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Champaign Deputy Police Chief Nate Rath speaks at a news conference in October following the shooting death of Jonathon McPhearson. (Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette).

Want to weigh in? Submit a Letter to the Editor | To share your story: Email jdalessio@news-gazette.com


More from our series: Community Conversation Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


Open records reports: Homicides in similar-sized cities | Gun seizures statewide


Guest commentaries: Ronnie Turner-Winston | Debarah McFarland | Shirese Hursey | County coroners Duane Northrup, Jane McFadden


Dogs barking. An expired license plate. A domestic disturbance. A stranded motorist. A stolen vehicle.

Those were the five calls Illinois law enforcement officers responded to in 2021 and never returned home from.

"Each of these tragedies could easily have happened to any one of us," Danville police Lt. Kyle O’Brien tells Editor Jeff D’Alessio in Part 7 of our continuing Community Conversation on gun violence.

Below, outgoing Champaign Deputy Police Chief NATE RATH tackles an aspect of the gun violence epidemic that often isn’t discussed until tragedy strikes.

'The prevalence of illegal firearms in the possession of people who by law cannot possess them is at a critically high level'

By NATE RATH

When we hear about any police officer being killed in the line of duty, it is gut-wrenching for all police officers. It reminds us that the job we do is extremely dangerous. It reinforces our fear that we will have contact with people who want to harm or kill us just because of the job we do, or to escape being caught or captured for crimes they have committed.

There is such a thing as law enforcement family — and it knows no boundaries, county lines or state lines. We ache for those who lose their lives and their families who are left behind. But for their noble, courageous choice in career, those individuals would be alive and with their families. Though they knew the dangers, it doesn’t make the pain any easier to deal with.

In the academy and when I first started on the street, I was told I would start having nightmares about being in situations in which I needed to use my firearm, but it wouldn’t work, or the bullets coming out of my gun weren’t doing anything to the person attacking me, or worst of all, my partner being killed in front of me and I wasn’t able to stop it.

I thought it was ridiculous. But it was true.

Over the last 25 years, I’ve had those dreams numerous times, and they’re terrifying. I think it’s the subconscious fears combined with the really scary experiences we have that we bury trying to surface or get out of us. On top of all that, we worry about our families and not returning to them.

We stress about them not sleeping because they’re worried about our safety and if we will come home. When responding to high-stress, critical incidents in which our lives or another’s life is threatened, we don’t have the luxury of letting those fears or stress control us. So, we bury them.

One of these nightmares visited us this past year when Officer (Chris) Oberheim was viciously murdered and Officer (Jeff) Creel was seriously wounded while responding to a domestic violence call for service. As officers do every day throughout their shift, Officer Oberheim and Officer Creel were answering the call to serve, to protect the innocent, and hold accountable someone who had broken the law. Without provocation, both officers were attacked.

I’ll never forget that call from the chief in the early morning hours of May 19. It’s a call I never thought I would get. “We’ve had two officers shot. One may not make it.”

I responded to the department, like so many others did, to do what I could to help, support the officers and get answers. Time slowed down. It was surreal. I was angry. I was sad. I was frustrated. And even though I had had those nightmares and thought about the worst scenarios possible, I was not prepared for the reality of it.

What I really could not comprehend were the emotions of the officers who responded to the officer-down radio traffic and observed the scene and the injuries. Most of all, I couldn’t wrap my head around what both officers’ families were going through.

I thought of my wife, my children, my parents and prayed that they and no other family would have to go through this. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case. There will be more shattered lives and families when officers are attacked and murdered. I asked myself why I or anyone else would continue to do this job. I’m still searching for that answer.

The emotions that day, and all the days following May 19, have been raw and often very difficult to deal with. The strength exhibited by both officers’ families was inspiring and mind-boggling. They suffered the most unimaginable loss.

Our department family suffered as well. We wanted answers. We wanted justice. And we wanted people outside of the law enforcement family to better understand the stress, danger, anxiety and fear we officers and our families experience.

We wanted people to know we’re not perfect — we’re human. But we signed up for this job to do what we can to help people, fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and fight against those who want to harm and victimize others.

The women and men in law enforcement don’t do their jobs for gratitude or public praise. They do it because they are a special breed. A group of people who realize there is evil in the world, and they want a part in eradicating it. They want to run toward the gunfire and disasters to save people and help any way they can when others are running away.

I’ve been a police officer for 25 years, and the sentiment toward officers by those involved in crime has never been worse or more evil. Some sections of public sentiment are equally as troubling toward law enforcement. Criminals seem to care even less for others than they have in the past and hold the rule of law and those who uphold the law in especially low esteem.

The prevalence of illegal firearms in the possession of people who by law cannot possess them is at a critically high level. Criminals are illegally carrying guns to hunt people down to settle disagreements, and others are illegally carrying guns to protect themselves should they be attacked. Social order and civility have eroded to a point that gun violence is occurring anywhere at any time.

Officer Oberheim and Officer Creel are heroes. We need to publicly honor their service, memory and support their families without hesitation. Unless you’re answering the radio calls, you cannot understand the emotions, stress and courage required to do this job. Words cannot express the sorrow I and every other officer feels when a fellow officer is killed in the line of duty, regardless of the location or department.

My intention is not to speak for other law enforcement officers, but to speak from my experiences over the last 25 years. I speak broadly of the profession and those wonderful women and men who unselfishly choose to serve others.

I retire in a few weeks, and I will miss my law enforcement family. I have the utmost respect for every one of you. While underappreciated and often second-guessed, you show up day after day to put your lives on the line and better this world.

Keep your chin up, take care of your law enforcement family and your family at home. You are warriors and servants who deserve support, praise and thanks.

You have mine.

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