By Charlie Reed
There’s been an outpouring of support for Sgt. Sam Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter since the two officers were killed in the line of duty near downtown Kissimmee on Aug. 18.
Shock and heartbreak followed in the aftermath of their deaths. But Osceola County residents and law enforcement agencies from around Central Florida have rallied around the families of the fallen officers, including their brothers and sisters at the Kissimmee Police Department.
When cops are killed on the job, the dangers they confront daily come into sharp relief for the general public. Law enforcement officers risk their lives to protect ours, and when the worst happens — as it did in August — the whole community grieves.
Sgt. Howard and Officer Baxter were both husbands, both fathers, both diligent officers of the law. They were killed on patrol together less than two miles from KPD headquarters in downtown Kissimmee. The area has become a gathering point for memorials and fundraisers that have drawn thousands of mourners.
Tributes began immediately following coverage of the shootings on local news. Baxter, 27, died on the scene that Friday night. Howard, 36, died in the hospital early the next morning.
By then, the flag at KPD was flying at half-staff and a makeshift memorial had been erected outside police headquarters and adorned with candles, flowers, cards and other offerings.
Within 24 hours, “Back the Blue” signs adorned homes, businesses, and cars across Osceola County. A narrow blue line across a black background has come to symbolize support for fallen police officers, as well as those who serve on the force.
You didn’t have to know Howard and Baxter to feel the pain of their loss. The grief was almost palpable. Several fundraising events for the officers’ grieving families were organized by downtown business owners, city employees, and concerned citizens. They quickly helped bring the community together for a good cause and to show solidarity for the fallen officers.
On the night before their funeral, Osceola Woman teamed up with Breeze Whiskey Lounge and other local businesses for a special “Back the Blue” night market. The parking lot at Breeze and Makinson’s Hardware bustled vendors and shoppers who spilled out onto East Dakin Street.
The raffle at Breeze raised more than $1,000 in just a few hours thanks to donations from business owners in Kissimmee, St. Cloud and throughout the county. Meanwhile, vendors sold everything from local jam and barbecue to art and jewelry, with all proceeds going to a special fund set up by the city of Kissimmee for the officers’ families.
Kissimmee Main Street sold T-shirts with a special hashtag: DTK4KPD, short for Downtown Kissimmee for Kissimmee Police Department.
Some vendors were focused on moral support, like our publisher Jena Threadgill. She gave attendees the chance to express their condolences by writing notes on paper police badges. Jeremy Lanier, from Lanier’s Historic Downtown Marketplace, set up a memorial rock painting station with help from “Osceola Rocks.”
The event was somber but inspired, leaving most who attended — which included dozens of off-duty law enforcement officers and their families — with a sense of hope.
The next day, when Howard and Baxter were memorialized by KPD, deputies and support staff from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office took turns covering shifts at the department so KPD staff could attend the service.
Thousands more also came to the ceremony. It was an emotional event where officers performed a three-volley salute, sounded Taps and folded the flags from their coffins. Howard’s family was presented with a flag from the U.S. military in remembrance of his Army service.
The shooting and funeral garnered national news coverage and attention. Speaking at the memorial, KPD Chief Jeff O’Dell urged locals to stay involved.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to sustain the momentum and the sense of community that we’ve had,” O’Dell said.
Before the funeral ended with a prayer and bagpipe players performing “Amazing Grace,” Kissimmee Police gave the end of watch call for the officers. The police funeral ritual signifies an officer’s final radio sign-off. In this case, the last radio call was made on behalf of both fallen officers from KPD.
“10-7, Sgt. Sam Howard and Officer Matthew Baxter are out of service on this date, Thursday, Aug. 24, of 2017,” a dispatcher’s voice rang out over the church speakers. “Rest easy, gentlemen. We have the watch from here.”