Riding High

The Police Unity Tour rolls again with an emotional day of honor, respect and remembrance

Stories by Mitchell Krugel and Rosemary An, Photos by Jim Connolly and Rosemary An

The dawning of a monumental day reflected off Maplewood Local 44 members Selina Perez and Diana Gil. Clad in Police Unity Tour blue and white from head to knee, these first-time riders actually seemed to glow under a brilliant sky in front of the New York City skyline standing guard.

With some six hours and more than 50 miles of a one-day, sacred Police Unity Tour revival ride ahead, they mustered among 100 others at J Owen Grundy Park on the morning of May 11, ready to experience a taste of how this phenomenon brings the honor, respect and remembrance unlike any other event. The sea of blue massed again, and the blue line of bicycles stretched from Jersey City to the Hudson County Correctional & Rehabilitation Facility to Newark to Elizabeth to a crescendo in Fords where NJSPBA President Pat Colligan read the names of New Jersey’s fallen officers.

This Unity Tour mini-tour provided a virtual road back to so many virtues of law enforcement normalcy. Although National Police Week events have been delayed until October, the profession still celebrated National Police Week the second week of May.

And the Unity Tour once again assumed its position as the event that kicks off National Police Week, perhaps the greatest affirmation of being on the road back. The one-day ride was also an illustrious way to perpetuate this 25th anniversary year of the Police Unity Tour and affirm its ongoing mission.

“We’re able to come together and unite as police officers, first responders and all those who rescue people and continue to do so with honor and dignity and respect,” Unity Tour Founder Pat Montuore reiterated as the mission statement while feeling the excitement of riders once again getting ready to roll. “And then it’s the Police Unity Tour’s job to come in and make sure we remember that, we remember those heroes, we remember our fallen police officers.”

The road back inspired a feeling that law enforcement officers have missed and need so much these days. They have all heard that the Unity Tour features such, well, unity.

In addition to the opportunity to honor and remember, that’s a big part of the attraction.  Especially for first-timers like Local 44’s Perez and Gil, who wanted to feel some of that unity as they get ready for the October run.

“I think this is going to be a way of showing respect,” Gil observed. “And just having a good mass of people out there riding in blue, showing people know that here we are, and this is a good group, a good organization.”

That there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on this day. And the sun providing an appropriate spotlight rekindled what the Unity Tour celebrates: never forgetting who they are riding for.

“They’re shining down on us right now and looking out of us,” recognized Somerville Local 147 State Delegate Vito Spadea, a perennial participant on the Tour who did not want to miss this run. “They’re making sure that we ride safely and know that we are remembering them.”

With the pandemic derailing the ride in 2020, the chance to get back on the road made this a reunion Tour to be sure. Even if it was just for one day, Eastern Bergen County Local 45 member Mark Lewis, an Edgewater officer, enjoyed what he has in each of his 10 years riding.

“The anticipation of getting there just keeps you going,” Lewis shared. “Just to see the emotional climax at the end and all of the families of the fallen officers. Acknowledging all the people and letting them know we are here for them.”

If it was a day to recall the virtue of the Tour, it was also cause for Montuore to reminisce. The early-morning glow brought him back to 25 years ago, when he was one of 18 officers sitting on a bicycle.

He had a map from AAA charting the course from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., but not much more of a blueprint. Back then, there was no reason to think that 25 years later there would be 2,500 riders raising millions of dollars to build up and maintain the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

“I was scared back then not knowing what to say or think and whether they were going to believe and trust we were going to get there,” Montuore confided. “It took a lot of heart, real enthusiasm and tenacity.”

Those watchwords filled the ceremony at J Owen Grundy Park when dignitaries, including Jersey City Mayor Steve Fullop, elected officials, law enforcement leaders and family members of fallen officers offered messages of support, appreciation and praise to riders and, really, every member of the profession. This was profound evidence of how the ride serves as an example and reminder of the sacrifices officers make every day when they put on the uniform.

Among all the speakers, one voice resonated above and beyond. When her father, Jersey City Detective Mark DiNardo was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2010, Gwen DiNardo was four years old. Now 15, Gwen has become a renowned public speaker and advocate for family members of fallen officers.

When she stepped up to the podium, Gwen brought a tear to everybody’s eyes by recounting how her father went to National Police Week in 2009 and saw the Unity Tour come into the Memorial. She noted how he came back and immediately started preparing to make the ride in 2010 before the bullet from a criminal who had been let out of prison early took his life.

