Orlando Police Honor Guard members balance policework with honoring our heroes

Team of about 3 dozen does around 80 details a year honoring fallen law enforcement officers, engaging with community

ORLANDO, Fla. – Law enforcement officers go out every day to take care of us and keep us safe. But when the worst happens, who is responsible for taking care of them?

That’s where an agency’s Honor Guard comes in. At each agency, there is at least one person designated to be a part of the Honor Guard. At the Orlando Police Department, it’s a team of about 35 officers and superiors, participating in roughly 80 details a year.

“The Honor Guard is honoring our fallen officers,” Sgt. Amanda White said. “It’s the face of the agency. It’s offering support to families and our fallen brothers and sisters from other agencies, as well.”

Orlando Police Honor Guard Bugler plays 'Taps' (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

It’s not a job that’s for the faint of heart. Though it’s a part-time position, White said members need to be committed to the team. It takes a lot of strength and mental preparation because they’re called on at the worst of times, and they can’t show emotion. They’re charged with honoring officers, standing guard, and that’s all on top of their regular policework. Technically anyone in the department can be part of the Honor Guard, but not everyone makes the cut.

“I’ll start out with the selection process,” said Officer Gregory Smith, a former Marine and the Honor Guard lead instructor. “We bring the officers trying out in front of the whole team, we ask them numerous questions, to give them a little bit of that stress and see how they react during it. And then we put them through basic DNC, which is drilling ceremony. If they’re selected, they come to our training days, where I’m the lead instructor. And we start from the very bottom of basic DNC putting one foot in front of the other all the way up to where we start integrating rifles and flags, and then doing DNC with those as well.”

Training days happen once a month, or perhaps more often if there are special events they’re planning for. With so many members, White selects and rotates members for different details.

“Once we get word of a line-of-duty death, it’s everybody on deck,” White said.

“The first ones available, are to get in this uniform, we arrived at the hospital with this uniform, and we stay with the body until they’re transported,” said Smith. “To an extent, like I say, in the military, we’re the keepers. The rest of team is, if they’re not responding to the call, they’re on standby. As much as I know anybody on the team would absolutely take the honor and staying there the whole time, it’s just not practical. So we just take intervals.”

“And what’s important with that, too, is allowing each member of our Honor Guard to be a part of that process. Because that’s why they joined,” White said.

Everything that happens from there is meticulously planned out and almost every move made has some significance.

“Our uniform, as you can tell, it’s plain, there’s nothing on it. There’s no ribbons, there’s no rank. That’s because how we see it is we have the crest for the Honor Guard, our name and then our badge. So you can’t tell the difference between a sergeant or lieutenant or captain or a police officer. We feel because it’s a line-of-duty death, it’s not important what your rank is. We also at that point, we realize it’s not important what awards you have. Because it’s not about you, it’s about the family of the fallen,” Smith said. “So once the casket arrives in the hearse, as you’ll notice that we pull the casket out and when we do, you always notice that the stars come out first, which is where the head is. And then you’ll notice that we turn the body before we head into the church, because the stripes represent the legs, which is, you always have the body walking towards its next destination.”

The processional will include escorts on motorcycles, patrol cars, and other vehicles, often from multiple agencies also coming to pay their respects to the fallen. In front of the hearse, you’ll notice there’s a horse without a rider.

“That actually means that a warrior has fallen in battle, the boots will be hung backwards, and the horse will have no rider,” Smith said.

Orlando Police Department Honor Guard funeral escort with riderless horse (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

There’s a particular way the American flag must be folded and presented to the family. Typically, the highest ranking in attendance, like the police chief, would present the flag.

“When you fold the flag, it has to be 13 folds. Thirteen folds being the original 13 colonies. And then once the fold is finished, only the blue backfield and the stars are allowed to be shown and it needs to be in a perfect triangle,” Smith said.

At the burial site, most people are familiar with the bugle playing “Taps.” Often, a ceremonial act called the three-volley salute will happen, as well.

“So the three-volley comes from the European wars, way back in the day, they would fire off three volleys,” Smith said. “And that meant that they would stop fighting, and that’s when they would go collect their wounded and dead. So we do that now for military and police as a respect for our fallen.”

While honoring the fallen is one of their most sacred duties in the Honor Guard, it’s not the only type of detail they work.

“We’re a very versatile team,” White said. “So we do get called for all different types of details. And if, you know, the national anthem, or the Pledge of Allegiance is being recited, we’re going to be there and we’re going to hold the flag and show honors to the to the nation. So the parades and all of the different details we do we are just versatile. We like to be a part of our community and it doesn’t always have to be something sad.”

For these members, serving in the Honor Guard is a source of pride.

“Just like being a police officer, I feel like it’s a calling. I think Honor Guard is the same thing,” Smith said.

“The first word that came to my mind isn’t an honor. It really is an honor. But it’s a passion, too,” White said. “I mean, we often tell people that are interested in the team, ‘Sure you can be interested. But do you have the passion to really do it and to give it what it needs and what it deserves?’”

“It’s a reality that we need the Honor Guard. Because we are just humans, just like anybody else in the world. We have an inherently dangerous job. And you only get one chance at a goodbye. If this is a hero who’s willing to put their lives on the line, and die in the line of duty, which technically was probably for a civilian, I think the least we can do is give them the best send off that we can give them,” Smith said.

Orlando Police Honor Guard escorts Lt. Debra Clayton's casket (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

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About the Authors:

Tara Evans is an executive producer and has been with News 6 since January 2013. She currently spearheads News 6 at Nine and specializes in stories with messages of inspiration, hope and that make a difference for people -- with a few hard-hitting investigations thrown in from time to time.

Steven Montiero, better known as “Trooper Steve," joined the News 6 morning team as its Traffic Safety Expert in October 2017. A Central Florida native and decorated combat veteran, Montiero comes to the station following an eight-year assignment with the Florida Highway Patrol.