Bright Light

A tribute to how a beloved fallen officer made his town, his department, his Local and his profession #ShislerStrong

By Mitchell Krugel 

Working midnights struck a sorrowful, heartbreaking darkness for Deptford Township police officers in mid-April. For six weeks, their brother, their protector, the heartbeat of their squad had been fighting for his life after being shot in the part of the leg that can result in bleeding out on March 10.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, hope emerged from the darkness on the dredge of town. Front porches, driveways, rooftops, lawns — even entire houses — started glowing blue. Blue lights of all shapes, sizes and brightness turned up and on throughout the township. So many that the local Walmart actually sold out of blue lightbulbs.

Residents put up guiding lights for “Bobby,” as they all knew their beloved Deptford Township officer. Maybe it would bring some healing power to Bobby as he endured a roller coaster of recovery. And perhaps serve as a beacon to his sisters and brothers on the midnights squad.

“Bobby’s not here, but we are, and every blue light we see, we feel. We’ll pull over for a couple of minutes, get our bearings and get back to it, because that’s what Bobby would want,” affirmed Deptford Officer Frank Moran, who partnered with Bobby from the day he came out of the academy in 2018.

The blue lights have only grown brighter and more encouraging since Bobby Shisler reached his end of watch on May 7. Out of the blue has come a prolific tribute to the local boy who was known as a baseball star and renowned by his department for dedicating his whole life to becoming a law enforcement officer.

Tributes for those lost in the line of duty classically come in a volume of words. There will be plenty of those coming forthwith, including the two that will inspire his town, his department and all of Bobby’s sisters and brothers from Gloucester County Local 122 forever: #ShislerStrong.

But the tribute that seemed utterly fitting to the warrior that was Robert J. Shisler, badge #5723, came when darkness figuratively and literally overwhelmed Deptford Township. And how Bobby and his fight ignited a light show akin to the end of a rock concert honoring a rock star of an officer.

“We jokingly say that Bobby was almost like his own K-9 unit, because a guy would take off and Bobby would hawk the guy down and get him,” stated Deptford Township Sergeant Sean Gambale, who supervises the midnight squad. “Roll call would be over and he would go, ‘Time to go catch a bad guy.’ And then he would go catch a bad guy. He was the protector and the heart of our squad, for sure.”

Bouquets of flowers are set inside the auditorium at Rowan University, where the funeral service for Bobby Shisler was held.

There are not enough words to honor Bobby. The comments on his GoFundMe page scroll on into the sunset. His squad mates and Deptford officers who worked alongside him can laugh and cry over their memories. But as Sergeant Michael Riggs, who had Bobby on his patrol squad when he first came on, confided with a chuckle, “There are a lot of stories we just can’t tell.”

They do share the one about how a bear was roaming Deptford and they had to respond. Bobby, of course, was the one to go out, because here was an opportunity to protect the town. At the end of the incident, Bobby wound up rescuing a family of ducks. Gambale posted a picture of him holding the duck on Facebook. The post drew a slew of comments, including such quips as, “Cute. And the duck is cute, too.”

Bobby had matinee-idol good looks and presence. One year on National Night Out, Gambale asked Bobby if he would put on a Superman costume and talk to the kids. He agreed without hesitation.

“Selfless is probably the best word to describe Bobby Shisler,” Riggs added.

When joining the squad mates in reminiscing about Bobby a few days after his passing, Deptford Township Captain John Storms described Bobby as a sheepdog.

“He watches over the flock, he protects everybody,” Storms detailed. “Bobby was the guy that was going to be out there running and gunning, doing his job until the end of the shift. If we could hire 20 more Bobby’s, it would make our life a lot easier.”

Deptford Chief Joe Smith expounded on that thought.

“If we could clone 70 Bobby’s, this would be the best police department in the country,” he declared.

Members of the Deptford Township Police Department salute as Bobby’s casket is set for the more than 1,000 officers who attended to pay their last respects.

The powerful glow radiating from Bobby, the attraction stirring his followers, certainly showed in the setting for the funeral service on May 17. It was held at Rowan University’s auditorium to accommodate the more than a thousand officers from across the country who attended. The more than two dozen flower bouquets — many in the shape of badges — filled two rows in front of the stage. A couple of them replicated the Deptford Township police patch.

A slideshow flashed images showing Bobby in all his glory, from playing Little League to flexing and winning a bodybuilding competition. Photos with the family dogs, riding motorcycles and wearing an omnipresent cowboy hat showed the always-smiling side of Bobby that all his loved ones noted first and foremost when recalling their brother.

Then the tributes flowed.

Squad 4 spoke first, with the officers gathering behind Gambale at the podium. He extolled Bobby for being a Spartan showing what it means to have courage and helping the future of Gloucester County law enforcement with his selfless dedication.

