Above and Beyond Compare
Sean Peek was that guy, the law enforcement officer everybody wanted to be
Fresh out of the academy, Jen Skala knew enough to follow her partner’s lead. Bridgeton Officer Sean Peek was that guy who led by example, and so when they came up on a burning building, he didn’t wait for the fire department to respond.
Somebody might have been trapped inside. Mixed calls had gone out. So Peek couldn’t be sure.
“I told him to wait, but he’s like, ‘I got to go in,’” Skala described. “It was very smokey in there. But he never hesitated. That’s just the kind of cop he was, the kind of guy he was.”
During the 43 years he knew Sean, John Grier never saw Sean hesitate when there was a call for help. They grew up together in Millville, and their love of Star Wars and playing Halo matriculated to law enforcing together in Bridgeton. One day on the job, they responded to apartment building on fire and a lady screaming that her dog was inside.
“Sean went inside, found the dog and returned it to her,” Grier recalled.
He was that kind of guy, that kind of cop.
When assigned to the Bridgeton detective bureau, Vince Cappoli joined Sean working a case of a bomb threat at the municipal court that was called in. They tracked down the phone the call came from.
“Sean wanted the phone swabbed for DNA,” Cappoli explained. “Keep in mind, this is a public payphone. But that’s the kind of guy he was. If there was a chance in a million, if he had the chance to do something like that or save somebody, he was going to do it. He would always go above and beyond.”
Bridgeton Officer and Local 94 member Sean C. Peek went above and beyond in the early morning hours of Sept. 6 when dispatched to a report of someone striking an ambulance with an object. At approximately 1:30 a.m., he observed a woman presumed to be the suspect flee and fall or jump into the Cohansey River. He followed her in attempted to pull the woman from the running waters.
Later that morning, after being taken to Inspira Health Center in Bridgeton for evaluation, Sean Peek was found unresponsive at his home. His end of watch came at 49 years old, a life blessed by his endless love for wife Megan, a pearl in daughter Kate, a persona all his own that touched so many lives, loyalty that endeared him to everybody he met and a dedication to service that made Peek that guy.
“Sean was somebody who gave it his all. When he put that uniform on, he was very proud to be a police officer,” Bridgeton Chief Michael Gaimari praised while gathering with his ranks before the memorial service on Sept. 11. Yes, 9/11, and Gaimari went on about how Peek exemplified the greatness of law enforcement seen that day, something Sean exhibited every day.
“I think he set a standard that’s admired by the officers who worked with him,” the chief continued. “I think he set the bar very high for these guys.”
He was the cop people need to see
When arriving at the scene of the incident, Peek saw the suspect running into a wooded area. And even amid the pitch darkness, he managed to follow her down to the river.
He wasn’t the best swimmer. And even the best swimmer would have had to go way above and beyond to battle the currents in full gear and pull a suspect from the water.
“He wouldn’t hesitate. He wants to be the first one to help somebody,” Gaimari confirmed. “He didn’t think twice about whether he could swim. He would have went in there to do whatever he could, sacrifice to help that person, even though that person was somebody that would eventually be arrested.”
The woman made it across the river, so Sean pulled himself back to shore. Apparently, he struggled to make it back, most likely weighed down by the gear. Even the best swimmer would have been strained, so he was released from the hospital and sent home.
Isn’t this the image of policing that should be going viral? Doesn’t an officer risking his own life to go into the river to save a suspect truly define law enforcement?
When considering how officers are being cast these days, Gaimari noted how he never had to worry about Sean’s demeanor. He treated everybody with respect they deserved and sometimes even when they didn’t deserve respect.
“He was the cop people need to see,” Skala added. “He was a cop we need to put out there to show people that we care for everybody, and we want to make sure everybody goes home. Both us and civilians.”
Local 94 member Ron Broomall admired the conviction that led Sean into that water on Sept. 6. That conviction sometimes caused them to butt heads when debating department issues.
But they found common ground over their belief that the oath of office means serving and protecting and ensuring the public’s trust. That’s what prompted Sean to go into the river without hesitation.
“It wasn’t the fact that he did it because of his job. He did it because it was in his heart,” Broomall reasoned. “All the values of how he thought about serving and protecting went into him teaching the younger officers the correct way.”
He wouldn’t let you fail
Sean would have admired the way officers from throughout Cumberland County and even the entire state formed rows outside the funeral home, standing at attention and listening to the memorial service. This was an illustrious and fitting way to honor an officer who earned five unit citation medals and a Purple Heart during his 15 years with Bridgeton.