As Gwen announced that she plans to ride the Tour in three years, she extended some words of inspiration that made the day.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t wish he was here, seeing him take off with all of you and meeting him there at the memorial,” Gwen expressed. “So I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of the Police Unity Tour riders and their support teams for raising money to maintain the Memorial.”

It’s moments like these, or when the Unity Tour arrives at the Memorial, that, as Executive Director Harry Phillips describes, are why riders wear sunglasses.

“If you don’t feel something when you are riding – and riding into the Memorial – then you are stealing a spot from somebody else who wants to ride,” Phillips declared.

Another one of these moments came when the daylong ride finished at Royal Albert’s Palace in Fords. A cathedral of its own, the Palace presented a welcoming feast for riders. Owner Albert Jasani has donated $15,000 a year to support the Tour the past several years, and he has specified in his will to keep those contributions going even after he passes.

The final tribute, of course, came when Colligan read the names of the New Jersey officers lost in the line of duty in 2020. That list included the 14 PBA members who succumbed to COVID last year.

As the 100 or so riders stood in silence, it was a solemn moment. But not a sad one. It accentuated that the road back is filled with honor, dignity, respect and remembrance.

Montuore then ended this Tour with some of his vintage words.

“We ride together because we give a damn,” he reminded. “And we keep moving forward the best way we can because the greatest police group in the world is the Police Unity Tour.”

‘His name lives on’

Bernard Waddell Jr., left, a Union City Local 73 member, stands alongside his mother, Sheilah Waddell, and brother Jonathan Waddell as the Unity Tour honors fallen Union County Corrections Officer Local 109 member Bernard Waddell Sr.

Bernard Waddell Jr. walked out to the middle of the parking lot in front of the Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center and asked Unity Tour riders to give him a minute. In a booming voice, he told his sisters and brothers how much it helped his family to have them riding to remember his father, Bernard Waddell, a Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 member who became the first New Jersey officer to be lost to COVID-19 on April 1, 2020.

In this two-minute emotional rescue, the healing power of the Unity Tour was once again in full force. Waddell Jr., a Union County Police Department officer and Local 73 member, confirmed that the Tour stopping here cast a welcomed ray of light on him, his mother, Sheilah Waddell, who sat beside a Unity Tour wreath honoring her husband, and his brother Jonathan, who held up a picture of Bernard Sr. as riders stood to honor him.

“To be quite honest with you, the day means a lot to us because his name lives on,” Bernard Jr. shared as he choked up for a moment and fought back a tear. “He’s not forgotten. And that he has other brothers and sisters and he’s riding along with them in spirit, it is a very uplifting moment.”

Bernard Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps by starting his career working in state corrections. He then moved to the Plainsboro Police Department before coming on with Union County five years ago. He wears a chain with his father’s badge number, 438, to always honor the man who named him Bernard Jr. apparently to anoint him to carry on the legacy.

“It all started when I was a kid,” Bernard Jr. explained. “I used to wake up in the early mornings just to watch my father put on his uniform. Since then, he has always told me that he named me Bernard Jr. because I was the image of him. So I always wanted to follow his footsteps.”

The Unity Tour makes its first stop at Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center for the ceremony to honor Bernard Waddell Sr.

As the Tour rolled out of the Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center, Bernard Jr. had newfound perspective on just how much of a sacrifice his father made with his unconditional devotion to law enforcement. It was that devotion that compelled Bernard Sr. to keep going above and beyond even when COVID-19 was ravaging the jail in April 2020.

“Each day, when I put on this uniform, I think of him,” he added. “And it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to have a father that was a hero, that is a hero. A father that I looked up to as a mentor. And that he set us to the right path.”

‘We let them know that we’re here for them’

The eight members of Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 who rode the Unity Tour in honor of fallen brothers Bernard Waddell Sr. and Zeb Craig.

An hour before the Unity Tour set out from J Owen Grundy Park, members of Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 stood ready to roll. Electricity radiated from this eight-member team as if they had been waiting more than a year to ride for brothers they cried for.

A year ago to the date, Local 109 mourned the passing of Corrections Officer Corporal Zeb Craig, who was lost to COVID. That came three weeks after Corporal Bernard Waddell Sr. was the first law enforcement officer in New Jersey to fall to the deadly virus.

“They will be riding with us,” proclaimed Hudson County Director of Corrections Ron Edwards, who was making his 10th Unity Tour this year. “They were awesome individuals, so this is very memorable for us.”