“You are the best of all of us. How you defied the odds over and over again. When a normal man would’ve given up, you were always the strongest person we ever know,” Gambale continued. “You told us all what it meant to be Shisler strong. Forever, your legacy will impact the lives of so many. We know you won’t let us do it alone, but we’ll take it from here.”

The nature of this tragedy brought the state of New Jersey to pay its respects with Attorney General Matthew Platkin offering remarks at the funeral. His message paid tribute to Bobby as the servant of the entire New Jersey law enforcement profession.

“People who don’t even know your name know the sacrifice you made for all of us, and there’s no greater purpose than that,” Platkin stated. “I am hoping everyone will honor him by how we live, by how we live up to the high standard that he set for all of us.”

West Deptford Chief Joe Smith presents the flag that draped Bobby’s casket to his family.

Funeral service tributes culminated with a tear-generating and tear-filled dispatch from Bobby’s sister, Ashley. The middle of three siblings between Bobby and little brother Tyler, who came on with Deptford a few days after Bobby was shot, Ashley spoke the way her brother would have wanted.

She shared how Bobby was an all-American boy who was good at everything and nice to everyone.

“But he would f— you up in a heartbeat if you messed with his family and friends,” Ashley quipped.

She reported that Bobby had a tattoo on his wrist that read, “For those I love, I will sacrifice.” And he did just that. Ashley noted how Bobby will continue to make sure she and Tyler will never fall short of his commitment to be brave, devoted, fearless and so selfless.

Ashley then made reference to Bobby’s affinity for Psalm 23. She seemed to speak to the entire law enforcement profession with this, especially the part about fearing no evil because thou art with me.

“My brother would hate to see us crying for him,” Ashley accentuated. “And I know for a fact he would like us to be strong through the darkest days ahead. That’s what he always did. He gave light and strength when it seemed impossible to go on. I would like us to remember him as both a blessing and a lesson. Rest in paradise, Bobby. We got it from here.”

Residents in West Deptford brought flowers and other items to place at the memorial that included Bobby’s vehicle in front of the Deptford Township Police Department.

The funeral service didn’t begin until noon. A viewing began at 9 a.m. Some officers arrived as early as 6 a.m. By 10 a.m., a blue line stretched from the entrance to the auditorium, around a massive parking lot, until the back end of the line almost touched the beginning. Officers who arrived at 8:30 a.m. were still an hour away from the viewing at 10:15 a.m.

And that didn’t include the members of the nine departments that make up Gloucester County Local 122. Many of those gathered by the NJSPBA Special Services trailer, taking comfort in one of the breakfast sandwiches, dirty water dogs and special brand of support the Special Services team specially provided on this day.

Local 122 member Payton Clements of the Logan PD grew up with the Shislers, went to school with Tyler and was in Class 80 at the Gloucester County Police Academy with him. She remembers Bobby attending their academy graduation even though it was during the pandemic, and nobody was allowed to come.

Another Local 122 member, Collin Crawford of West Deptford PD, came on just before Bobby. He related how heartwarming it was to see all the different patches at the funeral and suggested what that presence came to honor.

“He was not afraid. He was true. He was head-first,” Crawford commented. “He’s what you want in an officer. Just get out there, catch bad guys. That’s what he was all about.”

Members came from all four corners of that state. Byram Township Local 406 member Derek Kuncken came from Sussex County, even though he has been on the job for just three years. He said looking at the turnout enabled him to see something truly special about being a law enforcement officer.

“We’re all one big blue family, and we stick up for each other,” Kuncken related. “So when something bad like this happens, you want to go out there and do your job really well. It’s continuing on the memory.”

Captain Kenneth Lohdahl-Smidt led a dozen members from Englewood Local 216 to Rowan. He observed that it was great, but not surprising, that there was such a showing to “mourn the loss of a member of our family.” Certainly, there was a calling to be here.

“These guys all volunteered. A lot of them are on their own time off because they just want to pay their respects,” informed Lohdale-Smidt, who has been on for more than 21 years. “And it’s important that those guys have that same type of camaraderie that we had back in the day.”

As Franklin Township Deputy Chief Matt DeCesari stood with 30 officers from the department in Gloucester County waiting for the service to start, he submitted a thought about why so many were compelled to be here.

“A lot of officers who grew up in their hometown and now work in their hometown, they relate to this officer. Because that’s pretty much every officer here,” he said. “They grew up and they live in their towns. They’re part of their community. And that’s what this officer was.”

Many of the officers who attended gathered by the NJSPBA Special Services Trailer waiting for the funeral service to begin.

Exclusive info to add to the tribute could come right out of Bobby’s performance evaluation. Moran wrote those, and he related that in a recent eval, he suggested Bobby would make a great instructor at the academy.

Perhaps Moran didn’t need to include detail about the everyday performance he saw from Bobby. How naturally he flowed into the job from Day One. How quickly he picked up training. How he was a superfast learner.

