Prince George's Police Cpl. Kenny Bragg deals with death regularly. Working in the traffic unit, he is one of the officers who knock on doors and tell family members the worst news of their lives.
But yesterday, an emotional Bragg stood outside Riverdale Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, several yards away from the funeral of his friend, Sgt. Steven F. Gaughan. He couldn't bring himself to join the thousands of mourners inside.
"This is different," said Bragg, who was shot at on the street three weeks ago in Cheverly. "This is personal."
Gaughan, 41, was killed Tuesday morning while chasing a suspect on foot after a traffic stop near Laurel. He was the seventh county officer shot at in Prince George's this year and the first killed by bullets in the line of duty in at least 10 years.
"It was a traffic stop," Bragg said. "What police officer hasn't done a traffic stop?"
He looked around at the throng of police there at the church to mourn and celebrate Gaughan's life and his 15 years with Prince George's County police. Many, like Bragg, have faced bullets. They all understand the dangers of the job, he said, but things seem to be getting more violent on the street. "I don't know what's going on in this county," Bragg said.
Gaughan's police cruiser was parked nearby, a black sash tied across the hood. The man charged in his killing, Robert M. Billett, 43, of Bladensburg, is being held without bond.
Thousands of officers in crisp uniforms quietly filed into the church as music from bagpipes hung heavy in the air. Gaughan's tearful widow, Donna, carried their young daughter, Rachel, inside, and son Daniel stuck close to his mother. They followed Gaughan's flag-draped coffin.
As they entered the church, the officers stood and saluted with white-gloved hands.
Ushers handed out programs containing photographs of Gaughan and his family. The pictures were vivid, clearly showing his enormous smile, husky barrel chest, clean-shaven head, thick mustache and piercing blue eyes.
Police Chief Melvin C. High, who posthumously promoted Gaughan from corporal to sergeant, spoke of his outrage over the killing of an officer. He said that when criminals attack police, he personally will help "hunt them down" and make sure they are prosecuted.
In front of the crowd, High presented Gaughan's wife and mother with a memorial medal for officers killed in the line of duty. Then the chief faced the coffin, raised his hand to his forehead and declared, "I salute you, Sgt. Gaughan."
Many of the mourners spoke about Gaughan as a practical joker, the kind of person who drew elaborate caricatures of fellow officers on the walls of the department restrooms. He was the first to make the room crack up in laughter during boring police training classes. His friends spoke of his strong Boston accent, his mischievous smile and his competitive nature.
When he was playing hockey, he had to have the most penalties. When he was counting productivity, he had to have the most arrests, said his brother Michael Gaughan.
But mostly, the mourners knew his big heart. He was the one who ran the program for the homeless at Greenbelt Baptist Church; he was the first to volunteer to wrap Christmas presents for children; and he was the guest who insisted on doing the dishes after dinner at someone else's home.
When he arrested a suspect, he would have the person laughing in the back of the patrol car by the time they got to the station, his friends said.
"Never in a million years would I think this would happen to him," said Prince George's Detective Kevin Carter, who was in the same academy class as Gaughan. "If the suspect knew him, he wouldn't have done it. If he had the opportunity to talk to the suspect, he would have talked him out of it."
Carter also was shot at one afternoon in Bowie 13 years ago, when he and other officers were trying to coax an armed man out of a house. The man fired a round from his shotgun at the police, but nobody was hit.
"Anytime something happens to an officer, you think, 'It could have been me,' " Carter said. "You think about what you can do to keep yourself and your partner safe."
Another officer who was shot at about a decade ago, Cpl. James Sandacz, said he knew Gaughan as a fellow officer. Sitting in a pew at the front of the church yesterday, Sandacz felt moved by the intensity and sadness of burying a comrade. "I wish I knew him better," Sandacz said. "But it doesn't matter. We're all part of the brotherhood."
Percy Alston, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, asked everyone in the church to close their eyes and remember Gaughan's huge grin.
"Steve was the kind of guy you could take to your family reunion and your own grandma would ask when Steve was coming back and she could care less about you," he said.
He spoke of the "thin blue line" representing police officers throughout the country. "We are the last line of defense for good, decent people," Alston said. "We are the ones who will give our lives for this community and each other. We are also the ones who will not back down. We will not walk away, nor will we turn our backs on that ever-increasing violence that permeates our community, Prince George's County."
Gaughan grew up in Boston, the youngest of three brothers and a sister. He came from a police family: His father had been a patrolman. He had two uncles who are lieutenants and a cousin who is a sergeant, said Boston police Lt. Robert Ciccolo, who worked with Gaughan's father and came to the funeral with about a dozen members of the Boston police. Several other relatives of Gaughan's work as civilians in the department, he said.
Gaughan's wife, with whom he adopted two children from Russia, is a former Prince George's officer. The family declined to speak with reporters. Gaughan was buried at Lakemont Memorial Gardens in Davidsonville.
Bragg worked with Gaughan on several assignments. He said that Gaughan was a lighthearted person but an aggressive police officer.
"If you were on the scene of something and you needed help and you looked up and saw him coming up the sidewalk, you felt better," Bragg said. "You know he had your back."
Then he paused and looked toward the church.
"This job used to be so much fun," he said. "I don't know when it became so serious."