Somewhere in a sea of blue jerseys were the smiling faces of Det. Jennifer Southern and Officer Craig Hentcy — tired, cold, a little banged up and thrilled to be a part of something much bigger than themselves.
The smiles don’t stop as the La Habra Police Department veterans retell their adventures riding in their first Police Unity Tour. Even the hard parts. And it’s the smiles that tell the other part of the story.
The three-day, 250-mile Police Unity Tour, run every May for the last 21 years, is a genuine physical and mental challenge for all who partake, but it’s the cause that drives them: raising money and awareness for fallen officers and their families.
“There’s no rank on the ride,” says Hentcy. “We’re just trying to raise money. It’s beyond cool.”
Begun in 1997 by a New Jersey PD Officer Pat Montuore, 18 riders took the first tour through New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The group raised $18,000. Participation — and fundraising ability — has grown each year and in May, the ride involved 2,400 cyclists from 40 states and other countries, plus dozens more in support staff. The amount raised was $2.6 million.
Southern says the fundraising is “a big deal” because the tour, over its history, has raised more than $23 million for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and a planned national law enforcement museum in Washington, D.C. due to open in 2018. The fund also sponsors an “Officer of the Month” award that honors above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty police work across the country.
Southern, who has lost friends to the job, says “to be able to go and honor those fallen officers and to ride with their families” made the decision a cinch.
“It didn’t even take a couple of minutes to decide,” he said.
But the decision was the easy part.
The two went to a meeting of their local Police Unity Tour Chapter (there are currently nine chapters, with the 400-member Chapter 7 including riders from the Los Angeles Police Department, L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and from as far away as Australia) and very quickly found out just how unprepared they were.
The two admit they basically started from scratch. They even had to buy new bikes. Over the course of a year, Southern and Hentcy eventually logged up to 100 miles a week on the road.
“We were often on our own training plan because of our work schedules,” Southern says, illustrating only part of their learning curve. “You have to do this with dedication.”
For Hentcy, he regrets it took him so long to figure out how to eat right for training
“I was tearing my body down. I wish I would have met with a nutritionist first,” he said.
But they were prepared when May arrived. And the three-day trip was really a week-long experience, with the first couple of days in New Jersey spent re-assembling their bikes and attending safety briefings and other meetings. Then the tour began.
“You literally wake up each day and you’re on the go,” Hentcy says. The days began at 5 a.m. and ended at midnight. “Our primary responsibility was to get in the saddle and ride. The support team had to fundraise and workout logistics.” With the help of the support team, they helped make the ride a “pretty seamless operation.”
The second day was so full of rain and cold “had we not been riding for the reason we were, there would have been no way” they would have continued, Southern says.
Motivation was everywhere. Both Hentcy and Southern wore three wristbands in memory of specific fallen officers. They only had to look down to find inspiration. The camaraderie among the riders was strong as well, and no one was allowed to fall behind or drop out.
Then there were those who showed their support from the side of the road.
“I remember a lady standing with her two children, saluting in pouring rain,” Southern says. “It gave me chills.”
Hentcy agrees. “It made us push through.”
Southern says she’ll be “friends forever” with many of the people she rode alongside.
“It was extremely life impacting,” she says. “We were able to give to those families and tell them why we were honoring them. It meant a lot personally. Even if I’d never met them, every officer who puts on the uniform is somebody. We’re all human. The circle is huge.”
With a nearly mile-long peloton (that’s the stream of riders you see along the road), they arrived at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Hentcy says they joined all the other participants. By then, thousands had lined the area, cheering and showing their support.
“It was hard to keep your composure. It was humbling but uplifting,” he says, but chuckles. “We got a tip ahead of time to keep our sunglasses on and we did.”
Both are already in training for next year, with each of them continuing 20- to 30-mile rides whenever they get a chance. But with their first experience behind them, the two LHPD veterans are really hoping to do more fundraising this year and recruit more fellow officers to join 2018’s ride.
“We’re absolutely ready and we want to bring more people with us,” Southern says. “We have lots of people interested, but it takes commitment.”
“I learned a lot,” Southern continues. “I definitely improved my riding skills and I hope I can give someone those tips next year.”
And the cause, of course, goes on: “We Ride for Those Who Died.”