“He wanted to understand every single aspect of police work,” Moran detailed. “Not just things that he was interested in, like the guns and the drugs. He wanted to pretty much master everything.”

Bobby established a great rep for his work on the road. Not just being proactive. Not just going after the bad guys, but taking so much time for the citizens. His rep came from never turning down a call, never being the guy who was comfortable sitting in the station.

“He would stop cars, he would look for suspicious activity, and he was nonstop,” Chief Smith confirmed. “To him, that was just him operating as normal. He was the first person on many, many, many scenes. You’d show up; Bobby was just there. I don’t know how he got to the call so fast.”

Gambale suspects that was Bobby wanting to be part of the team. He grew up on teams, all the way to playing baseball at Presbyterian College in South Carolina.

He was probably being the consummate teammate when responding to the call on March 10 that resulted in the shooting. The incident is still under investigation, so not many details are available. But his squad mates advise there is something everybody should know about what happened that day.

“Without getting into the investigative part, Bobby very well may have prevented some other tragedy that day,” Gambale added. “We don’t know for sure, but businesses, schools and residents know that if there was somebody out there wishing harm, Bobby was going to stop them. And I truly believe that in one way, shape or form, he prevented something further from happening that day.”

Of all the tributes, Bobby’s fight after the incident might best exalt #ShislerStrong. Truth be told, #ShislerStrong began to grow its legend when Bobby was in the academy, crushing all the PT.

Moran related how Bobby religiously scheduled his gym and workout time every day. Storms recalled seeing Bobby in the gym, throwing unimaginable weight on the bar and nodding like he was just warming up. As he trained to be a bodybuilder and won a competition, that was Bobby being Shisler strong.

“He was not the guy running to McDonald’s on midnights,” Moran submitted.

Local 122 member Charles McLaughlin, an East Greenwich Township officer, had an inside look at #ShislerStrong working alongside Bobby as a PT instructor at the Gloucester County Police Academy. It was there that he led by example, mentoring recruits in the way that will be defined from here on out as #ShislerStrong.

McLaughlin explained that Bobby was a PT stud who had a lot of pride and dedication in training recruits. He wanted to make them strong by sitting with them, talking to them about nutrition, about weightlifting, working out and the like. And in his own special way, putting in countless hours to try and make a better recruit.

“Bobby was a shark. At shout down, he would be right up in somebody’s face if they needed,” McLaughlin praised. “But he also had a soft side, too, because he would come in during nutrition day, look over their logs and tell them what to fix with nutrition and stuff like that. It was commitment and dedication to something that he believed in. And what we still believe in up there.”

Even after taking that bullet, #ShislerStrong never wavered. When the squad visited Bobby in the hospital, he quickly flashed them a thumbs-up. He squeezed their hands, and during the next eight weeks, Bobby continued to display remarkable strength.

That’s when #ShislerStrong began showing up in hashtags on social media everywhere. And in headlines and on T-shirts.

“You look at the two-month fight; not one other person could have done that,” Gambale said. “It speaks for itself. He wasn’t just doing it for himself to survive. He was doing it to show people how hard you can work and provide inspiration and hope. That’s really what that two-month fight was about in my eyes. So maybe he didn’t make it through all the way, but he showed everybody something, and I think that’s what he needs to be remembered by. His fighting spirit.”

A combined honor guard carries the colors and leads the pipes and drums as part of the funeral ceremony.

Bobby, of course, received a proper tribute with the way the funeral crescendoed. After the service, thousands of law enforcement officers stood at attention as his casket was carried out in front of the auditorium. A combined pipes and drums band featuring dozens of players kicked up a drumbeat with a military-like cadence that gave way to Chief Smith presenting the flag that had draped Bobby’s casket to his family.

A four-helicopter flyover preceded an extended present arms salute that seemed to channel Bobby’s strength to hold for as long as he earned and deserved. And during the month when “Amazing Grace” is played again and again, the most honorable version was heard for Bobby.

Even though the music has faded, thoughts about Bobby’s legacy continue to endure. Moran suggests that Bobby has gone from being their guardian to a guardian angel.

“He’s going to be watching over us the same way he did down here,” he added. “We’ve had to go to calls even though we’re still grieving, and what’s getting me through is ‘What would Bobby do?’”

According to Storms, Bobby would want them to live up to his expectations to protect the town and do everything to the fullest extent.

“And never give up,” Storms declared.

There very well could be an everlasting thin blue line of lights shining forever for Bobby through Deptford Township and beyond. And that will make all the difference for all those who now know and love Bobby.

“When we drive through town and see the blue lights, it gives us courage,” Gambale confirmed. “It gives us courage and strength to keep going, knowing that Bobby is still fighting.”

So rest easy, Robert J. Shisler, badge #5723. We’ll leave the lights on for you.