Garden State C.O.P.S. brings back Black & Blue Ball with an unprecedented story of survivors
By Esther Gonzales
Swaying back and forth in a large circle, survivors stood shoulder to shoulder, clapping to the beat of Elton John’s “Healing Hands.” In the center of the circle, Concerns of Police Survivors founder Suzie Sawyer lifted her hands in the air and inspired the group to follow her lead.
The music came alive as the group seemed to “reach out for her healing hands,” as the song goes. As the circle grew, it elevated the spirits of all the survivors attending the Garden State Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) Black & Blue Ball at the Jumping Brook Country Club in Neptune on March 31.
Dancing around the circle, Sawyer greeted, high-fived and embraced survivors. And perhaps they could feel the presence of more of Elton John’s lyrics: “There’s a light where the darkness ends.”
This healing hands dance has become almost a ritual for survivors and is part of national C.O.P.S. events. It felt like a fitting tribute as survivors came back together at the Black & Blue Ball, after three years apart due to the pandemic, to honor their fallen loved ones.
Among the survivors, Garden State C.O.P.S. President Lisa Preslar was called to join in the dance.
“[Sawyer has] always done the healing hands, and you’re not allowed to sit down. Everybody has to get up,” Preslar explained. “It really does make you realize just how lucky we are that we have this organization.”
The rhythmic hum of the NJ Transit Pipes and Drums had previously permeated the atmosphere. Survivors rose from their seats and placed their hands on the hearts. NJSPBA members stood with them, including President Pat Colligan, Executive Vice President Pete Andreyev, Mercer County Sheriff’s Local 187 State Delegate Pat Papero, Manchester Township Local 246 State Delegate Artie Cronk and Police Unity
Tour founders Pat Montuore and Harry Phillips.
Walking into the room past the table of honor, which was adorned with a black-and-blue bow, a folded American flag and a red rose, members of the Manchester Township Local 246 Honor Guard posted colors in honor of their fallen brothers and sisters.
In the crowd, Garden State C.O.P.S. past President Mike Miller reminisced about the day he heard the pipes and drums echoing across a cathedral at the funeral for his son-in-law, Atlantic City Local 24 member Thomas McMeekin.
“That was the only time that I really can honestly say I cried,” Miller recalled. “That, to this day, still sticks with me whenever I hear pipes and drums.”
The Black & Blue Ball encapsulates for survivors what it truly means to have a community that understands what it is like to lose your loved one. It serves as a reminder of the importance of unwavering support and exhibits just how far the organization has come to get here.
How it all began
When she stepped up to speak, Sawyer moved around the room, dancing to “What a Feeling.” Every move seemed to capture the audience’s attention as she twirled and swayed from table to table. After the song ended, Sawyer took survivors and NJSPBA members on the journey of how C.O.P.S. began at another dance almost 40 years ago.
Sawyer recounted that she was at a party in Washington, D.C., the night before the Peace Officers Memorial Service during National Police Week. Suddenly, a group of 10 women entered the room. No one seemed to know who they were, but everyone soon realized they were widows of fallen officers.
One officer approached Sawyer and urged her to talk to the women because their tears were ruining the ambiance. Setting down her beverage, Sawyer left the party and led the women to another location.
One by one, the women shared their stories and heartbreaking experiences. Sawyer could hardly believe what she heard. One woman had not been allowed to see her husband before he was buried. Another had not received any line-of-duty death benefits even though her husband had passed more than a year earlier.
After the recounting of their numerous challenges, one woman suggested a seminar on death and dying. Over the next year, that discussion turned into the possibility of forming a national group for surviving families.
On May 14, 1984, that vision came to life.
“During the first police survivors seminar, 110 law enforcement survivors voted unanimously to approve Concerns of Police Survivors’ existence,” Sawyer noted. “It would be an organization that would support all these survivors, regardless of their officer labor affiliation. We wanted to take care of all of them.”
Sawyer was appointed as the executive director, and soon, 55 chapters emerged statewide. Now, there are 67,000 members of Garden State C.O.P.S.
“There are miracles occurring each and every day because one survivor took the time just simply to talk to another one,” Sawyer related to the audience. “Our goal is to heal the head and the heart and help America’s law enforcement survivors learn to live life to the fullest again. So many survivors have told me that their involvement with C.O.P.S. was a lifesaver, and I believe that.”
Preslar took in the scene. She had heard the story of how C.O.P.S. began countless times, but she felt it was vital for others to hear it, too. That’s why she invited Sawyer to come out of retirement to speak at the ball.
“She took less than 20 crying women and brought them together and started the most amazing organization out there,” submitted Preslar, who lost her husband, Lakewood Police Officer William “Nichie” Preslar, on May 14, 2007. “I was always just in awe of her. She saw a need, and she made it happen. And she’s changed the lives of so, so many people, and we were just really honored that she would come out for us like that.”
How it all continues
It will be nine years in July since Nicole Priestner’s brother, Waldwick Police Officer Christopher Goodell, was killed in the line of duty. As a survivor, Priestner has attended many of the Garden State C.O.P.S. events, like the Black & Blue Ball, because that is where she has found a second family.
“We all have that one thing in common,” Priestner related. “I meet a lot of people coming in that have lost their sibling. And it’s rewarding, being there to help other people.”
While still feeling the void left behind, Priestner seems to cling to the essence of what Garden State C.O.P.S. is, and she welcomed a night like this to honor her brother.
“It’s emotional support,” Priestner explained. “It’s remembering our loved ones and honoring them with other people. And you live like [they] would want you to live.”
When Mary DiNardo’s husband, Jersey City Police Department Detective Marc DiNardo, was killed in the line of duty in 2009, she remembers thinking she would never smile again.
But at Garden State C.O.P.S., she found a deep sense of comfort that slowly brought back her smile.
“When I’m here with other widows and other survivors, I smile, because you do get to the point where you can smile,” DiNardo remarked. “Some of the new survivors, they don’t feel like that. I love the fact that we can comfort them and let them know it’s going to be OK.”
Every year on May 12, Christine Miller travels to Washington, D.C., for National Police Week. Beside her at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial is her granddaughter, Adria. She watches as Adria places a handwritten letter at the wall for her father, who was killed in the line of duty in 2005.
And accompanying them is Preslar. They’ve never missed a year.
“They were there from the beginning, and they helped us get through it,” Miller related. “You don’t want to join this family, but you’re grateful they’re there when you need them.”
Moving from table to table at the ball, Preslar greeted survivors from New Jersey, New York and other states. Among them was the family of Hudson County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Correctional Officer Bernard Waddell, who was lost in the line of duty to COVID in April 2020.
Preslar remembered when she first met them. After they left that C.O.P.S. meeting, Preslar saw a certain look in their eyes. They were different people. And since then, they have embraced Garden State C.O.P.S. That is what Garden State C.O.P.S. is all about.
“It’s where strangers become friends and friends become family,” Preslar added. “It’s just an acceptance and an understanding that you’re never going to get anywhere else. It’s a truly amazing organization, and when you come to an event like this, it shows you that we are a blue family and that we are all here for each other.”