Summer of Loss: Deaths of Long, Slay and Pasko leave deep scars, voids in police department

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 7, 2013 

A summer of unexpected deaths has left emotional scars and critical voids in the Columbus Police Department.

The 488-officer department has lost three key people in the last two months, leaving Chief Ricky Boren and his command staff scrambling.

Capt. Jackey Long, a 25-year veteran, died July 8, about two months after being diagnosed with cancer.

Cpl. Keith Slay, who had 28 years combined with the police department and the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office, died in the line of duty on July 30 when he responded to a call and the truck he was driving was clipped by another vehicle, then slid out of control and crashed into a north Veterans Parkway utility pole.

Capt. Vince Pasko, a 31-year police veteran, was found dead almost two weeks ago of an apparent suicide.

"It has been one funeral after another," said police chaplain Roy Isasi.

Boren has been with the department 42 years, the last eight as chief.

"I have never seen casualties within this department come so fast, with this level of impact," Boren said.

The impact will have a domino effect on a department that historically promotes from within.

Slay, who was assigned to the Metro Narcotics Task Force, did double duty as the department's helicopter pilot. He was the only person in Columbus public safety licensed and qualified to fly the helicopter, which is used for a variety of missions from surveillance to tactical operations.

Long and Pasko both were specialists on the business side of the department, which has more than 600 employees when support personnel are added.

Long worked as the second in command in administrative services. He was a human resources professional with a master's degree and was one of the department's experts on benefits. Long also worked part time for the Uptown Business Improvement District, where he coordinated downtown security on weekend nights and for large events.

Pasko was second in command for support services and was one of the department's pension experts. He was also playing a key role in the implementation of a new $2.5 million record-keeping system.

"Keith had the technical skills -- flying a helicopter -- that you can't just bring in anyone to do," said Maj. Stan Swiney, who oversees support services. "But Jackey and Vince knew the human resources side of the job. They had gained over the years the technical aspects of this department in this city. Jackey or Vince could have worked in human resources for many companies in this town."

In addition to the deaths, veteran detective Lynn Joiner retired this month for medical reasons, Boren said.

"I am looking at promoting a captain, two lieutenants, two sergeants and a few corporals in the next few weeks as a direct result of what happened this summer," Boren said.

Mayor and Public Safety Director Teresa Tomlinson said the holes in the department are real.

"Right now, you have a huge scramble to fill three big voids," Tomlinson said. "It is tough enough to fill one."

Long summer

Long's death came weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer. The department and downtown businesses raised about $40,000 to help his family offset the financial impact of his illness.

Three weeks after Long was buried, Slay was killed. His death was felt throughout the department, and members of the multi-agency drug task force took it especially hard, Isasi said.

"Keith was in a smaller unit and you could see the pain in each of their eyes," Isasi said. "… I believe some of those officers came to realize how precious life is. All of us take life for granted until something like this happens."

Less than a month later, Pasko was found dead in his Midland home of an apparent suicide.

"It was just a shock from the blue," said Swiney, Pasko's supervisor. "He was not doing anything any different from the Capt. Pasko who I had worked with for three years or the Vince I have known over the years. I didn't see that coming. My reaction was, 'He did what?'"

The individual deaths and their combined impact have been an emotional strain on their co-workers.

"This is impactful from a couple of aspects," Tomlinson said. "It's emotionally trying to lose each of these individuals. They were all much loved, which puts an emotional impact that is not normal. And each one had been with the department so long, they helped bring up so many behind them. They were mentors."

Capt. J.D. Hawk, who knew all three men, said it has been difficult.

"It does bring a realization of life," Hawk said. "Life is precious and we are not here forever. At any moment …"

Boren put it another way.

"A lot of folks tend to forget that police officers are human," Boren said. "We see things that other people never see. They are involved in things that others are never involved in. And they are forced to make decisions that normal people will never have to make.

"That said, you can't take the human factor out. If you take the human factor out, they have lost the ability to be police officers."

Hawk, Lt. Julius Ross and others have been tasked to work with the families and survivors as they sort through funerals, benefits questions and other issues.

"You take Lt. Ross," Boren said. "He has spent a great deal of time working with state and federal folks making sure that Cpl. Slay's family receives all of his benefits. There are death benefits from a number of places associated with a line-of-duty death. Lt. Ross has been working through all of that."

Boren said even a funeral takes a lot of planning.

"When you have an on-duty funeral, there are a lot of scheduling and other things that must be dealt with," Boren said.

Finding replacements

Then there is the business of replacing the officers.

Slay worked with the task force and flew the helicopter as part of his regular duties and was not compensated as a pilot. The department is using a pilot from Fort Rucker in south Alabama and loaner pilots from the Georgia State Patrol as a temporary fix.

"We had the fortune of having a police officer who was a pilot," Boren said. "He had all the certifications and then some."

Boren has begun the interview process to find a new pilot and said it was not going to be easy and could have a potential negative budget impact.

Replacing the institutional knowledge that Long and Pasko held will be equally difficult, Swiney said.

"We are going to have to find the right people and start over again letting them learn the business side of the police department," Swiney said. "We've got a good pool of rising sergeants for lieutenants and rising lieutenants for captains. I am not concerned about the future of the police department, but it is going to be hard to get back to where we were just a couple of months ago."

Isasi has noticed a change in the department.

"I think this has brought us closer," he said. "I can see people not taking petty arguments as seriously. When you look at the things we have been through, a slight disagreement is just not as significant anymore."

Related stories:

Ga. police force coping with 3 deaths in 2 months

Coworkers remember Columbus Police Capt. Vince Pasko, who was found dead in home

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