There were handshakes, hugs, reflection, laughter and even a few tears Thursday when the Aiken Department of Public Safety honored the men and women who serve and protect the community.
The entire department comes together one day per year to reflect on and applaud each other's accomplishments, which are voted on by their peers.
Sgt. Craig Burgess was awarded the Public Safety Officer of the Year Award.
Burgess was one of the first officers on the scene of a murder-suicide on Cherry Hills Drive on May 17, 2012, Lt. Karl Odenthal said during the ceremony. Burgess assembled a team, who together forced their way into the home with a ballistic shield in an attempt to save the woman who called 911. The gunman inside fired on police, who returned fire.
Less than two months later, on July 7, Burgess was involved in a 15-mile chase with two robbery suspects who crashed their car through the barricade of the Savannah River Site.
“One subject fled on foot and was caught by Sgt. Burgess while he was trying to force entry into a production building on site,” Odenthal said.
On the scene of a shooting on Dec. 31, Burgess saw a man lingering in the woods near the crime scene who tried to flee. Burgess chased and apprehended him, Odenthal said.
Burgess said afterward that only one word could describe it.
“We don't get into this line of work for accolades,” he said. “It's an honor, and 'humbling' is the best adjective I can come up with for it. It feels good to have received it and it means even more coming from my peers.”
Cpl. Jeremy Hembree was also awarded the Medal of Merit for his response to the incident on Cherry Hills Drive last year, and three officers – Capt. Marty Sawyer, Officer Steve Miano and Burgess – were awarded the Medal of Valor for their response to the same incident.
The guest speaker, Chief Deputy Paul Butler of the Horry County Sheriff's Office, delivered a rousing speech that touched on a variety of topics.
“Tonight, you recognized folks for doing wonderful and heroic things, but I want you to know that everyone has a chance to be a hero by being an example, by being someone that others look up to,” Butler said.
Butler talked about the differences between responsibility and accountability, and the meaning of character. He also discussed the importance of relationships and talked about his own with his family, friends and co-workers.
“Folks, those relationships determine your success at work,” he said. “Who you have standing behind you, beside that badge, matters.”
His most important relationship, though, is the one with God, Butler said.
“I found out when my wife was diagnosed with cancer that those (relationships) can be taken away,” he said. “My father died in 1993, and I realize my sheriff doesn't know how many more terms he's going to run. All of those relationships can crumble and fail. You had better have something to hold on to that takes you through tomorrow, no matter what tomorrow brings.”
Chief Charles Barranco said he's heard Butler speak numerous times before and knew he was an “impactful” speaker.
“Earlier this week, I heard the news that they (Horry County) had lost a deputy,” Barranco said. “I called him and said, 'Listen, you need to take care of your department. We've been where you guys are, and I understand.' He said, 'Chief, I have an opportunity to make an impact on somebody, and I'd really like to honor that opportunity.'”
Barranco said recognizing officers with awards voted on by their peers is the best way to honor their work.
“The men and women that are dedicated to these citizens – it just makes my chest swell up, and makes me proud to be able to work with them,” he said. “I think that's the best way to recognize the day-to-day work that they do – all of them.”
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Sgt. Craig Burgess hugs his wife, Capt. Mary Ann Burgess, after being recognized as the Public Safety Officer of the Year at Thursday's awards dinner for Aiken Public Safety.×