The Tour made its first stop at Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center, where Edwards led a ceremony to honor Waddell and Craig. More than two dozen corrections officers stood at attention outside the front doors to offer a lasting tribute to their two brothers.

To extend the tribute, Local 109 took inspiration from the Unity Tour custom of riders wearing bracelets with names of officers who have been lost in the line of duty. This is the expression of the Tour mantra, “They ride for those who died.”

Local 109 member Charles Borngasser designed special bracelets for Hudson County Corrections officers to wear this year. They are adorned with a thin blue line woven into the fabric of the bracelet and communicate the feeling of why they ride.

Local 109 members wore specially designed bracelets that officer Charles Borngasser made.

“It’s the unity, bringing everybody together, riding for people who lost their lives and a sense of we’re not in this alone,” Local 109 member Stephen Gomes explained. “We have a brotherhood, we have a family and it unites us all altogether. We let them know that we’re here for them, we’ve been here for them and will continue to be there.”

Gomes has ridden the Tour several times and he knows how powerful this feeling is. But even before Local 109 member Brian Williams made his first Tour on this day, he could feel that unity.

Waddell was one of the officers who trained Williams, and he also remembered how Craig being a U.S. Marine made a special impression on his career,

“There are just so many things they did, too much to talk about,” Williams added. “Bernard was an older guy with a lot of wisdom. He let you know you’re going to have a long career so take it slow.”

When Edwards spoke at the corrections facility, he had to overcome a little choking up to get out words that seem to motivate every rider on every mile of every Tour.

“That I’m given the privilege to keep memories of those individuals that lost their lives and gave it up to protect others,” he explained. “And so that their families know that they weren’t just in a job, that they were in a brotherhood. And that it goes beyond just putting on a uniform.”

‘He’s going to be there with me’

From left, Melissa Huizenga, Mark Loveland and Danielle Walker get ready to ride in the Unity Tour in honor of fallen Bloomingdale Local 354 member Gary Walker.

Two best friends at J. Owen Grundy Park in Jersey City were getting ready for a four-hour bike ride amid the sea of officers in Police Unity Tour gear.

Danielle Walker and her good friend, retired Kinnelon Local 341 member Melissa Huizenga, were about to participate in the Unity Tour for the first time with one officer in mind: Gary Walker.

Gary, who was Danielle’s husband, worked with Huizenga, and their families naturally became close throughout the years. Their daughters are best friends, and the families vacation together. He served Bloomingdale PD for 20 years before succumbing to COVID on April 24, 2020.

“We miss him,” Danielle said. “There’s not an emptiness in the house, because I keep him so present in our life. He’s going to be there with me today.”

The best friends were about to ride throughout New Jersey shortly after the first anniversary of Gary’s death, bringing his spirit along for the journey. Danielle even bought a Peloton to train for the tour.

“[Gary] was fun,” Huizenga said before the ride. “He’d better push us along and get us to the end.”

Danielle Walker and Mark Loveland make their way to the first stop at Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center.

Joining the two riders was member Local 341 Mark Loveland, who worked the same shift with Gary.

“This is my 10th year riding,” Loveland said, “because there’s nothing like it. It’s the most heartfelt thing that I’ve ever done in my career.”

And just like that, the riders were off. Once they completed the ride at Royal Albert’s Palace in Woodbridge, Danielle was met with cheers from her daughter, two nephews and sister-in-law.

“It was a great experience, and there was a lot of support out there,” Danielle noted. “People were honking their horns, standing out on their porches to wave and some people even had megaphones, saying, ‘We love you.’ And one lady even started singing God Bless America on the corner as we all passed by.”

Danielle and Huizenga felt charged for the Police Unity Tour in October to Washington, D.C.

“I can’t wait for October and I’m so proud of my husband,” Danielle said. “I’m so honored to ride. I’m sure [Gary] was bouncing back between me and my daughter [today].”

‘Hope to make it a tradition’

Little Falls Local 346 member John Cespedes rode this daylong tour by himself, but he never felt alone.

As he looked around the mass of riders leaving from Jersey City, he did not see many from Passaic County. There was a contingent from Bloomingdale Boro Local 354, but Cespedes was proud to step up and represent.

“Being from Little Falls, I’ve been accepted by so many people that I’ve never even met,” he reported. “We’re all bonded by the same thing and it’s a good thing to see.”

This was his first Unity Tour ride, and a prep for doing the four-day run to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. in October. He had previously seen some of the passion and inspiration of the Tour through a Facebook group and decided to get on board this year.

