With a backdrop of the movie "Patriots Day," described by its director as "unapologetic in support of law enforcement," a special gathering took place in Seattle last week to honor First Responders, the police and firefighters who are asked to come through in time of crisis. It may have been the first event of its kind and certainly was a first in Seattle.
The event, without advance media hype and with no speeches and no elected officials present to distract from the "thank you" for the honorees, was the idea of Greg Steinhauer, president of American Life, with key support from the Seattle Police Foundation and a few local corporations who put up the money to make the event possible.
The event began at the Cinerama theater, where the movie "Patriots Day," the film about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the terrorist brothers, was playing. It a wound up with a social gathering at the Westin downtown.
The importance of the movie to Seattle and the First Responders gathering is that Robert Merner, now an assistant police chief in Seattle, is a featured figure in the movie, being the basis for the lead character played by producer and actor Mark Wahlberg as a leader in the effort to find the brothers following the bombing.
Peter Berg, director and one of the writers, said of the film that it was "unapologetic in support of law enforcement," which to some observers accounted for the fact that Patriots Day surprisingly failed to be nominated for Best Picture for the recent Academy Awards.
One writer, discussing the Academy Awards nominations, observed that Patriots Day "Was exactly the movie that America needs right now."
That sense certainly came out when the Boston police officers, following the end of the hunt for the terrorist brothers, were on hand for a Red Sox baseball game and the game was stopped by the Red Sox so those in the stands could say "thank you."
Hard to imagine something like that happening in Seattle, where a police pushback is almost a required reaction in some circles of Seattleites and there is still lingering agitation about accusations of excessive force and abuse prior to a 2012 consent decree that followed Justice Department mandated reforms.
The idea for the gathering of police and firefighters to get to know each other came about at a social gathering where Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, Merner, Avalara CEO Scott McFarland and Wells Fargo's Senior Vice President Tim Brown were visiting.
It came up in conversation that Merner's role in the pursuit of the Boston bombers was being played by Wahlberg. Following that conversation, Debbie Peppa, charged by Steinhauer with putting on last week's event.
She recalled for me what happened next.
"It didn't take long before the idea was hatched that we should do an event to honor first responder and that the movie would be a great platform to do it, so Scott McFarland and Tim Brown quickly said they would support the event and I was tasked to make it happen," Peppa explained.
"Police Chief (Kathleen) O'Toole was supportive of it immediately as well," she added. "It's my understanding that it's the first time that an event like this was held, just an event to honor the officers and firefighters who risk their lives every day in a political climate that isn't really supportive of what they do so we wanted to send a message that people do recognize what they do."
"But it wouldn't have come about if Mark Pinkowski, chairman of the board for the Police Foundation, hadn't been instrumental in supporting the event, even though he was in Wisconsin dealing with the death of his father," Peppa said.
Mark Sundberg, president of International Parking Management (IPM), who was one of the sponsors of the gathering, said "It was a phenomenal event and it would be awesome if we could do it again next year and have the general public get the chance to be involved."
In fact a number of the firefighters and officers asked if this could become a yearly event to allow the two departments to mingle and build relationships.
Sundberg made a point of praising what has happened in the department under O'Toole's leadership.
O'Toole, who had headed the Boston police department as well as the Irish national police, was tapped just under three years ago by Mayor Ed Murray after a national search to take over what was a beleaguered department operating under the consent decree that required stiff reforms to combat excessive force and biased policing.
"The police chief is the best thing that has happened in Seattle for a long time," Sundberg told me.
As a bit of background on Assistant Chief Robert Merner, who was the catalyst for the event, he joined the Seattle Police Department two years ago this week from Boston, where he was chief of detectives in the Boston Police Department. In that role he oversaw 800 employees as superintendent of the Bureau of Investigative Services.
Merner, who joined the Boston Police Department in 1986, worked under O'Toole when she served as Boston police commissioner from 2004 to 2006.
O'Toole said at the time of his selection she was unaware that he had applied for the Seattle job until he became a finalist. He told her he didn't alert her of his interest because that would have been inappropriate, she said.