There probably weren't going to be too many more official motorcycle runs for Capt. Tommy F. Bernal, head of the Fairfax County police traffic division.
With 29 years on the force, and after nearly three years as a national figure in the traffic safety community, his experience was too valuable and the top brass were considering naming him to head a district police station.
So Bernal, 51, took advantage of every opportunity to hop on his police Harley-Davidson, including a training run with fellow officers Thursday afternoon on a twisting, hilly road south of Front Royal, Va. But when another Fairfax rider skidded into oncoming traffic, a Ford Explorer swerved to avoid the rider and hit Bernal as he crested a hill, Virginia State Police said.
Bernal was fatally injured -- the second officer in the Fairfax department's 61 years to die in the line of duty, and the first since 1977. The accident devastated a police force where Bernal was widely known not only for his roll-up-the-sleeves traffic involvement but also as former head of the Reston and McLean stations and for training new officers at the police academy. He leaves a wife and three children.
"The police department has certainly lost one of its best," said Chief J. Thomas Manger, a friend of Bernal's for more than 15 years. "And the community has lost one of the finest individuals that has ever served them, because this guy dedicated himself to making Fairfax County a safer place to live."
Bernal, who was raised in Fairfax and was a 1968 graduate of Fairfax High School, began his police career at the Annandale station in 1972. Since early 1999, he had headed Fairfax's traffic division, which has won numerous awards for its innovations in combating drunken driving and promoting child car-seat safety.
"They're consistently with the best of the best highway safety departments in the country," said Robert Rowe, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "They are a leader. A lot of the programs they've developed are now copied throughout the country."
Bernal, who sat on the association's international safety committee, also was the highest-ranking officer in the country to go through the child-seat installation program, Rowe said. Even though he was a police commander, he often worked with officers at public forums, showing parents how to properly position child seats. As he told his colleague in the traffic division, Officer Bob Wall, "This is the way we make a difference and save lives."
Bernal also was unusual in participating regularly with his troops on the motorcycle squad. Most police commanders are confined to a desk. But "he rolled his sleeves up and did what we do," Wall said. "He was a heck of a nice guy and a friend to everybody."
Fairfax's motorcycle unit is also highly decorated -- it swept nearly every award at a major competition last summer. Bernal participated in that, too, trading in his white commander's shirt for a gray officer's shirt and running through the cones and barriers.
When news of the accident reached Fairfax on Thursday evening, police colleagues rushed to the hospital, as did Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D), who had worked with Bernal for years. "He always had great enthusiasm and good humor about whatever it was he was doing," she said.
Manger noted that Bernal could have retired years ago, as most experienced officers do. But he didn't. "There's a big reason for that," Manger said. "Because he was doing what he loved to do."