Had protocol not prevented it, the assembly of officers would have sent up an ovation when the chief presented a medal of valor to Kate for her father’s actions on that fateful morning. Sean’s desire to serve – inspired, his sister said, by growing up near an intersection in Millville where a lot of crashes occurred and watching the first responders come to the rescue – was relentless.
If seeing Kate with that medal of honor was not tear-perking, then irony lurking cut right to the emotion of this day. On Sept. 11, 2001 Sean Peek, an EMT with the Millville Rescue Squad, beelined to the World Trade Center site to help with the rescue and recovery.
Grier reinforced that Sean volunteered for this detail as a manifestation of his purpose for a life devoted to public safety. Why he began his career by setting up makeshift police departments in his basement as a kid.
“He just wanted to be there to help,” Grier added about Sean’s 9/11 presence, though these words define just about everything he did as public safety servant.
During his tenure with Bridgeton, Sean worked every assignment from homicides to sexual assaults to IA. Gaimari called him a “filler,” somebody he could shift into any assignment.
“He learned the job and he would always give you a 100-perecent effort and do the department and the city proud,” the chief proclaimed.
Gaimari presented the eulogy for the department, and, in his remarks, he described how Sean was a great communicator, leader and role model who was always respectful and squared away.
“I don’t know what more you can ask of a police office and family member,” Gaimari submitted, his voice breaking in apparent succumb to the loss.
Sean’s family extended to every corner of the department. Lieutenant Jim Filippello recalls the young detective coming to work for him in IA. Sean had a knack for this too, a way of putting fellow members at ease while enduring the most unpleasant part of the job.
“He cared about everybody,” Filippello disclosed. “He was extraordinarily fair. I valued his opinion and I knew I could always trust him.”
Are there higher words of praise on the job?
Actually, for Sean, there were. Skala shared how Sean taught her to have patience, how to talk to citizens and to never judge a book by its cover.
His impact on her made Skala follow him into that burning building. She would have followed him anywhere. Sean’s guidance and his leadership were infectious on Local 94 members.
“He groomed a lot of the younger officers because he was the FTO and told them the old-school ways of policing, how your uniform should look and how you do police work,” Local 94 State Delegate Joe Crokus admired. “He would show you the correct way. We were all close to Peek because Peek was one of those guys who wouldn’t let you fail at what you were doing.”
He always looked at the brighter side
Sean radiated in a manner that made him memorable, even larger than life sometimes. He would sometimes show up for his court appearances wearing a top hat and winged-tip shoes. Local 94 President Nick Rehrwig noted how Sean was always there with a smile on his face, doing something “just to make your day a little bit better.”
For Megan, he was the bright light always shining. To Kate, he was larger than life. His off-hours were devoted to her, playing everything from badminton to baby dolls. Gaimari recalled how he would find Sean during breaks out back of headquarters, and he would always ask about Gaimari’s son.
“But I don’t think he was even listening,” the chief revealed. “It was just a segue to start talking about Kate.”
Sean spent some of his off hours jamming. He was a drummer who started dabbling with playing guitar. Cappoli was his guitar mentor, and they relished the time covering some classic rock together. Sean love the Beatles but was also a big Nirvana fan.
They often closed their set with some Led Zeppelin, though no “Stairway.” “The Ocean” was their go-to Zeppelin, a song that captured the bright side of Sean.
Singing in the sunshine, laughing in the rain…
Play for free, I play for me and play a whole lot more, more…
Singing about the good things and the sun that lights the day…
Skala observed how Sean could light it up with his laugh. She remembers hearing that contagious laugh on her first day in Bridgeton when he found she forgot her lunch money. He sprung, of course.
“I can hear it now,” Skala boasted shortly before the memorial service began. “It will stick with you forever.”
The gang from the Millville Rescue Squad knew that laugh. They heard it when he would come down on Friday and Saturday nights to play cards, even if he wasn’t on call.
Sean was a groomsman for nearly everybody on the squad. Rob Smith was one of those who had Sean in his wedding, describing their connection as, “I knew him when he had hair.”
Smith recalled how he and Sean would turn everything into a competition, even seeing who could get in an IV faster. He emphasized how Sean was a hugger and ball-buster.
“But you could call him in the middle of the night, and he’d be there with bail money,” Smith hyperbolized. “He was always upbeat and always looked at the brighter side of everything. If you needed a shoulder to cry on, if you needed advice or just an ear to listen, he was every one of them.”
He was that guy.