and drums.

“I think he loved that the band was there to represent the police department, and we were there to represent the men and women who were out there working, and we were able to perform for them on different occasions,” offers Ahern, one of the hundreds, if not thousands, who
learned to play from Butter.

If you’ve made it this far in the story, then perhaps you’re willing to go a little further. As Colligan implored, there is a need to get more members playing.

You know by now that it is a big commitment. But you also know that, as Snyder says, “The satisfaction you get out of it is unbelievable.”

The ultimate testimonial to playing might come from Best, who now has her daughter playing with her in a band.

“Everything good in my life that I have is because of piping,” she begins. “I can’t think of too many things that are more rewarding, that will get you more attention. Or just for the camaraderie. That alone is totally worth all of the hours. One of my guys is just now learning, and he’s just like, ‘It’s addicting.’”

For a final word on this, let’s go back to Butter. Or as close as possible.

Ahern informs that with the band playing so many events, they do get officers coming up to inquire, “How can I be a part of this?” Here is his answer, which might just give you chills:

“It’s about being able to remember those that were taken from us way too soon and be able to keep their memories going by performing.”