“Someone told me, ‘Listen, before you retire from this career, you’ve just got to do it at least once,” Cespedes explained. “Here we are, and we hope to make it a tradition every year.”

His first run could not have been any more inspirational. When Cespedes heard the bagpipes play at the opening ceremony and then experienced the camaraderie of riding all day next to sisters and brothers, he was hooked.

“It’s amazing with everything that’s going on, it shows the good that we do day in, day out,” he added. “You always hear the word brotherhood and sisterhood and things like that. But when you come to these events, you really see first-hand experience what these are really about.”

‘A way of showing respect’

Maplewood Local 44 members Selina Perez and Diana Gil heard about the Unity Tour, but their chance to ride finally came on May 11.

The members, who were preparing for the ride outside of J. Owen Grundy Park in Jersey City, looked forward to biking with their colleagues in honor of fallen officers in the line of duty.

“It’s a great experience for us to honor those that have been there before us and took the ultimate loss,” explained Perez, who has been on the job in Maplewood for nearly four years. “And being in this profession, it could be you any day, you know? So it’s great being here and honoring them.”

Perez and Gil wanted to participate in the bike ride to get a taste of the Unity Tour in October, when officers will head from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. in a four-day, 300-mile journey.

The members are not competitive bikers, so they had to train to prepare for the ride. But throughout the training and during the ride, they would keep in mind the reason for it all.

“I think this is going to be a way of showing respect and just having a good mass of people out there riding in blue,” said Gil, who has been with Maplewood for five years. “Showing people that here we are, this is a good group and a good organization.”

As the park filled with officers in Police Unity Tour shirts, the members felt the exhilaration in the air. In fact, the energy of their colleagues amped up the members’ determination to ride in October and continue the tour for many years to come.

“That’s why I’m excited about it,” Gil said. “With everything that’s going on, here we are with a good group of people that support each other. And it gives you that good feeling again.”

‘It’s very touching and emotional’

Harding Township Local 340 member Nick DeMaio, who joined the department a year and a half ago, remembered telling Chief Erik Heller that he likes to ride bikes.

Heller, being the vice president of the Unity Tour, recommended DeMaio to the 300-mile journey from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., taking place in October.

So DeMaio started training for the long journey and decided to participate in New Jersey’s Police Unity Tour on May 11, stretching from Jersey City to Woodbridge. It was his first Unity Tour bike ride.

“It was fun, and I was prepared for it,” DeMaio said. “Hill are hills, they are what they are, but overall it was really well organized and I felt safe doing it. If this was a snippet of [the ride in October], I can’t wait.”

The member recounted the four-hour ride and the praise he heard from people along the way.

“It’s very touching and emotional,” DeMaio said. “Even just going through towns with the bagpipes or people cheering you on, just random people, it keeps you going through the whole thing.”

The first-time rider is now eager to ride with his colleagues to D.C. in October. He anticipates seeing not a dry eye when he pulls into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

“It helps everybody understand what we go through and what everybody means to each other,” DeMaio explained. “Reminding everybody that all those fallen officers will never be forgotten. We’re one big blue family. It’s kind of corny, but everybody supports each other, and everybody’s got each other’s back.”

Next stop: Elizabeth Local 4

Elizabeth Local 4 members set up a table with bananas, apples, oranges and bottles of water under a tent outside the department.

For the first time ever, Unity Tour riders and their families were making a stop at the Local to replenish their fluids and grab snacks before making the final stretch to Royal Albert’s Palace in Woodbridge. They started their journey in Jersey City and stopped at the Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center, as well as in Newark.

“Our chief reached out to [Unity Tour] and asked them, ‘You guys have always ridden through our town, why not come over and see our monument,’” explained Orlando Barros, who has been president of the Local for five years. “We were all for it. So when the chief reached out to me and asked if we can get some fruits and waters, I said ‘Absolutely.’”

Barros remembered his own Unity Tour ride back in 2017, making the trek from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. in honor of New York City Officer Santiago, who was killed in the line of duty. The officer may not have been from New Jersey, but the world of law enforcement knows no state lines.

“We all consider ourselves family,” Barros said. “And we take on their family. It definitely means something — I dedicated that ride on his behalf.”

Barros believes that the 300-mile, four-day ride to Washington, D.C. is a small sacrifice compared to that of the officers killed in the line of duty.

“[Officers] wake up every day, not knowing if they’re going to come back,” Barros said. “So we’re getting on the bike sacrificing a little bit of pain, but we do it as a sacrifice for one of our own that put their life on the line for us.”