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Shocking train tragedy highlights the dangers police officers face

Eduardo Marmolejo (left) and Conrad Gary

Chicago Police Officer Eduardo Marmolejo, left, and Conrad Gary were hit by a train and killed.| Chicago Police photos

Every Chicago police officer understands the risk of putting on the blue uniform.

Yet despite the dangers they face and the criticism that is often heaped upon them for doing their jobs, Chicago police hit the streets prepared to take that risk.

The tragic deaths of Officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo are another cruel reminder that Chicago police officers are more than men in blue with guns.

They are husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, neighbors and friends.

The two officers, both in their 30s, were fatally struck by a train Monday night while searching for a person armed with a gun.

Police speculate that the officers were about 15 yards away from each other when they were struck from behind.

These police officers were responding to a ShotSpotter alert about gunshots fired, and someone running on the railroad tracks south from 101st  Street and Dauphin Avenue.

Police officials speculate that a northbound train drowned out the sound of the approaching southbound train, catching the officers unaware.

When the news alert popped up on my cell phone, I was stunned.

I know policing is dangerous work, especially at a time when there are so many illegal guns on the street, but the horror of two police officers getting killed at once seemed surreal.

Both men were fathers with young families.

Gary, 31, left behind an infant daughter. Marmolejo, 36, was the father of three girls.

These untimely deaths are especially painful, coming at a time when the city is in the midst of the Christmas season.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel fought hard to control his emotions when he spoke to reporters several hours after the deadly accident.

“There they were responding to ShotSpotter, doing their job, trying to protect the rest of us … This holiday will never be the same for those two families,” he said.

Despite all the divisiveness the city has gone through over policing, the outpouring of grief over these deaths is tangible.

Dozens of police officers, some still in uniform, showed up in the area where the accident occurred.

Local news stations carried continuous but respectful coverage of the devastating tragedy.

In a humbling sign of respect, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and First Deputy Supt. Anthony Riccio helped remove the officers’ remains from the tracks.

Two other Chicago police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2018, making this one of the worst years for the department.

Officer Samuel Jimenez was killed in the Mercy Hospital shooting days before Thanksgiving. That domestic violence shooting also took the lives of Dr. Tamara O’Neal and pharmacy resident Dayna Less. The gunman, Juan Lopez, was also killed.

And Cmdr. Paul Bauer was fatally shot outside the Thompson Center earlier this year.

We’ve heard a lot about police officers being so demoralized that some of them are standing down. But these tragic incidents are reminders that everyday police officers are on the streets trying to make Chicago a safer city.

And while I have criticized the police department for actions that I considered unjust, the turn of events that led to these young police officers losing their lives touched me deeply.

These officers could have made a different choice that night.

They could have ignored the ShotSpotter alert. They could have waited until the alleged suspect came down from the train tracks to pick up the chase.

But instead of standing down, they rushed into danger like firemen running into a burning building, risking their own safety to do the job they were sworn to do.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, a railroad veteran suggested that police “consider calling off future foot pursuits when they involve rail property.”

Obviously, the Chicago Police Department will have to review its policies on foot pursuits to ensure that police officers are not putting themselves in unnecessary danger.

But now is the time for the entire city to wrap their arms around these grieving families.

Friends and strangers have stepped up by contributing to separate GoFundMe campaigns that have been set up for the officers’ families.

In just one day, those campaigns raised a combined $81,042.

Tragedies involving police have divided this city in the recent past.

It is my prayer that this devastating tragedy will help more of us to realize that we are all in this together.

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